"Watch a fine pointer or setter in action and you will see animal intelligence at its peak. Of all the changes which have taken place over the centuries, one fundamental factor in the man-dog partnership remains: the satisfaction both get from working together."
Partners in the Field
It was a sight that stirred Robbins' soul-the real attraction of the sport, together with the pleasure of time spent with friends, for the Indianapolis attorney.
"I defy anyone, regardless of how they feel about hunting, not to enjoy watching a good bird dog work," Robbins, who trained his first dog at age 14, proclaims. "It's just amazing. And knowing that was my dog, the dog that I had raised and worked with-it gave me a lot of satisfaction."
But as the sun moved lower on that windy autumn day, Mike hadn't returned from the field with the other dogs. At first, Robbins wasn't concerned. It reminded him of the day he'd taken Mike-then a 10-month-old pup-hunting for the first time.
"I wasn't very optimistic about him in those early days," Robbins recalls. Then a Wabash senior, Robbins had bought Mike from man who ran his dogs in field trials. The pointer was a field trial reject.
"In field trials, the dog has to have a lot of style," Robbins explains. "The judges care about how the dogs stand when they point-the tail has to be straight up, the head needs to be high, the dog has to run with a certain type of gait and work his tail a lot. Frankly, I appreciate a dog that points and looks pretty too, but a lot of these dogs rejected from field trials were great hunting dogs."
But Mike didn't seem too promising during his hunting training, either. When his new owner tried to teach him to point using pen-raised quail, the pup wouldn't hold point. At times he'd even turn and walk the other way!
So when the pup didn't return from his first foray into the field, Robbins wasn't surprised-until he finally found his new charge. Mike was stone still, perfectly pointing a whole covey of quail. He'd just been waiting for his master to catch up.
"The wild quail don't smell the same as pen-raised quail, and he knew the difference," Robbins says with a laugh. "Even later, when I would try to work him with pen-raised birds, he just didn't care. Sometimes he'd just catch them and bring them back to me alive. It was as if he was saying 'this isn't real-I'll humor you if you like, but I don't really care about these phony birds.'"
That first day of hunting was the beginning of a remarkable career for Mike and a bond of mutual admiration between the hunter and his dog. For ten years the pair ranged over the hills of Illinois and Iowa in all sorts of weather, searching for quail or pheasant and enjoying the pleasure of each other's company. Mike seemed to have a new trick up his sleeve with each successive outing.
"There were some birds that two of my dogs had pointed, and the birds started to walk away from them, heading for some cover," Robbins recalls. "Mike broke point and ran around on the other side of the birds and stopped them-he pointed so they couldn't go past him and held them in place. I didn't teach him to do that-you can't train a dog to do that. He did a lot of remarkable things."
But those remarkable exploits were only memories on that autumn afternoon in Iowa. With Mike now missing for an hour and a half, Robbins began to get concerned. Mike was older now. It was early in the season, and the dog wasn't really in game shape yet. It may have been that sense of concern that caused Robbins to look over his shoulder, and that's when he saw the old pointer climbing through a fence across the field. He was exhausted, his head and tail low and steps labored as he plodded towards the hunters, struggling to reach his master. He got as far as John Gilbert's outstretched hand-when Gilbert pet him, the dog laid over on his side.
"I still thought that maybe he was just laying there to get John to pet him," Robbins recalls. But when he knelt beside his dog, he knew his condition was serious. His friends helped him load Mike into the bed of a pickup. Minutes later, the dog stopped breathing.
"I don't know how he got to us, as badly as he was feeling. But he knew we were there, and I don't think he was in pain," Robbins says. "He just sort of drifted off."
"It's pretty tough to have sort of a moment like that, and with all these guys standing around on a big hunting trip, but I think it got to them, too."
Robbins hasn't hunted much since that day. He found homes for his two other dogs and dismantled his kennels. Part of the reason, he says, is that with a wife and three young daughters, he simply has other priorities. But, he admits, there's another reason.
"I won't have a dog like that again. I know that. He wasn't just the best dog I ever had, he was the best dog I'd ever seen in my experience of hunting with other people and their dogs. I really kind of got spoiled. Knowing that I won't ever have a dog like that again, I don't know that I want to venture back into it and settle for something less. I prefer to look back on those times with fond memories and leave well enough alone."
Though lately, Robbins says, he's thought of getting an English setter, just to keep in the house as a pet for his family, for his daughters.
And sometimes, no doubt, if he's out in the country when
the autumn air begins to chill and the wind rattles the cornstalks, he'll
remember the pleasure of watching that pointer zig-zagging through the fields,
or perhaps bringing back a live pen-raised quail with what could only be
a dog's version of a smirk on his muzzle.