Common Ground: Ruff course in vocabulary

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Christine Cunningham and Parker, working on speaking the same hunting language.

Just as I was about to press the trigger of my 1-gauge over/under shotgun, the image of my English setter bobbed into view. The white tail ptarmigan I’d been holding on, waiting for it to fly, startled from its perch. And, instead of firing, I watched as my 1-year-old setter bounded in the air after it as if she were happily chasing a butterfly.

Parker’s tongue hung from the side of her mouth as she ran the length of its takeoff and beneath its white-winged glide down the mountain. They had made it past the effective range of my shot by the time they parted ways — the ptarmigan higher in the sky than it would have otherwise gone, and Parker keeping pace with it on the ground. She was so proud of herself. If the point of having a pointer was to watch a dog startle a flock of birds, she was on the job.

She ran back toward me for her congratulations and, since I do not have the sternness required of first-rate dog trainers, I melted under her charms. She was so happy I just didn’t know how to tell her that she really, really screwed up. Instead, I wanted to give her a prize for participation. She was my little effort all-star.

We were having a happy reunion when I looked up to see the still-frozen expressions of shock on my hunting partner and his professional hunting dog’s face. Winchester, a well-trained English setter who approached his bird-hunting work with the sophistication of an expert, and my hunting partner, who had experienced countless mornings on the same mountain where everything went right, were staring at the two of us amateurs like we had just crashed a black tie party dressed as zombies.

The scene that had just played out was actually two scenes — the first was my little pup bounding blissfully after a bird just the way she should not. The second was my hunting partner sputtering an assemblage of words resembling those of Yosemite Sam as he skittered to keep his footing on the ice while grasping through an assortment of contraptions around his neck, which included a whistle, two dog collar controllers and a digital camera with a telephoto lens.

“She just needs to learn a vocabulary,” I said.

Winchester was still frozen in disbelief. My hunting partner’s eyes were bulged.

“A vocabulary? A vocabulary?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “She just needs to learn the word ‘whoa,’ for instance. And maybe ‘come.’”

I was being very practical. Different people and different dogs learn different ways. There’s the learn by doers, the learn by seers, and the learn by bookers. Despite what Winchester and my hunting partner believed, there was not the learn by already knowers.

I’d heard the speech about good hunting-dog bloodlines and the argument in psychology 101 about “nature vs. nurture.”

I remained unconvinced that anyone should be judged by their superiors. Only I understood Parker’s wily ways. And that was because I had my own wily course to self-discovery. It took me half a decade to go from “Case-a-duck Cunningham” (requiring a case of shells to shoot a single duck) to shooting 25 straight at trap (just once, but still). In dog years, that was a lifetime.

“Parker will find her way,” I asserted.

Her way, I surmised, was like my way. We were process learners — the best kind of learner — because we enjoyed and prolonged every step along the way. Just because others amongst us did not think learning was about steps (“You learn or you don’t!”), we liked the steps, whether they were a dozen or a hundred. Each step held a new perspective that could be appreciated and reflected upon. If I timed it just right, I’d be fully learned up just about the time I expired.

As I explained all of this wonderful logic to my hunting partner, he seemed distracted by Winchester pointing another group of birds. I felt as though my words did not carry the weight of my reflection. Parker must have felt the same way because she busted that group, too.

Both of the males turned their heads to look at me as if it were my logic that were to blame. We decided to call it a day and headed back down the mountain. After a mile, the air had cleared, and my partner said, “Well, it’s just as well since that wasn’t a very big covey. This is probably my last time up here for the season.”

“That’s amazing,” I thought.

After a day of trying to justify what I thought was poor performance, I realized that my dog was suddenly light years ahead of his dog. Conservation is not something easily taught to a canine, and yet she was trying to tell us not to shoot in the only way her vocabulary allowed.

“What’s amazing?” my partner asked.

“Just that Parker understands that the true point of hunting is to dedicate herself to the preservation of the American hunting traditions through practicing conservation techniques.”

 Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” is scheduled to be released by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at


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