Given our druthers, waterfowl hunters of the ilk — among which I count myself — would live our lives moving from one classic scene to another. The perfect world would be as if neither Norman Rockwell nor John P. Cowan had ever been born. Instead, Rockwell’s mom and Cowan’s dad would have gotten together to produce one artist whose brushstrokes told the stories of day-to-day life for duck and goose hunters and owners of retrievers. Every minute would be web-footed Americana filled with decoys, Model 12s, wooden boats, handmade calls and most of all … faithful dogs.
At the moment of this writing, such a scene is unfurled right here in the family room. There’s a fire crackling in the woodstove in one corner. A hand-carved pintail decoy sits atop the closed-up entertainment center. A stack of well-thumbed outdoor magazines spills off the coffee table and onto the floor. On the wall is a long stick of driftwood from which fly taxidermied blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal drakes. And the centerpiece, there on a well-used pad below the hearth, is a snoring retriever. She is out!
Sadie’s lying on her side; her legs are relaxed and stretched out comfortably. Her eyes are open just the slightest bit, but you can tell the eyeballs are rolled back beneath their lids. Miles of swimming this morning and even more busting through the mud and cattails induced this coma.
Though even the mythical “Rockcan” can’t put it in any painting, the love-it-or-hate-it odor of recently wet dog tinged with wood smoke hangs in the air. And the only movement, besides my fingers on the keyboard, is the rising and falling of Sadie’s rib cage and the occasional twitch of her paws.
She is dreaming.
When you go to pick a puppy, one of the standard tips you’ll hear is to watch puppies when they are sleeping. Those whose paws twitch while they slumber are supposedly “healthy puppies.” Whether that’s true or not, it’s amazing to contemplate that dreaming is what makes any sleeping dog — wet-behind-the-ears pup or geriatric like Sadie — twitch its paws.
It’s doubtful we can fathom what a dog dreams. Science tells us the majority of humans, something like 80 percent, dream in color. However, the way dogs’ eyes function, it’s likely they see in black and white, so they probably dream the same way. Research also says we can’t technically smell while we are asleep. If we “smell” an odor in a dream, it’s something the brain creates from whole cloth. But since the sense of smell is the disproportionately dominant sensory driver in a hunting dog’s life, it seems logical to imagine they would dream primarily in smell, too.
We often say retrievers are “born and bred” to hunt. If that’s so, does a puppy innately know what is to come? Can a sleeping 6-week-old puppy, still being weaned, dream of the overwhelming aromas of foxfire, down and blood? Are his paws twitching madly because he can somehow already know the elation of launching on a dead run from the bank toward a greenhead drifting on the current, red legs kicking?
When Sadie or the other old dogs dream, I wonder if I am there with them.
Are her paws twitching because she’s doing that little “look at me, look at me” prance she always does in the last dozen steps before dropping the bird in my hand? Or is she swimming hard to catch up to a diving and bobbing wing-tipped redhead on Cook Stove Slough in North Dakota? Or is she remembering the time we hunted out of Churchill, Manitoba, where she encountered the rare experience of sticking her nose into a polar bear track on the tundra? “Dad, WHAT is this?”
Perhaps their paw-twitching dreams are of simply running. They race ahead in long, loping, unencumbered strides across tidal flats filled with fowl taking frantic flight in every direction. No pleading whistles asking for them to return. No training collars trying to force the issue. Just running for the pure joy of it, nose full of unending bird scent.
Whether a dreaming dog’s nocturnal visions are of hunts past or hunts yet to come, it’s likely what they see and smell as they sleep will always be a mystery to us. Perhaps that’s a good thing for the sake of our own frail egos. There were too many inexplicable misses; too many times we should have just paid attention to the dog, but didn’t. Yet they love us anyway, every day. They lie on our family room floors, in front of our woodstoves, on well-worn pads and twitch their paws.
They are the centerpieces of our hunting lives and the scenes through which we choose to live them.
Featured image: John Hafner