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This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2003 issue of Quail Unlimited Magazine

Ever since I was a child, I've had difficulty paying attention in church. Maybe it's me, but it seems that just about anything is more interesting to a young boy than preaching. Sitting on that hard wooden pew as the minister boomed out his message in a voice that sounded like God's own, I used to think about the pro football games that started in a few hours and wonder if that old lady in front of me knew that she'd spilled the bottle of perfume as she was putting it on. I designed countless airplanes and interplanetary spacecraft on the back of the church bulletin. I played Don't Cross My Line of Death with my brother and sister. Over the years, though, a combination of age and college professors and work seminars and a deepening desire to get into Heaven helped raise my listening skills to a more accomplished level, and these days when the service is over I can at least tell you the gist of what the minister said.

One Sunday last year I tuned in to the words of wisdom and my focus on the message was gathering steam when the tracks got switched, leaving my concentration derailed in a pile of twisted thought. Before I get too far into the story I should explain that news broke the previous week about our minister being offered the pastorship in a larger church and, to the dismay of our congregation, he accepted the job. My guess is that he intended to ease a few worries with the sermon, but his message was inadvertently and completely lost on me.

He began the lesson by quoting one of his predecessors, a now-deceased pastor, who at some time during his tenure said, "Ministers are like bird dogs. You get one great one in a lifetime." Very simple and to-the-point, and had he said ministers are like dishwashers, or ministers are like rose bushes, or ministers are like rocking chairs, the words would have dissolved into the rest of his discourse and I probably would have absorbed his message, the quote forgotten until the next minister resigned his post. But he didn't say ministers are like dishwashers or rose bushes or rocking chairs. He said ministers are like bird dogs, and in a language consisting of roughly 500,000 words, there are very few verbal packages that capture my attention like "bird dogs". I believe the sermon went on to dispute the quote or to offer an argument that our congregation's "great one" was yet to come, but I can't honestly say. Call it the Devil's work.

When the words came to a stop in my head, a face-flushing, apprehensive, uneasy feeling came over me. It was eerily similar to a feeling I got in grade school on days when the teacher would pause at opportune points in the lesson and look around the room, gauging the class as she scouted a poor soul she thought least likely to know the answer to her question. The challenge was always to put on "the face", the one that made the teacher think you knew the answer when you really didn't. If you could pull it off, she'd call on someone else and hopefully they would fall victim to her vendetta, letting you off the hook for another day. Leaning forward in the desk and maintaining aggressive eye contact usually worked and if you weren't confident enough to look at her, furiously writing something that might pass for notes would buy you a pass on most days. On the other hand, sliding down in the seat and using the person in front of you as a shield gave you a pretty high draft number.

The dictionary definition of "great" includes words like remarkable, predominant, noble and grand but stops short of listing the attributes of a remarkable bird dog, leaving the door wide open for interpretation. This invites all kinds of possibilities and with opinions being like teeth in that most people have at least one, soliciting input would generate several legal pads full of notes that still didn't lead to a good, concise standard.

A hunter would not be alone if he considered a dog "great" that never crept on point or hunted out of range, always minded the whistle and retrieved to hand. Those who allow their dogs the privilege of the back yard would probably add to the list a dog who ignored the flower beds and never climbed over or dug under the fence. Of course a dog with numerous hunting titles and a Windsor-like pedigree could arguably be considered great. But must a dog be unfailing in his obedience, perfect in his pattern, reliable as the sun and moon in his retrieves, and completely non-destructive around the house to be considered once-in-a-lifetime?

Chances are that I'm not the only one who experiences this, but when I come home from work my bird dog wags his tail so hard that his whole back end moves while he bounces up and down on his front feet hoping for an opportunity plant them on my waist so he can get his face closer to mine. This isn't a couple of days a week, either. This is every single day, and twice a day when I can make it home for lunch. And this enthusiasm is not limited to homecoming. The sight of me pulling my brush pants off the hook in the back room sends him into a frenzy, barking and bouncing and making numerous false starts toward the front door. He refuses to leave my side, genuinely afraid I might sneak away without him. He drools on my shoulder in the truck, constantly trying to worm his way into the front seat as if he might get there a fraction of a second sooner than if he rode in the back. If a person got this excited about hunting we'd call him a dork. Fortunately dogs are held to a different set of standards, fortunate because this kind of shameless delight is contagious, and that is great.

A lot of hunters would argue that my dog's retrieving ability is not so great and if measured by the rulebook, they'd probably be right. But he never raised his paw and volunteered for the field trial circuit and I never made him compete, so the most good that rulebook will ever do me is help get the fatwood kindling started. I've listened to the disciples of force-fetching preach that any dog not reliably retrieving to hand should be forced. Force is a word much better suited to criminal acts than dog training and last I checked, failure to retrieve to hand was not against the law. It's pretty great that as much as my dog despises feathers in his mouth, he still picks up a dead bird and brings it most of the way back to me. Because of this I rarely lose a quail and looking at it from another standpoint, I am perfectly capable of picking that bird up off the ground once he finds it. This is a team effort, remember? He find them and I bag them.

I'm suspicious that some of the greatest things about a bird dog could ever be measured in terms of finds, flushes, and stamina. Numbers don't do a very good job of explaining how great it is that when I lose my temper and yell, my boy keeps right on hunting, oblivious to the fool with the gun and the whistle. Thankfully that happens rarely if at all any more, but in the early days a lack of knowledge periodically got the best of me, bubbling to the top and boiling over in a stream of expletives and other unflattering comments. It's not one of my fonder memories. Few humans would tolerate such insolence in a hunting partner and that's one of the reasons he gets to sleep on the bed.

A man's vision of greatness in almost any endeavor is a matter of perspective and priorities. What matters to one may be of little consequence to another and at complete odds with a third, making the question of what makes a great bird dog even more difficult to answer. The word "great" has been applied to athletes, Presidents, scientists, a few authors, and even everyday people who step up in times of misfortune to help others. Natural wonders, man-made structures, sculptures, paintings, poems, plays, movies and a raft of other inanimates are called great, too, but this fact fails to explain exactly what great is and more specifically what a great bird dog is.

Maybe I'm looking at the subject too closely. Maybe taking a couple of steps back would proffer some answers. If I took the liberty of re-phrasing the passage stated earlier and said "ministers are like kids - you get one great one in a lifetime", it would sound absurd and probably even offend a few high-strung people. Virtually every kid is great and to believe that of the two or four or ten you may have in your lifetime, only one will be great is misguided to say the least. This gets a lot closer to the heart of the matter than trying to check off qualifications on a list.

The discussion could go on for pages and pages and when it mercifully came to an end, you'd be left with a lot of reasons why the best dog you've ever had wasn't perfect and therefore left to conclude that your one allotted great dog was still in the pipeline. And when someone else tells you that the dog you thought was great really wasn't so great, your reaction will tell a lot about your own definition of greatness. So is there any truth to the statement that you only get one great bird dog in a lifetime? If you throw all of these thoughts and factors into the pan and put the heat to them, when they reduce you'll be left with one question: Does my bird dog spend more time angering me or more time pleasing me? If you answer the latter, count yourself lucky because you've got a once-in-a-lifetime dog.

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