There’s a lot of discussion about “Christmas Spirit” this time of year, for obvious reasons. But it occurred to me that bird dogs — at least the three Brittany dogs with which I share my life — illustrate Christmas spirit year-round.
Bird dogs by nature and breeding have a lot of energy. They need it to be able to spend hours at a time hunting for their quarry through woods and fields that are not always easy to navigate.
They have keen senses of smell, sight and hearing, and combined with their natural energy and intelligence, the dogs are bouncy, busy and bring a special aura of life to whatever space they occupy — no matter what breed of bird dog they are.
But energy alone does not constitute Christmas spirit. There also needs to be generosity, loyalty, trust, faith, understanding, forgiveness and of course, love. Human-dog relationships often have these qualities, but the human-bird dog relationship is special.
Just look at it from the dog’s perspective. The dog spends hours in the woods and fields finding a bird, then points it out to its human, who presumably shoots it and asks the dog to bring it back to him. So the benefit of all of the dog’s work goes to his human.
You would think that would put the dog in a bad mood, but it will go out again and again to repeat the process, never seeking a different outcome. So what is the dog’s reward you ask?
There is the fun of the hunt. Don’t dismiss it as not much of a reward because this is what bird dogs are wired to do. And what better reward than to do what your whole being says you should?
There also is praise for a job well done. Dogs are so happy when their humans are happy with them. They want to please, for the most part, although there are a few independent thinkers. My 12½-year-old Brittany, Sassy, wants me to be happy that she’s doing what SHE wants to do. In the end, we compromise. She is happy to steal my socks — and I am happy if she doesn’t take my stolen socks outside, where I will never find them.
The care the dogs receive from their humans also is a form of reward. A bowl full of fresh food, clean water and a warm and dry place to sleep all indicate to them they have value to the human. Some bird dogs get this care in a kennel situation in which they have daily interaction with their humans, while others live in the house with their people as part of the daily family machine.
My dogs live in the house with me. Sometimes I feel like they’ve taken over when they are all enthusiastic at once, but really they just live with me.
How we care for them — the tone of our caring — can make or break the bonds of trust, loyalty and faith that are built up in the field and woods. Some would say those bonds start at home and extend to the field. I think it’s an infinite loop. Sort of a chicken and egg thing.
Treating my bird dogs the way I would want to be treated comes back to me in positive ways hundreds of times over. They know when it’s time to work: Bell collars, the pea-whistle around my neck I use to direct them while they are hunting, my hunting attire and my shotgun are indicators to them of it.
They also have ample time for play outside in their large fenced-in yard, and with toys inside from their overflowing toy boxes in the house. They have individual time with me to hang out in my recliner or do a specific activity or training, and most of the time, they sleep with me.
I feel blessed to share my life with these happy, well-adjusted, well-cared for bird dogs that greet me every morning or when I come home with all of the enthusiasm they can muster. In their own beautiful way, they simply bring the essence of the “Christmas Spirit” into my life year-round.
My bird dogs never judge and always forgive my unpredictable human responses to life’s happenings. They simply stay close to me in a quiet way, perhaps touching me somehow, or bring me one of their toys in efforts to calm whatever my upset is. They are intuitive and adaptable.
These moments in which they care for me are an important part of the respect we have built together. They blindly accept my care for them, and I try to follow their example when they care for me. It’s part of my confidence in our relationship.
Everyone wants to be part of a community that cares.
Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys — Sassy, age 12; Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.