Sam didn’t want a dog. But when he found Layla abandoned in the woods of Alabama, he got one. Head out into the fields to discover the loving and indelible bond between a Leelanau County hunter and his dog. 

Featured in the October 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy.

Layla isn’t a bird dog in the gentleman’s sense—obedient, purebred and exceptionally good at hunting. Calling her one may offend those who spend the time, money and effort into molding man’s best friend into a woodcock-pointing, duck-retrieving, grouse-hunting canine.

But she’s my dog and I’ll call her what I want to—my bird dog. Her blood doesn’t flow with purebred lineage and she did not come with a certificate of authenticity. She’ll hold a point when she feels like it and will retrieve a downed bird if she doesn’t have to swim too far.

She honed these instincts wandering the woods of Alabama, where I found her weak and abandoned on a rainy day, which also happened to be the day I unconsciously became a dog owner. Too broke and busy for a dog, I tried to find her an owner. Days turned into weeks and before I knew it, I was buying her fancy dog food and we were sharing a pillow. I lived in a run-down shack on 80 acres of miserably humid and buggy countryside just outside Auburn, Alabama, where my fiancée (now wife) was going to school. Layla was the companion a Yankee needed to settle into this new country and keep the rats out of the pantry (yeah, really). People say dogs take after their owners; when I found Layla, she was independent, lonely, rough-around-the-edges, and stubborn. We bonded immediately.

Bird dogs are a tool. A tool that also happens to beg for belly rubs and roll in rotten things. Watch a bird dog in the field and try and convince me they would rather be somewhere else. They wouldn’t. Which is why every time Layla sees me grab my gun she scampers around the house thumping the walls with her tail while I lace my boots. She was made for this.

On our way to the field, Layla smears the passenger side windshield with slobber as she anxiously looks ahead; those slobbery smudges are the mark of every dog owner who lets their pupper ride shotgun.

Once her paws hit the ground it’s time to work.

An eclectic mix of whippet and lab, Layla’s athleticism is remarkable. Her big lungs fill with the fragrant autumn air as she bounces and sprints at lightning speed to every smell that could be dinner. She wants to make dad proud, and this is most obvious when she’s breathing so hard she can’t keep her tongue in her mouth. As she tears through the young aspen forests, ferns, and spring-fed streams our quarry calls home, I savor the increasingly rare time in my life when I have nothing to do but stroll through the woods with my grandpa’s shotgun by my side and maybe shoot some dinner.

Most bird hunters won’t admit it, but bird hunting in Leelanau can be a walk-in-the-woods-with-a-gun season, which is fine with me—we all need more reasons to take a stroll in the woods and remind ourselves this sacred land and spiritual light demands our full and undivided attention, even when our elusive objective never makes an appearance.

Bird dogs serve a very specific purpose—pointing, flushing and retrieving. A pointer will use its nose to pinpoint a bird for the hunter and hold “point” until a hunter flushes it or another dog. A flusher will use its instincts to locate a bird and flush it at the same time for the hunter. A retriever does just that, it will retrieve a downed bird after it is shot and bring it back to you if all goes according to plan. In many cases a dog may dabble in all three of these specialties. Generally, you don’t need to train a dog how to hunt. A good dog will still point, flush and retrieve with or without training. You need to train a dog to hunt for you. Which is precisely where the resilient bond between a hunter and a dogs begins.

Out in the field is where this relationship taps into its primal source—man and beast on a quest for sustenance. Fortunately, failure doesn’t have the same consequences as it did for my ancesters, or else I’d be long gone.

Layla is primarily a flusher and a pointer when she’s in the mood. She uses her thin black frame to squirm in and out of brush piles and thickets in pursuit of game. If it’s a good day, she’ll do this within gun range, which is about 35 yards. Other days she’ll flush birds 100 yards away and look back at me, “Dad! Did you see that?!”

Waterfowl and upland bird seasons fall conveniently into the regal time of year when the light slants, the air chills and the woods turn golden. And it is this time in the field that hunters seek.

This land, these animals and the freedom to experience them is a privilege. And having a dog to follow as you explore it is one of the best reasons I’ve come up with to wander these sandy glacial moraines. When you scratch a dog’s ears after a hunt—and she’s panting like a steam engine—you’ll know.

Keep up with Sam Brown’s public land hunting pursuits and dog obsession on Instagram @gnarggles. Laura Brown is a ceramic artist and water lover— follow her at @laura.lou9. The couple lives in Empire.

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