Hunters & Dogs: A Special Bond

Hunters & Dogs: A Special Bond

If you've ever hunted with a dog, or simply shared your home with one, you've felt the connection. As individuals, we have established powerful bonds with our dogs.

As a species, human beings  have gradually developed a collaborative, instinctual partnership with canines that may be unique in the animal world.

Little Hunter&Dog

In fact, it's almost impossible to imagine a life without dogs. From the tiny, so-called "purse dogs" popular among Los Angeles socialites to massive Persian mastiffs guarding the livestock of Middle Eastern herders, the companionship and service of domesticated canines is ubiquitous among people across the globe.

Whether friendly, fierce or an on-demand combination of both, dogs have been bred not only to serve humans in countless ways, but also to become valued members of the family.

Cliché as it is, the term "man's best friend" couldn't be more accurate when it comes to describing the dog's role in our society. What's sometimes overlooked, however, is the fact that this relationship is a two-way street, where man is just as important in a dog's life.

With each tail wag, lick and exuberant leap, our dogs reinforce the reality that we are also dogs' best friends, as well as  providers, protectors and partners in both work and play.

In fact, the development of a wild canine into a domesticated dog has created a symbiotic relationship unlike any other. Although there are some exceptions — such as India's labor-easing elephants and the fishing ducks of southern China — only the dog has developed to serve man in such a versatile and loyal manner. How that powerful bond was created, and what it has meant for hunters, is a story thousands of years in the making.


As DNA evidence proves, all dog breeds are the direct descendants of the wolves of Europe and Asia. The transition of a wild, aggressive wolf pack into friendly service animals is somewhat surprising, considering man's complicated relationship with the former. Throughout recorded human history, wolves have been portrayed as ruthless killers of both livestock and humans, and almost without exception been hunted to near extinction everywhere they have lived.

The notion that man adopted wolves is one that might not stand up to scrutiny.

In their book "The Genius of Dogs," Dr. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods claim Solon of Athens instituted the first documented bounty on wolves in the 6th century B.C., though certainly the war on wolves had been going on for several millennia before that. Through the centuries since Solon, wolves have been considered enemies of man.

England's last wolf was killed in the 16h century, and the killing continued to the modern era, when  wolves were essentially eradicated from the 48 contiguous U.S. states by the early 1900s. Considering that backdrop, it's hard to imagine two more bitter adversaries declaring a truce and not only tolerating each other, but forming lifelong bonds.

Just how and when this domestication and genetic adaptation from wolf to dog occurred is a matter of some disagreement. Common wisdom has long been that man trapped and trained wolf pups to help with the hunt. While we hunters and dog owners may prefer this narrative, the notion that man adopted wolves is one that might not stand up to scrutiny.

"The cur dog is so fascinating in that it's very much an American story," said Larry Case, retired captain in the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and longtime dog owner, breeder and trainer. "The men who crossed the Alleghenies very much needed this dog. It not only treed and caught game, which the families needed to survive, but also guarded the homestead at night. For pioneers of the eastern frontier with cur dog puppies in their saddle bags, these dogs were as valuable to them as their flintlock rifle."

That's because emerging cultures weren't exactly awash in food, and meat, particularly, was a very limited resource. Even today, meat remains a luxury for many people in developing nations. So how does it make sense to domesticate an animal that requires a large amount of meat itself?

According to Hare and Woods, humans didn't really need the help anyway. Having already become the most efficient hunter the world had seen, humans were extremely successful in taking down (and in many cases, eradicating) not only omnivorous megafauna for food, but also wiping out populations of competing carnivores. The image of man and wolf hunting prey as a team is a romantic notion, but probably a false one.

duck hunting stock photo i

Instead of early humans adopting wolves, for which they harbored a dislike if not downright hatred, the relationship was probably initiated in reverse. More recent research suggests that wolves discovered human set-tlements to be an easy and  reliable source of food. Instead of spending their time and energy in pursuit of game (which was also being hunted more effectively by humans), wolves could instead pick up our scraps.

The more docile, or friendlier, the wolf, the more likely it would have been tolerated by humans. Once wolves became habituated to the presence of humans (and vice versa), it's likely that the canines were quickly domesticated. A tame wolf not only kept a camp clean of food scraps, it could also serve as an intimidating watch dog, be trained to pull heavy loads and even, in a pinch, be considered a food supply. An animal that could carry its own weight, so to speak, became a valuable asset in a developing society.

As this new breed of canine developed, it took on a different appearance, one less wolf-like and more akin to what we today consider mutts. The very act of domestication reduced their size, shortening their faces as their jaw muscles, no longer needed for breaking animal bones, gradually weakened.

Coats became mottled and ears drooped. Mentally, domesticated canines changed as well. Evolving in the presence of humans, dogs developed brains that could understand human gestures, read our emotions and learn tasks never before seen in the Canidae family. In the relative blink of an eye, a wild wolf prowling around the dark outskirts of camp was transformed into man's most versatile and trusted companion.

Scientists once believed this unlikely bond first formed approximately 15,000 years ago, somewhere in the Middle East or southern China, based on studies of the genetic diversity of dogs in the region. More recent discoveries, including a paired set of footprints of a young boy and canine found in France's Chauvet Cave, casts doubt on these earlier findings. The footprints date to 26,000 years ago, as does an apparent ceremonial burial of a dog-like creature, interred with a bone in its mouth, found in the region of the Czech Republic.

Whenever the domestication of dogs occurred, it's safe to say it paved the way for canines to assimilate into human culture. And while these early hounds probably weren't originally adopted to help with the hunt, they certainly adapted to the chase over the course of generations. Not long after entering human settlements, dogs quickly became more than companions. They were soon valued members of the hunting party.


Although there is no record of that first hunt when man and dog went afield together in search of game, certainly it happened soon after the pair first realized the mutual need to bring game to hand. Over the course of time, man and dog honed those skills. Dogs learned behavior that would be rewarded with a portion of the kill, and man selectively, if unscientifically, bred dogs with traits that were in line with the desire and ability to hunt.

'That dog will move heaven and earth to do whatever he can for you.'

These new, domesticated dogs would have formed the basis for what we now know as hunting breeds; dogs whose traits, whether trailing, pointing or retrieving, aided the hunter in the field. ancient cultures — from Assyrians to Egyptians to Romans and Greeks — evidence of hunting dogs appears in art and writing. By the Middle Ages, humans began to understand the science behind breeding and how genetics could influence the physiological makeup of an animal. Around this time, the idea of a sporting dog that we might recognize today began to form.

That term, sporting, is important to note. As the need to hunt game animals became less imperative in societies that were moving toward agriculture and livestock, the idea of hunting as sport grew, as did the interest in breeding the best dog for the job. While certainly there were pet dogs, some particular breeds were especially useful in contributing to both the pleasure and success of the hunt. Specialties evolved, including the ability to defend territories. As an example, one only needs to look at the relatively recent development of the mountain cur in America.

"The cur dog is so fascinating in that it's very much an American story," said Larry Case, retired captain in the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and longtime dog owner, breeder and trainer. "The men who crossed the Alleghenies very much needed this dog. It not only treed and caught game, which the families needed to survive, but also guarded the homestead at night. For pioneers of the eastern frontier with cur dog puppies in their saddle bags, these dogs were as valuable to them as their flintlock rifle."

The mountain cur, and the rest of the hunting group, were tools that helped societies to thrive and develop, but these were tools with personality. Coupled with the instinct to hunt, dogs' inherent social nature and pack mentality made them a natural fit with the human experience. They quickly became part of the family, a notion that has only increased in more recent times.

"In my lifetime, I've seen our relationship with dogs change," said Case. "Used to be, the hunting dog stayed outside, in the pen. You didn't even think of that dog coming in the house or, as old-timers would say, you would ruin it. That, to me, is one of the biggest old wives' tales. It actually goes the other way. A dog that lives with you is more bonded to you and knows what you want at home and in the squirrel woods.

"There is something in the psyche of these dogs that makes them want to be your buddy," said Case. "When they learn that and understand they are bonded to that person, that dog will move heaven and earth to do whatever he can for you."

What we want from our sporting dogs has changed  over time as well. From herding and hounding game to pointing and retrieving it to our hands, a hunting dog's job is varied and constantly changing. We've bred and cross-bred to get just what we want. The American Kennel Club counts 30 different breeds just in the Sporting Group, and that doesn't include terriers and hounds, which are certainly hunting dogs as well. And within each of those breeds there are lines bred, sometimes controversially, for certain traits, such as Labs that point.

Hunters&Dog Bond

And lest you think we're at the end of what a hunting dog can do, consider the very recent rise in the popularity of the dog that finds and retrieves shed antlers. Most shed hunters are simply using their hunting dogs, but we shouldn't be surprised to see dogs bred for such a singular purpose in the near future. Until then, consider antler hunting an off-season activity to keep dogs trained and in good physical conditioning.

"Probably a majority of the dogs we train are multi-purpose," said noted trainer Tom Dokken of Oak Ridge Kennels. "Shed hunting — any hunting — increases that dog's ability to use scent and hunt. The scent coming off the antler is pretty small, and you're building that nose on top of it. Consider it cross-training, something to do with your dog at a time of year when nothing else is going on. It won't mess up their natural instinct to hunt. An antler can't compete with a bird that runs, flies and has warm scent."

Since man first scratched the ear of a submissive wolf at the edge of  camp, this unique and unlikely relationship has continually evolved. From scavenger to hunting partner to trusted companion, the dog has adapted to humans as no other animal could, and without question we humans are better off for dogs' willingness to befriend us.

Where man would be without both the companionship and assistance of the domesticated canine is hard to imagine. The same could be said for the history of the dog. Without that first tentative encounter between man and wolf, society and hunting as we know them would be vastly different. And a world without dogs is certainly no world worth considering.

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