Who's the Boss?

Illustration by John Cuneo
by Chris Hastings - Oct/Nov 2011

An alpha chef learns a few lessons from his alpha gun dog

I met Moon at the kennel, and he took me to see the pups. They were sixteen weeks old and had already started getting exposed to the outside world. When it came to choosing my puppy, there wasn’t really an aha moment. I simply asked about the two females and Moon pointed to the one with  “the most hunt in her.”  That was all I needed. I named her Sadie, put her in the car, and headed back to Birmingham.

Having read a number of books on training and spoken with every person I knew and respected in the dog training world, I set about the task of first bonding with and then attempting to train Sadie. The daylight hours before my shift in the kitchen were too hot for training sessions. So for the first few months we trained after work, between eleven p.m. and midnight, at a local golf course. There we’d attempt basic yard commands—how to heel, come, and respond to a whistle. Our first night out was pretty telling of our future together. Having gathered my training gear, I made the mistake of cracking the door before clipping the check cord to Sadie’s collar. Away she went. It took me thirty minutes to find her. 

At the time, I was forty years old. Having driven my wife, my children, my staff, and a number of my friends half crazy with my overbearing ways and insistence on things being done a certain way, I was ready to settle into less of an alpha personality. But Sadie gladly assumed that role. The first thing you notice in an alpha dog is that it would rather strike off alone than be with you. And when you give a command, it may or may not pay attention, depending on its mood. In many ways, training an alpha dog is not unlike raising teenagers. In the field, an alpha bird dog will follow its nose into the next county, paying little heed to commands to stop. And as you may have guessed, it’s tricky to shoot a quail when your dog goes on point a mile from where you’re standing. Cullom Walker, a dear friend and father figure, once told me, “I don’t hunt dogs, I hunt birds. If the dog doesn’t want to be with us, fine. We have other dogs.”

Eventually, I began to get advice from those that had traveled down the same road I was on. At first they treated me gently, speaking in the third person about someone they’d known who would always yell at his dog, or who would constantly whistle for the dog to come, or who was perhaps a little quick to reprimand her. Then they began to speak directly to me, about me. Yet again, my wife offered sage advice: “Don’t make us duct tape your mouth. Leave the dog alone.” In other words, I needed to shut up and back off. It seems Sadie wasn’t the only one displaying a bit of alpha.

As the years passed, Sadie and I both began to mellow out. She would show signs of affection and would even stick with me on hunts for extended periods of time. After five years, we both realized we didn’t have to fight each other. Sadie is now nine years old, and I am forty-nine. She and I hunt beautifully together. I guess it comes down to this: We understand  each other. I afford her an occasional disappearing act, but I now know she will return, or I will find her beyond my range of sight but waiting patiently on point. 

Chris Hastings is the owner and executive chef of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama. He now owns three dogs.