Nick Ridley discovers that dogs have a sense of humour – and even captures it on video!

Now here’s a question… do dogs have a sense of humour? It is something I have quite often pondered over the years, and until last week I had never really come up with a definitive answer – but now I am quite sure they do, and they are also able to use it with impeccable timing.

We were enjoying another fantastic day in Newark and there were plenty of birds to be seen, the banter was flowing and the dogs were working very well. I had enjoyed a couple of really nice flushes and retrieves with Harry and he was hunting the beet really nicely when he punched out a hare. He immediately stopped to the flush and the hare ran back past me, and I raised my gun and bowled it over with my first barrel. Now this situation caused a few raised eyebrows between my fellow Guns, and in fact a couple of comments were passed about the shot being too close (but it was perfectly safe) and that we shouldn’t shoot hares. To deal with the second point first, whether someone shoots a hare or indeed any other game species surely is a matter for the individual, provided they are not breaking any of the shoot rules, i.e. no ground game.

When I go shooting I am in fact shooting for my dogs; I am not looking for really high sporting birds, but rather I am looking for what I refer to as ‘the complete package’. I enjoy seeing my dogs hunt, flush, mark and retrieve and quite often that means snap shooting and on occasions game will inevitably be shot closer than some Guns would perhaps feel comfortable. Another factor to bear in mind, as in the case of the hare, is not the distance from where I took the shot, but the distance from where the dog made the flush. The hare was killed at about 15 to 20 metres behind me and Harry flushed it about 5 metres in front of me, so the ‘retrieve’ was going to be around 20 to 25 metres and that is a fair retrieve for a cocker carrying a hare.

Anyway, I sent Harry for the hare and he made a pretty good job of bringing it back. I then remembered that one of the golden rules of shooting is ‘If you shoot it... you carry it.’ I really must remember that for the future! I got myself sorted, re-loaded my gun and clicked Harry off to start him hunting again. The Gun to my left was explaining to me that he was told that once a dog has ‘tasted’ a hare – and by that he meant the dog had carried one in its mouth – it would never be steady around them. I was trying to explain that it was an old wives’ tale, and if that was the case why would it be any different if a dog retrieved a rabbit? Just as I had finished my explanation Harry flushed another hare, and I turned to my fellow Gun and said, and I quote, “That was good. I will let that one go.” Harry had stopped to the flush and looked back at me, and at the very moment I finished talking he took one quick look back at the hare and then he took after it like Usain Bolt in the 100 metres!

All my training and handling skills went down the drain as I started blowing the stop whistle like a man possessed. When he didn’t stop I started using verbal commands like ‘little git’ and ‘you sod’ – of course they didn’t work either, and as he got further up the field he flushed a fairly large covey of partridge and then I knew I would never hear the end of this misdemeanour.

I am positive that I saw a glint in Harry’s eye just before he left the blocks, and it could simply be my imagination but I am quite sure his thought processes were: “Flush… Stop… What, no shot?… I can’t believe it, he let it go… I had better catch it for him!” Fortunately he came back fairly quickly and his body language said it all; initially I thought his ribcage was moving through the exertion of the chase, but now I think about it he may just have been having a bit of a laugh at my expense. There was no point in telling him off as he had already come back to me, and as we finished off he had another three superb flushes and stayed rock solid whilst some of the other dogs made the retrieves around him. I think he was of the opinion he had made his point and there was no need to rub it in any further.

A few weeks later Harry redeemed himself. I was working him along the edge of an old plantation and had just pushed through some branches when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and a rabbit bolted right in front of me. Quite how I got a shot off I don’t really know, but as I looked down Harry was motionless waiting for me to send him off, which I quickly did. He hit the line and disappeared into the wood. Over the years I have learnt that it is better to try and keep calm when the dog disappears after a retrieve and hopefully they will work matters out for themselves, so on this occasion I decided to keep my mouth shut and let the dog do what he has been bred and trained to do, but as time went on I started to wonder what had happened to him.

It was just short of a minute before I saw a bit of movement and out came a very happy cocker with the rabbit. It was obvious that although the rabbit was stone dead, it had run some distance and Harry had taken quite a long line to find it. I was really pleased with him and in fact it made my day. We still have quite few rough shooting forays left this season and next month you can read (and see) how we get on when we return to one of our favourite shoots in Wincanton.

Earlier this year I mentioned in a previous article that I would be filming our rough shooting exploits with a head camera and the ‘Harry and the hare’ episode was recorded for prosperity. As regular readers will know, I have always shared my exploits with the dogs, both good and bad, and if you would like to see how things unfolded in glorious high definition, go to YouTube and type ‘nickridley9261’ in the search box. You can view the videos, and if you subscribe to the channel I can let you know when I upload any new films.