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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter XIV


Anecdotes and Instinct of Dogs — Anecdotes of Retriever — Shepherds' Dogs — Sagacity — Dogs and Monkey — Bulldog — Anecdotes of Shooting a Stag — Treatment of Dogs.

So much has been written, and so many anecdotes told, of the cleverness and instinct of dogs, that I am almost afraid to add anything more on the subject, lest I should be thought tedious. Nevertheless I cannot refrain from relating one or two incidents illustrating the instinct, almost amounting to reason, that some of my canine acquaintances have evinced, and which have fallen under my own notice. Different dogs are differently endowed in this respect, but much also depends on their education, manner of living, etc. The dog that lives with his master constantly sleeping before his fire, instead of in the kennel, and hearing and seeing all that passes, learns, if at all quick-witted, to understand not only the meaning of what he sees going on, but also, frequently in the most wonderful manner, all that is talked of. I have a favourite retriever, a black water-spaniel, who for many years has lived in the house, and been constantly with me; he understands and notices everything that is said, if it at all relates to himself or to the sporting plans for the day: if at breakfast-time I say, without addressing the dog himself, "Rover must stop at home to-day, I cannot take him out," he never attempts to follow me; if, on the contrary, I say, however quietly, "I shall take Rover with me to-day," the moment that breakfast is over he is all on the qui vive, following me wherever I go, evidently aware that he is to be allowed to accompany me. When left at home, he sits on the step of the front door, looking out for my return, occasionally howling and barking in an ill-tempered kind of voice; his great delight is going with me when I hunt the woods for roe and deer. I had some covers about five miles from the house, where we were accustomed to look for roe: we frequently made our plans over night while the dog was in the room. One day, for some reason, I did not take him: in consequence of this, invariably when he heard us at night forming our plan to beat the woods, Rover started alone very early in the morning, and met us up there. He always went to the cottage where we assembled, and sitting on a hillock in front of it, which commanded a view of the road by which we came, waited for us: when he saw us coming, he met us with a peculiar kind of grin on his face, expressing, as well as words could, his half doubt of being well received, in consequence of his having come without permission: the moment he saw that I was not angry with him, he threw off all his affectation of shyness, and barked and jumped upon me with the most grateful delight.

As he was very clever at finding deer, I often sent him with the beaters or hounds to assist, and he always plainly asked me on starting whether he was to go with me to the pass or to accompany the men. In the latter case, though a very exclusive dog in his company at other times, he would go with any one of the beaters, although a stranger to him, whom I told him to accompany, and he would look to that one man for orders as long as he was with him. I never lost a wounded roe when he was out, for once on the track he would stick to it, the whole day if necessary, not fatiguing himself uselessly, but quietly and determinedly following it up. If the roe fell and he found it, he would return to me, and then lead me up to the animal, whatever the distance might be. With red-deer he was also most useful. The first time that he saw me kill a deer he was very much surprised; I was walking alone with him through some woods in Ross-shire, looking for woodcocks; I had killed two or three, when I saw such recent signs of deer, that I drew the shot from one barrel, and replaced it with ball. I then continued my walk. Before I had gone far, a fine barren hind sprang out of a thicket, and as she crossed a small hollow, going directly away from me, I fired at her, breaking her backbone with the bullet; of course she dropped immediately, and Rover, who was a short distance behind me, rushed forward in the direction of the shot, expecting to have to pick up a woodcock; but on coming up to the hind, who was struggling on the ground, he ran round her with a look of astonishment, and then came back to me with an expression in his face plainly saying, " What have you done now? —you have shot a cow or something." But on my explaining to him that the hind was fair game, he ran up to her and seized her by the throat like a bulldog. Ever afterwards he was peculiarly fond of deer-hunting, and became a great adept, and of great use. When I sent him to assist two or three hounds to start a roe—as soon as the hounds were on the scent, Rover always came back to me and waited at the pass: I could enumerate endless anecdotes of his clever feats in this way.

Though a most aristocratic dog in his usual habits, when staying with me in England once, he struck up an acquaintance with a rat catcher and his curs, and used to assist in their business when he thought that nothing else was to be done, entering into their way of going on, watching motionless at the rats' holes when the ferrets were in, and, as the rat catcher told me, he was the best dog of them all, and always to be depended on for showing if a rat was in a hole, corn-stack, or elsewhere; never giving a false alarm, or failing to give a true one. The moment, however, that he saw me, he instantly cut his humble friends, and denied all acquaintance with them in the most comical manner.

The shepherds' dogs in the mountainous districts often show the most wonderful instinct in assisting their masters, who, without their aid, would have but little command over a large flock of wild black-faced sheep. It is a most interesting sight to see a clever dog turn a large flock of these sheep in whichever direction his master wishes, taking advantage of the ground, and making a wide sweep to get round the sheep without frightening them, till he gets beyond them, and then rushing barking from flank to flank of the flock, and bringing them all up in close array to the desired spot. When, too, the shepherd wishes to catch a particular sheep out of the flock, I have seen him point it out to the dog, who would instantly distinguish it from the rest, and follow it up till he caught it. Often I have seen the sheep rush into the middle of the flock, but the dog, though he must necessarily have lost sight of it amongst the rest, would immediately single it out again, and never leave the pursuit till he had the sheep prostrate, but unhurt, under his feet. I have been with a shepherd when he has consigned a certain part of his flock to a dog to be driven home, the man accompanying me farther on to the hill. On our return we invariably found that he had either given up his charge to the shepherd's wife or some other responsible person, or had driven them, unassisted, into the fold, lying down himself at the narrow entrance to keep them from getting out till his master came home. At other times I have seen a dog keeping watch on the hill on a flock of sheep, allowing them to feed all day, but always keeping sight of them, and Brian them home at a proper hour in the evening. In fact it is difficult to say what a shepherd's dog would not do to assist his master, who would be quite helpless without him in a Highland district.

Generally speaking these Highland sheepdogs do not show much aptness in learning to do anything not connected in some way or other with sheep or cattle. They seem to have been brought into the world for this express purpose, and for no other.

They watch their master's small crop of oats or potatoes with great fidelity and keenness, keeping off all intruders in the shape of sheep, cattle, or horses. A shepherd once, to prove the quickness of his dog, who was lying before the fire in the house where we were talking, said to me, in the middle of a sentence concerning something else — "I'm thinking, Sir, the cow is in the potatoes." Though he purposely laid no stress on these words, and said them in a quiet unconcerned tone of voice, the dog, who appeared to be asleep, immediately jumped up, and leaping through the open window, scrambled up the turf roof of the house, from which he could see the potato-field. He then (not seeing the cow there) ran and looked into the byre where she was, and finding that all was right, came back to the house. After a short time the shepherd said the same words again, and the dog repeated his look-out; but on the false alarm being a third time given, the dog got up, and wagging his tail, looked his master in the face with so comical an expression of interrogation, that we could not help laughing aloud at him, on which, with a slight growl, he laid himself down in his warm corner, with an offended air, and as if determined not to be made a fool of again.

Occasionally a poaching shepherd teaches his dog to be of great service in assisting him to kill game. I remember one of these men, who was in the habit of wiring hares, and though the keepers knew of his malpractices, they were for some time unable to catch him in the act, in consequence of his always Placing his three dogs as videttes in different directions, to warn him of the approach of any person. A herd-boy at the farm near my house puts his dog to a curious use. A great part of his flock are sent to pasture on the carse-ground across the river, and when the boy does not want to go across to count them and see that they are all right, deterred from doing so by the water being flooded, or from any other reason, he sends his dog to swim across and collect the sheep on the opposite bank, where he can see them all distinctly. Though there are other sheep on the carse belonging to different people, the dog only brings his own flock. After they are counted and pronounced to be all right by the boy, the dog swims back again to his master.

Were I to relate the numberless anecdotes of dogs that have been told me, I could fill a volume. I am often amused by observing the difference of temper and disposition which is shown by my own dogs—as great a difference, indeed, as would be perceived among the same number of human beings. Having for many years been a great collector of living pets, there is always a vast number of these hangers-on about the house—some useful, some ornamental, and some neither the one nor the other.

Opposite one window of the room I am in at present are a monkey and five dogs basking in the sun, a bloodhound, a Skye terrier, a setter, a Russian poodle, and a young Newfoundland bitch, who is being educated as a retriever; they all live in great friendship with the monkey, who is now in the most absurd manner searching the poodle's coat for fleas, lifting up curl by curl, and examining the roots of the hair. Occasionally, if she thinks that she has pulled the hair, or lifted one of his legs rather too roughly, she looks the dog in the face with an inquiring expression to see if he is angry. The dog, however, seems rather to enjoy the operation, and showing no symptoms of displeasure, the monkey continues his search, and when she sees a flea catches it in the most active manner, looks at it for a moment, and then eats it with great relish. Having exhausted the game on the poodle, she jumps on the back of the bloodhound bitch, and having looked into her face to see how she will bear it, begins a new search, but finding nothing, goes off for a game at romps with the Newfoundland dog. While the bloodhound bitch, hearing the voice of one of the children, whom she has taken a particular fancy to, walks off to the nursery, the setter lies dozing and dreaming of grouse; while the little terrier sits with ears pricked up, listening to any distant sounds of dog or man that she may hear; occasionally she trots off on three legs to look at the back door of the house, for fear any rat-hunt or fun of that sort may take place without her being invited. Why do Highland terriers so often run on three legs particularly when bent on any mischief? Is it to keep one in reserve in case of emergencies I never had a Highland terrier who did not hop along constantly on three legs, keeping one of the hind legs up as if to rest it.

The Skye terrier has a great deal of quiet intelligence, learning to watch his master's looks, and understand his meaning in a wonderful manner. Without the determined blind courage of the English bull terrier, this kind of dog shows great intrepidity in attacking vermin of all kinds, though often his courage is accompanied by a kind of shyness and reserve; but when once roused by being bit or scratched in its attacks on vermin, the Skye terrier fights to the last, and shows a great deal of cunning and generalship, as well as courage. Unless well entered, when young, however, they are very apt to be noisy, and yelp and bark more than fight. The terriers which I have had of this kind show some curious habits, unlike most other dogs. I have observed that when young they frequently make a kind of seat under a bush or hedge, where they will sit for hours together, crouched like a wild animal. Unlike other dogs too, they will eat (though not driven by hunger) almost anything that is given them, such as raw eggs, the bones and meat of wild-ducks, or wood-pigeons, and other birds, that every other kind of dog, however hungry, rejects with disgust. In fact, in many particulars, their habits resemble those of wild animals; they always are excellent swimmers, taking the water quietly and fearlessly when very young. In tracking wounded deer I have occasionally seen a Skye terrier of very great use, leading his master quietly, and with great precision, up to the place where the deer had dropped, or had concealed himself; appearing too to be acting more for the benefit of his master, and to show the game, than for his own amusement. I have no doubt that a clever Skye terrier would in many cases get the sportsman a second shot at a wounded deer with more certainty than almost any other kind of dog. Indeed, for this kind of work, a quiet though slow dog often is of more use than the best deer-hound. I at one time had an English bulldog, who accompanied me constantly in deerstalking; he learned to crouch and creep up to the deer with me, never showing himself, and seemingly to understand perfectly what I wished him to do. When necessary, I could leave him for hours together, lying alone on the hill, when he would never stir till called by me. If a deer was wounded, he would follow the track with untiring perseverance, distinguishing the scent of the wounded animal, and singling it out from the rest, never making a mistake in this respect; he would also follow the stag till he brought him to bay, when, with great address in avoiding the horns, he would rush in and seize him either by the throat or the ear, holding on till I came up, or, as he once did, strangling the animal, and then coming back to show me where he had left it.

In driving some woods one day in Ross-shire, a fine stag broke into a wide opening; two or three sportsmen were stationed at some distance above me; as the deer passed, I saw the light puff of smoke, and heard the crack of their rifles as they fired. At every shot the poor animal doubled with the most extraordinary bounds; he tried to turn back to the cover from which he had been driven, but the shouts of the beaters deterred him, and after stopping for a moment to deliberate, he came back fully determined to cross the opening, in order to gain the shelter of some large woods beyond it. He was galloping across it, when crack went another rifle, the ball striking with a splash into a small pool of water close to him; this turned him towards me, and down he came in my direction as hard as he could gallop; he appeared to be coming directly at me: just as he was about a hundred yards from me, a shout from the beaters, who were coming in view, turned him again, and he passed me, going ventre a terre, with his head up and his horns back over his shoulders, giving me a good broadside shot; I fired, and he reeled, turning half round. Bang went my other barrel, and the stag rolled over like a rabbit, with a force and crash that seemed as if it would have broken every bone in his body. Up he got again, and went off, apparently as sound as ever, into the large wood, passing close to a sportsman who was loading; when in the wood, we saw him halt for a moment on a hillock and take a good steady look at us all, who were lost in astonishment at his escape after having been so fairly upset. He then went off at a steady swinging gallop, and we heard him long after he was out of view crushing through the dry branches of the young fir-trees. "Bring the dog," was the cry, and a very large animal, something between a mastiff and a St. Bernard, was brought; the dog went off for a little while, barking and making a great noise, but after rushing up against half-a-dozen trees, and tumbling over amongst the hidden stones, he came back limping and unwilling to renew the hunt. I had left my bulldog with a servant at a point of the wood some distance off, and I proposed sending for him; one of the sportsmen, who had never seen him engaged in this kind of duty, sarcastically said, "What, that dog who followed us to-day, as we rode up? He can be no use; he looks more fit to kill cats or pin a bull." Our host, however, who was better acquainted with his merits, thought otherwise; and when the bulldog came wagging his tail and jumping up on me, I took him to the track and sent him upon it; down went his nose and away he went as hard as he could go, and quite silently. The wood was so close and thick that we could not keep him in sight, so I proposed that we should commence our next beat, as the dog would find me wherever I was, and the strangers did not seem much to expect any success in getting the wounded stag. During the following beat we saw the dog for a moment or two pass an opening, and the next instant two deer came out from the thicket into which he had gone. "He is on the wrong scent, after all," said the shooter who stood next to me. " Wait, and we will see," was my answer.

We had finished this beat and were consulting what to do when the dog appeared in the middle of us, appearing very well satisfied with himself though covered with blood, and with an ugly tear in his skin all along one side. " Ah !" said some one "he has got beaten off by the deer." Looking at him, I saw that most of the blood was not his own, the wound not being at all deep; I also knew that once having had hold of the deer, he would not have let go as long as he had life in him. "Where is he, old boy? take us to him," said I; the dog perfectly understanding me, looked up in my face, and set off slowly with a whine of delight. He led us through a great extent of wood, stopping every now and then that we might keep up with him; at last he came to the foot of a rock where the stag was lying quite dead with his throat torn open, and marks of a goodly struggle all round the place; a fine deer he was too, and much praise did the dog get for his courage and skill: I believe I could have sold him on the spot at any price which I had chosen to ask, but the dog and I were too old friends to part, having passed many years together, both in London, where he lived with my horses and used to run with my cab, occasionally taking a passing fight with a cat; and also in the country, where he had also accompanied me in many a long and solitary ramble over mountain and valley.

In choosing a young dog for a retriever, it is a great point to fix upon one whose ancestors have been in the same line of business. Skill and inclination to become a good retriever are hereditary, and one come of good parents scarcely requires any breaking, taking to it naturally as soon as he can run about. It is almost impossible to make some dogs useful in this way; no teaching will do it unless there be a natural inclination—a first-rite retriever nascitur non fit. You may break almost any dog to carry a rabbit or bird, but it is a different thing entirely to retrieve satisfactorily, or to be uniformly correct in distinguishing and sticking to the scent of the animal which is wounded.

In the same way pointing is hereditary in pointers and setters, and puppies of a good breed and of a well-educated ancestry take to pointing at game as naturally as to eating their food,— and not only do they, of their own accord, point steadily, but also back each other, quarter their ground regularly, and in fact instinctively follow the example of their high bred and well brought up ancestors. For my own part, I think it quite a superfluous trouble crossing a good breed of pointers with foxhound, or any other kind of dog, by way of adding speed and strength,—you lose more than you gain, by giving at the same time hard-headedness and obstinacy. It is much better, if you fancy your breed of pointers or setters to be growing small or degenerate, to cross them with some different family of pointers or setters of stronger or faster make, of which you will be sure to find plenty with very little trouble. It is a great point in all dogs to allow them to be as much at liberty as possible; no animal kept shut up in a kennel or place of confinement can have the same use of his senses as one who is allowed to be at large to gain opportunities of exerting his powers of observation and increase his knowledge in the ways of the world. Dogs who are allowed to be always loose are very seldom mischievous and troublesome, it is only those who are kept too long shut up and in solitude that rush into mischief the moment they are at liberty; of course it is necessary to keep dogs confined to a certain extent, but my rule is to imprison them as little as possible. Mine, therefore, seldom are troublesome, but live at peace and friendship with numerous other animals about the house and grounds, although many of those animals are their natural enemies and objects of chase: dogs, Shetland Ponies, cats, tame rabbits, wild ducks, sheldrakes, pigeons, etc., all associate together and feed out of the same hand; and the only one of my pets whose inclination to slaughter I cannot' subdue, is a peregrine falcon, who never loses an opportunity of killing any duck or hen that may venture within his reach. Even the wild partridges and wood-pigeons, who frequently feed with the poultry, are left unmolested by the dogs. The terrier, who is constantly at warfare with cats and rabbits in a state of nature, leaves those about the house in perfect peace; while the wildest of all wild fowl, the common mallards and sheldrakes eat corn from the hand of the "hen-wife."

Though naturally all men are carnivorous, and therefore animals of prey, and inclined by nature to hunt and destroy other creatures, and although I share in this our natural instinct to a great extent, I have far more pleasure in seeing these different animals enjoying themselves about me, and in observing their different habits, than I have in hunting down and destroying them.


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