Bringing dogs to life

Many wingshooters go all season without getting a limit of birds. Sam Wiest did it on pheasants each of his three days in Kansas earlier this month.

Most of the roosters were shot over points from Wiest's four bird dogs from four different breeds.

And all four canines are rescued dogs.

Three were adopted a few hours before they were to be euthanized at North Carolina animal shelters.

"I appreciate those who breed great bird dogs. You probably have a higher probability of getting a great dog when you buy from a breeder," said Wiest, Asheville, N.C. "But you don't have to do that, especially with lots of other dogs literally on death row at the pound. A lot of them could be good bird dogs."

An unplanned pack

Years ago Wiest, an emergency room physician with a passion for bird hunting, went the route of the high-priced, super-pedigreed dog with a fine English setter.

His wife, Teenya, has long been an avid rescuer of shelter dogs.

They were in North Dakota, watching the blue-blooded setter streak up a fence row when Maxie, a rescued miniature dachshund, entered nearby weeds and began rooting around.

"It actually got birdy and (Hungarian partridge) started busting out one right after the other," Wiest said. "That's when it hit my mind that rescue dogs could work for hunting, too."

Nine dogs currently share the Wiest home in downtown Asheville. Special city licensing allows them to keep so many. None were planned.

"All of our dogs just kind of find us one way or the other," Wiest said. "We've found them on the side of the road and some have just shown up at our place like it was supposed to be that way."

The four bird dogs came by word of mouth.

Hawberry, a Brittany, was the runt of a litter with very poor markings for the breed.

"I figured if nobody else wanted her, I'd take her," Wiest said.

Belle, a wire-haired pointer, was on her way to the pound to be euthanized when her unemployed owner with substance problems mentioned her to Wiest.

"I didn't even know for sure what it was. It had hair falling out. I thought maybe I'd seen a picture of something like it in a hunting magazine," Wiest said. "But there was something about the dog. We figured we'd take it and see what we could do."

Liner, an English setter, was adopted sight unseen. Wiest heard about the dog from a friend who worked at a shelter and tried to find someone who'd take the dog as its three-day grace period before being euthanized ticked down.

"It was down to only a few hours so I figured I'd take it," Wiest said. "It was just so sad that we have so many dogs of sporting extraction ending up in body bags and going to landfills. It's just made me sick."

Dozer, a German shorthair, also began with a call from the pound. The people that left the dog said it frightened children.

"We took a look at it and it seemed like a very gentle dog, which it is," Wiest said. "We decided to try to find it a home. Nobody wanted it so he moved in with us, too."

Love, the best training

Wiest makes no claims to be a great trainer of bird dogs. There are few upland birds in the countryside around Asheville, let alone where they live deep in the city.

He and his wife do, however, understand what it takes to get the most from dogs.

"If you teach them to mind, let them know they're loved and let them feel part of a pack, whatever potential God gave them will come out," Wiest said. "Taking good care of a dog isn't just feeding and vetting them. They need exercise and they need time. You see all these dogs locked up in the backyard, looking at the house, wanting to be part of the pack and they're just getting more depressed by the day. It's so sad and doesn't have to be."

The dogs are exercised regularly. Because they're happy with their places in a pack, Wiest said walking several big dogs at a time on leash isn't chaotic.

Every fall, all are a loaded up and taken bird hunting to the midwest.

"In one or two hours in Kansas or North Dakota our dogs can get more experience on wild birds than they could in four months in North Carolina," Wiest said. "The trips are as much about training the dogs as shooting birds. I want to get them a lot of experience."

Prime grounds

On his first trip to Kansas, Wiest booked three days with Great Bend hunting guide Rick Tomlinson.

Having had bad experiences with hunters bringing dogs of questionable backgrounds or breeds, the guide was wary.

"When he said he was bringing four rescue dogs I was afraid we'd be chasing dogs all over a bunch of counties," Tomlinson said. "But that wasn't a problem. They were pretty good dogs. They busted a few birds out of range but they had a lot of nice points."

Tomlinson left his gun and dogs at home and took Wiest to leased lands he knew held good numbers of pheasants.

No more than two dogs were used at once so Wiest could better watch and control the action.

"I tried to only shoot birds that were over points," he said. "But I think I got excited a few times and shot birds that just flushed. Most were being worked by the dogs, though."

The trip was perfectly timed to coordinate with cold temperatures that had the pheasants holding well.

Wiest had his limit of four roosters by about noon the first two days.

The trip's most memorable bird came at about 2 p.m. on the third day.

Wiest had already shot three roosters when Dozer, the German shorthair, started working scent in some milo.

What followed was the classic kind of creep and point, creep and point scenario of a well-educated dog working a skulking rooster pheasant.

"It must have went on for a couple of hundred yards," Tomlinson said. "Finally the dog held and (Wiest) started kicking around. The rooster finally got up at his feet and he shot it. That was some pretty impressive dog work. We were both pretty pumped after that."

More to come?

Wiest's first trip to central Kansas probably won't be his last.

"You guys are so lucky to live in a place with all that hunting and so many birds so close by," he said. "I'm pretty sure in some place like Kansas you could take about any dog from the pound and turn them into a decent hunting dog, though they'd be flushing dogs."

He's not sure what dogs he'll have when he returns next fall. Some of the four that excelled this year might not be along.

"I really would give some of those dogs away if I thought they could have a good home and be kept at their potential," he said. "But unfortunately most people don't have a clue."

He's also not ruling out that more dogs from more hunting breeds will be joining his four bird dogs and the five assorted pets his wife brought along this month.

While talking about dogs not reaching their potential, Wiest spoke of a Labrador retriever he sees from time to time in Asheville.

The dog is confined to a backyard, seldom let in the house and gets little attention. Wiest sees a sadness and frustration in the big dog's brown eyes.

"Who knows," he said, "that may end up being our dog No. 10."

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