Casey Sill

Every night before I go to sleep, if it’s cool enough, I open the forehead-to-shin length window next to our bed. And every night, without fail, as soon as I open the window the dogs jump off the bed where they’ve been sleeping for the last two hours and spend a couple minutes with their noses pressed up against the screen, smelling whatever there is to smell. I watch the silhouettes of their heads in the moonlight and listen to them huff and puff, their joules flapping in the breeze as they exhale. And every night I think the same thing. 

“God I wish I knew what it was like to have their nose.”

In the last several years my obsession with outdoor pursuits has morphed almost entirely into an obsession with watching dogs work. My own dogs are decidedly mediocre in the grand scheme of things, but their shortcomings are entirely my fault, so I try never to get mad when my setter Loxley flushes a grouse before I’m ready. 

I love watching them when they hunt, when they’re sleeping on the couch and when they’re sniffing at the window at midnight because I want so desperately to understand them more deeply. Now I’m about the billionth person to look at a dog and think, “what must it be like?” so I apologize for the unoriginal train of thought, but it does consume me nonetheless. 

Here’s a random one for you. We know dogs dream, Loxley is doing it right now. She’s got the whole thing going — chest heaving, tail wagging, hushed barks and paws twitching. But they don’t know they’re dreaming. It’s not like they can wake up, roll over and say “last night I was having dinner with my 7th grade algebra teacher in my underwear.” 

So do they live this whole separate reality filled with the things they love most? Which is safe to assume in Lox’s case would be chasing birds, being chased by other dogs, or realizing there’s an unattended Christmas ham sitting on the front side of the kitchen counter. If they dream visually that has to be the case. They fall asleep and awake into an entirely different life of running, hunting, scratching and eating, only to open their eyes in the morning and do it all over again, unaware when dreams end and reality begins. 

Now that’s a real Cheech and Chong level question, but it’s one I think about often and would love to know the answer to. It ranks right up there with, “what does a pheasant smell like?” 

We’ll never get answers to these questions, but that’s part of what makes gun dogs in particular so wonderful. 

A bell echoing through an aspen thicket or the look in a lab’s eyes as she watches a pair of mallards work is a thing of pure beauty, and intensity and mystery. It’s a partnership of silence, with both members still able to pledge absolute reliance on one another. 

We’ll never fully understand our dogs — their dreams or their drive or their sense of smell. But as the Maclean quote goes, “we can love completely, without complete understanding.”

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