Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” And that couldn’t be more true of the local hunting dogs that double as faithful family companions. From young retrievers that haven’t reached their first birthdays to seasoned hunters that have been frequenting the field for nearly a decade, these dogs have formed a unique bond with their owners – one that is sure to stand the test of time.
By Christina Cannon / Photography by Lanewood Studio
For Mark Campbell, black labs have always been a tried-and-true breed.
“I’ve probably had black labs around for the last 20 years. A while back, one of my dogs had a litter of 14 puppies, and I kept two,” says Campbell. “I raised them to hunt, and when my dog Katie got too old to go hunting with me, it wasn’t long before I began looking for another dog to take out in the field.”
Enter Cole, an athletic 4-year-old black lab who now accompanies Campbell on his duck hunts. After spending more than half a year with a professional trainer working everything from the woods of Tennessee to the hills of South Dakota, Cole was ready to show Campbell what he had learned.
“Cole is always ready to go, and he stays right by my side,” says Campbell. “Part of what makes him a fantastic hunter is that he is so focused and so well-behaved in the blind.”
“There’s just something about a dog. They want to be with you no matter where you are, and that’s a hard thing to replace.”
When this duo gets out in the field, they first throw out decoys, but Campbell notes that he has to keep Cole otherwise engaged because “he’ll retrieve just about anything, decoys included.” The moment Campbell places his hand on a duck call, Cole begins scanning the sky.
“When I touch it, he knows something is about to go down,” says Campbell. “It’s funny; more times than not, I won’t hit the bird, and he’ll just look at me like, ‘What are we going to do now?’”
Another reason Cole makes a great hunting partner is because he’ll do just about anything, whether that’s busting through ice or climbing through briars, and while Campbell notes that Cole is not the best at calling, he does make a first-rate retriever.
“The proudest I’ve probably ever been of him was when he retrieved his first duck,” explains Campbell. “I dropped two, and I didn’t see where the last one went. I took a guess and tried to direct him in one direction. He ran the opposite way, but he still came back with a duck.”
While focus and intuition might make him a great hunter, it’s his companionship that Campbell values above all else.
“There’s just something about a dog,” he says. “They want to be with you no matter where you are, and that’s a hard thing to replace.”
When Stephen Santos’ wife got a call from a friend one summer day about a litter of golden retriever puppies that had just been born, fate was beginning to run its course.
“My wife Casey told me that we had first pick of the litter, but the catch was that we had to decide if we were interested by the following day,” says Santos. “We had previously discussed wanting a male dog, and there was only one male in this litter, so I took that as a sign.”
Fast forward nearly a year, and Santos and Coach have made quite the match. The duo hunts both dove and waterfowl and is looking forward to trying their hand at shed hunting.
“When I get out Coach’s collar or hunting vest, he knows that we are about to go to work. Hunting dogs are athletes, and they know when it’s game day,” says Santos. “My favorite part is seeing the joy that he gets out of living out his purpose.”
To help Coach learn the ropes, Santos surrounded him with skilled hunting dogs ever since bringing him home and swears by the invaluable learning experience it provided. Being able to witness the manners and patience of dogs with Master Hunter titles has, in turn, helped Coach cultivate those traits in himself.
“For a puppy, Coach has incredible patience. His eyes are constantly scanning and his nose constantly sniffing. It’s amazing watching his eyes lock on to a bird long before I can see it.”
“For a puppy, Coach has incredible patience. His eyes are constantly scanning and his nose constantly sniffing. It’s amazing watching his eyes lock on to a bird long before I can see it,” says Santos. “He stays ready for an adventure and is always willing to put in the work.”
One thing Santos is currently working on with Coach is not jumping into the first body of water he sees, although he notes that it was pretty comical watching Coach launch himself off a pontoon boat last summer at just 9 weeks old.
“He saw my wife in the water, placed fear in the back of his mind, and just went for it,” says Santos. “Later that day, he did his first water retrieve, and I couldn’t have been prouder. We were both on cloud nine that day. It was the start of our bond, and it has only grown deeper since.”
Rhey and Noah Houston
with Teddy, Tiller, Peter, Piper, Pepper, and Otis
For Rhey Houston, every hunt is a family affair. Not only does he share fields with his son Noah, but they are often accompanied by an impressive lineup of canines who share a love of life and a love for the hunt.
The Houstons own six dogs that they regularly hunt with – two Labrador Retrievers and four Brittany Spaniels – that range anywhere from 3 to 8 years old.
“We have always been drawn to the labs because of their genuine loyalty, gentle nature, and exceptional athleticism. There has never been a breed that loves the game and loves his family more than the lab,” explains Houston. “And the Brittany is the truest of soldiers. Every day in the field is their grandest quest. They will always leave it all on the field and expect the same out of you. I think we chose each other because we needed the accountability.”
When the Houston clan heads out on an expedition, anything from ducks and geese to quail are fair game, and Rhey notes that as long as he shows up and shoots straight, the dogs are typically happy.
“We’ll hunt about anything with feathers,” Houston says with a laugh. “I believe that each dog enjoys being a part of something bigger than their particular task. They live for the point, the flush, or the retrieve, but you can sense their greatest joy when they see you put a bird into your vest, give them a pat on the head, and send them back out again. It is the connection that they love the most – the partnership.”
“I enjoy the fellowship with my son that hunting provides, and it gives us an ability to share uniquely original moments alongside these special dogs.”
In addition to their commitment, Houston also notes that his pups make fantastic hunting companions because of their focus and fearlessness. Labs Teddy and Tiller won’t think twice about breaking ice or diving headfirst into frigid waters for a chance to retrieve, while the Brittanys will diligently hold a point, ready for the race to bring back a bird.
“I enjoy the fellowship with my son that hunting provides, and it gives us an ability to share uniquely original moments alongside these special dogs,” explains Houston. “They help me show my son that the best things in life require hard work and that emptying your cup into someone else’s has its own eternal significance.”
While many families were just finishing up the last of their Thanksgiving leftovers this past year, Todd Henon was busy welcoming a new canine into the family.
“It was interesting timing because we were quarantining and really missing our family,” says Henon. “We, of course, didn’t get Riggs for that reason, but she sure was a well-timed addition to the family and an early Christmas present to each other, our kids, and our grandchildren.”
Riggs, a 5-month-old Boykin Spaniel, has been working on her retrieves since day one at the Henon household. As a mid-sized dog, this breed was developed in the early 1900s specifically to travel by boat and retrieve both on land and in water, and while their size is key, it’s their disposition that keeps Henon coming back to the breed time and time again.
“Boykins love to please; they love the thrill of the hunt and enjoy the companionship of people,” says Henon. “I also respect the Boykin’s high intelligence. I tell Riggs all the time how smart she is.”
“She’s fiercely loyal, reserved, poised, and polite, with periodic explosions of joy.”
In the field, this fun-loving duo can be found hunting everything from dove and duck to pheasant and grouse, but at only 5 months old, Riggs still has much to learn.
“She’s learning the ropes quickly, and it looks like she’s going to be a winner. She stole everyone’s heart when she retrieved her first bird,” explains Henon. “She’s developing her nose, seems to mark birds well, and she’s not gun shy. She was a bit intimated by the other dogs at first, but settled in quickly.”
And while watching her come into her own as a flushing and retrieving dog is no doubt gratifying for Henon, simply witnessing her grow up takes the cake.
“My wife Beth and I take her on walkabouts and watch her explore the fields, forest, and streams. There’s just something special about the playfulness of a puppy and their discovery of a brand-new world,” says Henon. “She’s fiercely loyal, reserved, poised, and polite, with periodic explosions of joy. I can’t wait to watch her grow up, and there’s nothing like coming home after a long day at work to her welcome.”
with Maverick and Goose
Despite a decade separating 14-year-old Llewellin Setter Maverick and 4-year-old Small Munsterlander Goose, both dogs have been a member of the Bryant household since they were puppies.
“I trained both dogs myself, starting when they were very young,” says Dean Bryant. “Maverick is my third Llewellin Setter. I’ve had the breed going back over 20 years, and I love everything about them.”\
When it comes to Goose, Bryant got him because, like the Llewellin Setter, his breed is a natural pointer and an all-around great hunting dog. Out in the field, this trio is a force to be reckoned with. Maverick, a playful pup at heart, becomes all business, and Bryant notes that he has the best nose of any dog he’s ever owned.
“Maverick’s determination has always been amazing, and that’s what made hunting with him such a joy. He’s technically been retired since 2018, but I haven’t convinced him that he’s too old to go,” jokes Bryant.
Goose is also phenomenal at tracking downed birds and is relentless in his pursuit.
“He is non-stop motion, which is really great in terms of covering ground to search for birds,” explains Bryant. “Goose is still young, though, and I’m not so much anymore. I have to keep that in mind, or I’ll look up and see him cresting the next hill.”
When asked about his favorite memories with his dogs, Bryant recalls two separate trips to North Dakota. During one of the hunts, Maverick locked up on a solid point, and Bryant moved in but was unable to flush anything.
“This went on for 15 minutes, and he was as solid as a statue. My friend was pretty sure there was a bird in there, but I wasn’t sold,” says Bryant. “I finally circled back right beside Maverick and dragged my feet inch by inch along the line he was pointing,and eventually, a huge pheasant flew right in front of me. I never doubted Maverick’s pointing again.”
On another trip to North Dakota, when Goose was just 7 months old and on his first big hunting trip, Bryant’s friend dropped a bird that he expected to be an easy retrieve.
“We took Goose to the spot but found nothing. After expanding the search area and being joined by two other dogs, Goose suddenly took off in the direction we just came from,” says Bryant. “The bird had doubled back, right between my friend and me. Goose raced through the wind break and down to the edge of a creek, where I heard a brief ruckus and a splash. The sight of that little pup coming out through the grass with that big rooster in his mouth still makes me smile.”
with Cash and Tiger
When Don Lewis begins gearing up to go on a hunt, you better believe that 7-year-old Cash and her 3-year-old pup Tiger are not far away.
“I love how excited they get to go on a hunt. Sometimes Cash will just go and sit by the Jeep whenever I start getting ready,” says Lewis. “Their passion is part of what makes them such great hunting companions, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
After a local breeder and trainer found Cash in Texas, she was brought back to the Scenic City and groomed to be a top-notch pointing lab. Tiger has since followed in her footsteps, but he’s not the only one who had to learn the lay of the land.
“When I first got them, I had to be trained myself on how to work with them,” says Lewis. Now, Lewis, Cash, and Tiger can often be seen meandering through meadows and walking through woods in search of duck and quail. Cash and Tiger, who hunt separately because of their high energy, routinely point quail and retrieve downed birds with ease, but Lewis notes that they do have a favorite.
“Their passion is part of what makes them such great hunting companions, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
“They are both pretty hyper dogs, especially Tiger, and they definitely enjoy quail hunting the most, since it’s more active,” explains Lewis. “Sometimes, it’s all I can do to keep them relaxed in the blind when duck hunting, and I feel like I have to hunt with them for an hour just to calm them down.”
Excitement aside, Lewis says both Cash and Tiger have developed into really satisfactory hunters. Tiger currently holds a Senior Hunter title, and Lewis hopes to get his Master Hunter title within the next year. For either dog, however, after a hard day’s work, they regularly can be found right next to Lewis, taking a load off.
“One of my favorite memories was from an exhausting hunt I went on with Cash one time,” recalls Lewis. “Shortly after getting home, Cash curled up in my lap, and we both just fell asleep. I have a picture of it somewhere.”
Beyond the skill that his dogs bring to the table, Lewis notes that it is their unconditional love that really makes them great to have around.