Hunting waterfowl without a retriever is, for many hunters, a drama without the supporting cast, a canoe without a paddle, ice and tonic without the gin. Plenty of statistics tell us that hunters accompanied by trained retrievers are more likely to bring home game, and there is certainly much to be said for minimizing lost birds, but perhaps we prefer hunting with retrievers as much for their companionship as for their practical usefulness.
When there is no one else to brave the cold north wind and snow the last weekend of the season, there is always your retriever, as eager as he was his first season. He needs no convincing, does not particularly care if the ducks are flying in earnest, and will not complain if there is no work, save for a few whines when gunshots bring no results. Of all the hunting breeds, retrievers are the easiest to talk to, for they are the best listeners. Even if they don't understand what you're saying, they often give the impression they do a skill we come to cherish in any good friend. Retrievers are effective alibis, too. For when you return home three hours late they'll accept the blame without holding a grudge. Ultimately, your retriever is the one entity on the planet that shares your passion for the marsh, your eagerness to witness the dawn flights, and your reverence for the sport and the glory that goes with it.
Training your own retriever is about becoming a complete waterfowler. Each element of the sport-whether calling, decoy placement, shooting, boating, blind construction, or retriever training-adds its own challenges and virtues. As you gain proficiency in each of these areas, you heighten your overall enjoyment of the sport. The many nuances of waterfowling mean you never truly master it so much as it simply seduces you. The engaging nature of a good retriever is what led many of us to fall for it in the first place, leading us down the path of the waterfowler's life a journey marked by memories and friendships to last a lifetime.
Exactly when man first employed a dog to retrieve game is a matter of speculation, but we do know that dogs with a propensity to retrieve existed long before there was a class of dogs known as retrievers. Most modern retrievers are descendants of the original water spaniels; the oldest English retriever that still exists as an identifiable breed is the curly-coated retriever.
While most retrievers are especially well adapted for water work, many also excel in the uplands, a fact to which countless pheasants, grouse, and quail can personally attest. Retrievers are also known for their pleasant nature, which accounts for their popularity with the nonhunting public. Of the 1.4 million dogs registered with the American Kennel Club in 1993, for instance, Labradors were number one-124,899 of them testimony to the success and versatility of the breed.
If you're thinking about purchasing a retriever, remember that many dogs are bred as pets, their only work perhaps coming in the show ring. When selecting a dog, examine its registration papers carefully for evidence of hunting ancestry. Look for the initials FC and AFC, which mean Field trial Champion and Amateur Field trail Champion in a pup's pedigree. This will indicate a history of field work. Dogs with "CH" appearing in several places on their pedigrees have been shown more often than hunted.
Even better indicators of a pup's future success are its parents. Ask to see both the sire and the bitch if possible, and don't be shy about asking questions like: Have both dogs been hunted? Were their parents hunted? Any history of dysplasia or any other hereditary health problems? You will also get an idea of the pup's probable size at maturity by seeing its parents. Make sure a pup has received all necessary shots before purchasing it. Many breeders also have a dog's dewclaws removed shortly after whelping, saving potential problems later, as these claws serve no purpose and are prone to snagging and ripping on brush. Each pup should also have an individual health card signed by a veterinarian-this is your dog's bill of health.
Don't be bashful about asking to see the parents hunt. If possible, have the sire perform some rudimentary retrieves and note the proficiency with which the dog performs them. Though the dame's recent pregnancy may mean she is in no condition to work, you might inquire if the owner has photos of her on past hunts or, better yet, a video of the dog performing in the field.
Handle the parents, petting them and noting their dispositions. You will increase your chances of getting a dog you will be happy with by carefully checking its background. One way to avoid possible problems is to get a pup from a dog with which you have hunted on several occasions. Pups are often purchased by a breeder's friends who have been impressed by a dog's hunting ability; nothing sells pups faster than parents with a reputation of being fine hunters. Truly promising litters are often spoken for far in advance of actual whelping, so be cautious about buying a pup from a person who has had difficulty selling his or her pups. Several breeds of retrievers are prone to having large litters, however, and even good dogs sometimes are difficult to move when there are, say, 15 pups in a litter. Don't automatically rule out such dogs; just plan on conducting a systematic background check of any prospect.
Many perfectly sound hunting dogs have been bought via newspaper ads, if such ads were treated merely as leads on which to follow up with more questioning. Purchasing a pup from a pet shop is a far greater risk, for some shops are merely retail outlets for puppy mills, high-volume operations with little regard for quality breeding regimens. If it's hunting stock you're after, the best advice is to simply avoid such places altogether.
You'll want to pick the retrieving breed best suited to your style of hunting. If you are primarily a goose hunter, you'll need a dog large and strong enough to manage hefty geese, though plenty of small dogs are capable of toting even large honkers. If you often hunt in icy water, you'll want a breed equipped to cope with such conditions. If you spend much time hunting the uplands, some retrievers are better at it than others. Below is a profile of the retrieving breeds, their ancestry, strengths, and weaknesses:
Few breeds anywhere have enjoyed the success of the Labrador retriever, a dog whose roots are planted in England rather than Labrador, as its name implies. Its amenable nature and intelligence help make it far and away the most popular retrieving breed in North America. The late Richard Wolters, one of America's authorities on the Labrador, once described the breed this way: "The Labrador is the king of retrieversýHe is intelligent but not cunning; he's lovable but not soft. The Labrador retriever is loyal but not a one-man dog. He's gentle but not a dog to be backed against the wall. He's a romping fun fellow but won his crown as an honest worker."
It is believed that Labs stem from a French dog called the Street Hubert's hound, a breed brought to England in the 16th century. Modern Labs originated on the British Isles in the 1800s, from dogs bred primarily to satisfy the needs of gamekeepers charged with running the driven shoots, then gaining widespread popularity among the English aristocracy. The advent of the breech-loading shotgun in the mid-19th century meant that often grotesque numbers of birds were shot, and the easily trained Labs were in great demand for the rigors of high-volume retrieving.
A few wealthy Americans who had traveled to the United Kingdom sampled the British driven shooting and imported the practice to America, bringing the Labrador retriever with them. The Labs did not gain widespread acceptance among American hunters until they began to dominate the field trial scene in the 1930s. Where once the Chessie (Chesapeake Bay retriever) and American water spaniel had been the favorite among trailers and gunners alike, the Lab's proficiency now proved superior. Waterfowlers took note and began to test the dogs under hunting conditions, and the breed quickly won favor among even ardent fans of other breeds.
There are an estimated 2 million hunting Labs in America today-a remarkable statistic considering that there are fewer than 1.5 million waterfowl hunters in the United States. The breed has grown enormously popular with nonhunters as well. Many Labs also excel in upland work for such species as pheasants and grouse. Their propensity to work close makes them an effective choice for a variety of upland duties and, when game is flushed, it is likely to be presented within shooting range.
Modern Labs vary widely in size. Many of the smaller, sleeker Labs often perform well for long periods in the uplands, while the larger, 70 pounds and up may find the daily rigors of pounding the fields difficult. Conversely, the smaller Labs may be too small to retrieve a giant Canada goose weighing more than 15 pounds.
For the first-time retriever owner with a mind to develop an effective hunting companion, the Lab is a good choice. Remember that color is not nearly as important as sound breeding, so it's wise to make your selection after a thorough background check of any prospective pup.
Breed Specifications: Average height from 20 to 23 inches; weight, 55 to 75 pounds. Builds range from short and stout to tall and lean, with a thick nose and pointed head. Eyes, chestnut or hazel, ears hang against the head, the neck is broad and powerful. The tail is long and sturdy at the base. The dense coat comes in black, yellow, or chocolate.
Many waterfowlers knew of the golden's versatility long ago, but when former President Gerald Ford kept one at the White House, the breed instantly reached celebrity status. The demand for goldens soon eclipsed the supply, and prices for the dogs began to climb. Nearly 70,000 goldens were registered with the AKC in 1993, making them the second-most-popular retrieving breed behind Labradors, and fifth most popular of all breeds.
In addition to being playful family companions, goldens are perhaps the most adept upland hunters of the retrievers. They are fleet of foot and graceful when traversing cover, and most have the endurance for several consecutive days of demanding work in heavy cover. Sometimes goldens are criticized for lacking the Chesapeake's tolerance for cold water and icy conditions, but many of these dogs seem unaware of their supposed deficiencies.
Sir Dudley Marjoribanks of Scotland developed the breed by crossing the now-extinct Tweed water spaniel with what was then called a wavy-coated (or flat-coated) retriever. The dogs from this and subsequent breedings were originally considered merely blond-color phases of the flat-coat, but by 1913, the golden retriever was recognized as a separate breed by the English Kennel Club. The American Kennel Club accepted the golden retriever as a distinct breed in 1932.
Though most goldens in America today are bred for the show ring, the breed continues to enjoy an avid following among waterfowlers, especially those who also want a dog for upland bird hunting. With the preponderance of American goldens having show backgrounds, it's especially important to examine carefully any prospective pup's pedigree and parents.
The golden's long coat may help insulate it during water retrieves, but it can also be a burr magnet in the uplands. Nonetheless, goldens are vigorous working dogs, among the easiest to train of all retrievers.
Breed Specifications: Average height from 21 to 24 inches; weight, 60 to 75 pounds. Has a large muzzle, dark eyes, a long tail, and a shiny, wavy coat with pronounced feathering along chest, tail and back of legs. Coat ranges in color from cream to gold.
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
The "Chessie" is one of only four sporting breeds to be developed on the North American continent. There is some disagreement over the breed's origins. In 1807, George Law helped rescue the crew of a British vessel along with two St. John's dog pups. Law later wrote of the dogs' ability to retrieve waterfowl in the cold waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He also noted that one of the pups, a male with a dingy red coat, sported unusually light-colored eyes.
According to most experts, though, the Chessie is probably a genetic blend of several breeds, including pointers, setters, flat-coated retrievers, Irish water spaniels, and even black-and-tan hounds. Early names of the Chessie included the Gunpowder River dog, brown Winchester, otter dog, and Chesapeake Bay duck dog. Market gunners along the Atlantic tidewaters came to rely on the Chessie's ability to endure long periods in icy water. These dogs were often required to fetch a hundred ducks or more on a given day or night.
The Chessie's detractors often call it mean and stubborn-one part wolf, and part mule. Fans defend the Chessie with remarkable vigor. However, contending that Chessies are courageous, tough, and ideally suited to cold-water work where most dogs fail. Indeed, no breed can negotiate cold water and ice better than the Chessie, and, many cases, they can be quite gentle. As with any breed, mistreatment can create a disagreeable dog, a more likely cause of problems than the Chessie's innate disposition. Their reputation for being aggressive is often exaggerated, though they do tend to be extremely loyal to their masters.
The breed's large size and toughness make it an exceptional goose retriever both on land and on water. Their thick, wiry overcoat and woolly, insulating undercoat feel oily, which helps the breed shrug off cold and ice.
Breed Specifications: Average height from 21 to 26 inches; weight, 55 to 75 pounds. Has a wide head with stout muzzle and yellowish eyes; a deep chest, pendant ears, and thick fur, ranging in color from light red to dark chestnut to dead grass.
This breed was once a favorite among British gamekeepers who preferred a close-working retriever with an exceptional nose. Its origins date back to 19th-century England, where water spaniels, Irish setters, and Gordon setters were mixed with the St. John's dog (the breed from which both the Chesapeake and Labrador descended). The infusion of setter blood probably accounts for this breed's keen scenting abilities. S. E. Shirley, one of the early developers of the flat-coat, was a well-known breeder in England and founded the English Kennel Club in 1873. He reportedly bred several litters of flat-coats at his kennels before 1850. Many experts also credit Dr. Bond Moore of Wolverhampton with having been largely responsible for the breed's creation.
The breed remains quite rare in the United States; in 1993, only 485 were registered with the AKC. Nevertheless, flat-coats are amiable and affectionate dogs that make superb personal hunting companions particularly in the uplands, where their setter like conformation seems especially well suited.
Breed Specifications: Average height from 22 to 23 inches; weight, 60 to 70 pounds. Dark brown eyes, a deep chest, and a long tail. Coat is thick, fine textured, flat, and most often black or liver colored.
As the name implies, this dog's curly coat makes it resemble a poodle, and in fact it likely descends from a combination of poodle and St. John's dog. The tight curls on this breed's fur serve a utilitarian purpose, protecting it from ice and cold water. Like the Chesapeake, the curly-coated retriever is an exceptional cold-water retriever, and the curly fur doesn't collect burrs as readily as one might imagine at first glance.
Curly-coated retrievers make excellent pets and family dogs and are large and strong enough to handle even wounded geese. Though they are often slow to mature, they retain training lessons well, reducing the amount of retaining necessary to produce an effective hunter each season.
Breed Specifications: Average height from 25 to 27 inches; weight, 65 to 70 pounds. Dark eyes, large head, black nose, and pointed muzzle. Coat varies from liver to black.
Irish Water Spaniel
This dog's unique appearance stems from an unlikely ancestral mixture of the St. John's dog, the curly-coated retriever, and the poodle. Its origins date back to the mid-1800s, when an Irish hunter from Dublin, Justin M. McCarthy, developed the breed from the northern Irish water spaniel and the southern Irish water spaniel. McCarthy's dog, Boatswain, is believed to be the "father" of this breed. By the mid-19th century, Irish water spaniels were being used along the Mississippi River, in the Flyway of the Mallard. While these dogs enjoyed some popularity during the 1920s, they have since faded to near obscurity. Only 135 Irish water spaniels were registered with the AKC in 1993. While their coat is well suited to prolonged exposure to cold water, it attracts burrs and debris, making it difficult to maintain.
Breed Specifications: Average height from 20 to 23 inches; weight, 55 to 60 pounds. Has a large head, a long, square muzzle with short hair, and small, brown eyes. Its coat is thick with tight curls, oily, and long. Coat color is most often dark liver.
Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
In the world of sporting dogs, this one is unique. The tolling retriever acts as both the decoy and a retriever. As hunters sit hidden in blinds along the edge of a lake, river or bay, they allow their tolling dog to play nearby, running up and down the bank. Ducks, upon seeing this begin swimming curiously toward the dog to get a closer look. Nineteenth-century author J. S. Skinner wrote that the practice of using a dog for tolling started in Maryland about 1800. Others claim that the tolling dog was developed in the Little River area near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
There is evidence, however, that European hunters trained fox colored dogs to toll ducks into awaiting nets before a tolling dog existed in North America. The dog derives its name from the work "tollen," a Middle-English term that means to lure or attract. French Acadians or Scots might have been the first to bring the breed to North America. The modern Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever likely has a mixture of Chesapeake, spitz, collie, springer spaniel, and perhaps even beagle blood in it. The dog was recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club as a distinct breed in 1945, but the AKC has yet to do so.
Breed Specifications: Medium-size, muscular dog resembling a red fox. Has a thick coat from golden in color to nearly red. It sports a long, bushy tail often with a white tip. White markings are also common on the face and chest.
Hunting Tests for Retrievers
Field trails for retrievers in America began in the 1930s, with Chesapeake Bay retrievers dominating the early events. The Labrador's arrival, however, brought that reign to an end. The level of training and breeding needed to develop a successful field trial retriever today far exceeds the requirements of the average hunter. If you watch a contemporary retriever trial, you might be intimidated by the degree of control many of these trainers have over their dogs. These dogs are the high-performance race cars of the dog world, well tuned and polished. Enjoy them for the quality animals they are, but do not hold yourself or your pup up to the standards of professionals and professionally trained dogs. Set attainable goals for each of you, and you'll find greater satisfaction with your dog. Three organizations that sponsor hunting retriever tests are:
American Kennel Club, 51 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
United Kennel Club, 100 East Kilgore Road, Kalamazoo, MI 49001.
North American Hunting Retriever Association, P.O. Box 1590, Stafford, VA 22555
[information courtesy of Chris Dorsey, author of Wildfowler's Season-Modern Methods for a Classic Sport]
[Information courtesy of Chris Dorsey, author of Wildfowler's Season-Modern Methods for a Classic Sport]