Outdoors: Old dog, new tricks

Photo by Jay AnglinDeuce Anglin with a prime drake pintail earlier this week on a Laporte County marsh.

I’ve had Labrador Retrievers since the late-80s and I’m not sure I’d want to spend a lot of time on this planet without them. That may sound silly, but I have only met a few Labradors that weren’t awesome dogs. I wish I could say the same for people.

When somebody asks “what is the best hunting dog?” there are bound to be some interesting answers. But it’s just about a guarantee that the majority will insist the “Lab” is the best all-around best hunting dog.

Sure, there are other great breeds and some of them even give the Labrador a run of the money, but Labs are by far and away the most popular hunting dog breed.

Labrador Retrievers that live a life of retrieving ducks and flushing pheasants are nearly indistinguishable from simple house pets. Other than maybe some muscle tone, they pretty much look and act the same especially when they get older.

They jump on the couch or chair (and eventually ruin it) and are highly likely to attempt to sleep in bed not only with you, but actually on you.

Personally, I’d rather have a them sit right at the table with me and eat. But hey, that’s just me. Due to the popularity of this breed, there has been a lot of dilution of the classic Labrador Retriever bloodline and there are many variations in terms of size, shape and demeanor. This is not a good thing and often times finding a Lab that is true to the breed confirmation has become increasingly difficult. This is why we breed our own litters and make sure the puppies turn into great dogs.

I have three Labs now, including Deuce, Trix and their puppy Takoda. When it’s cold out, I tend to take my old boy Deuce hunting. He has an inordinate amount of experience and somehow knows when I’m going prior to giving out any clues. It’s not uncommon for him to wake me up in the morning long before the alarm goes off.

Hunting dogs should not be miserable. Earlier this week I actually took a down comforter with me to wrap Deuce after retrieves and only used him for the birds that were difficult for us to get to.

You have to take care of the older dogs because post hunt they often suffer a little from arthritis flare-ups and joint stiffness. Actually, I can relate when it comes to that sort of thing so I take extra care to make sure he’s comfortable. That said, his days in the field as a hardcore hunting beast are limited.

Trixie is a very driven, athletic female Labrador that works very hard for me. She is lean and gets cold easily, so I try to avoid making her work in frigid conditions. Though, if she had her way I’d never leave her home. Trixie will be a great go-to dog, but unfortunately it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever be suitable for the bitter cold of winter waterfowl hunting.

Enter, Takoda the puppy we kept from our last litter. This little girl is already well ahead of the curve for learning the ropes of life because she is lock step with her parents nearly 24 hours a day. Few puppies have this opportunity and it’s a very special thing to witness.

Takoda has retrieved a rubber training bumper less than 20 times. I don’t adhere to guidelines when it comes to training schedules as I’ve learned over the years that some pups are more mature mentally than others and therefore capable of enduring pressure of expectation, whereas nothing good comes of playing with a scatterbrained young pup and pushing the issue. Puppies with good genetics will practically tell you when they are ready to go and she did.

Two weeks ago I would have never attempted to make her retrieve, but the other day I threw a bumper and she ran out, grabbed it and then brought directly back to me. She didn’t fight for it or tug, she gently gave it to me. That’s the hallmark of all good retrievers and she did it on her first attempt.

Then she did it several more times before I ended the session. This promotes desire as she realizes it’s a finite thing so she better do it right.

Too many people attempt to train a hunting dog and throw dummies for them until the dog’s tongue is dragging in the dirt. This turns a lot of hunting dogs into what I call “crackheads” as they cannot stop retrieving and frantically go about searching things to retrieve.

If you’re dealing with a pet it’s not such a bad thing, but hunting dogs should not be bringing rocks, corn cobs and dead muskrats back to the blind. But, there are exceptions to this rule.

Several weeks ago, I shot a pheasant while hunting with Deuce. Wild pheasants are hard to come by in this part of the state so I was anxious to get my hands on it. Unfortunately, we lost the bird. I thought it was dead but alas, like pheasants often do, this one was able to escape by running off. I felt bad of course and started to yell at Deuce to “fetch-it-up” over and over but he locked-up. He knew I was mad.

I walked towards the truck in disgust and tried to figure out why it happened. Deuce would typically chase a pheasant to Kansas if that’s what it took to retrieve it, but this time he punted. He acted like he didn’t even catch its scent and I couldn’t figure out why.

It was a very wet field and with heavy cover, but still. I marched on as Deuce brought up the rear. I occasionally looked back and watched him walking through the corn stubble with his ears flattened, and his head down. He was sad.

I took a seat on an old culvert pipe discarded at the edge of the field and waited for him to catch up. I heard him coming slowly but didn’t look up. Eventually he healed next to me and quietly stared towards the Suburban in the distance.

Interestingly he had a huge corn cob in his mouth. He gently gave it to me. I inspected it and then said, “Not quite buddy.”

I saw the very tip of his tail flicker a little and I gave him a pat on the head and we headed home. Love the Lab, and they’ll love you back every time.

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