Goose Dogs

Goose Dogs

It's more a matter of temperament than size or breed.

Are Canada geese really too big, rough and tough for most dogs to handle when sent to retrieve dead or crippled birds? If so, why bother trying to train a goose retriever to subdue and haul them in, unless you luck into some pug-ugly monster willing to tussle with them? Would pit bulls, Rottweilers and Dobermans fill the bill? How would you train a mild mannered hunting breed to retrieve a 14-pound dead bird?

Hopefully, when I take this flock of provocative questions seriously, I won't be snickered at by a peanut gallery that enjoyed sucking me in over the decoys. Leave your duck dog pup at home when on a honker foray. But you can test your at-least-two-year-old retriever to see what his reaction is.

If he shows the white feather and little aptitude for the heavy work, back out of it, if up to then you have been satisfied with his waterfowl and upland bird retrieving ability. Geese can intimidate a pup or a "soft" gentlemanly dog to such a degree that even a force-broke fetcher will avoid the big birds.

Should your dog turn out to be of the "right" temperament (a matter of individuality among every breed), that really has little to do with either size or breed. Most Chesapeake Bay retrievers, quite a few field-trial-trained Labradors and almost non-existent old-time Irish and American water spaniels will have the gumption to tackle a fighting goose.

A dog of any breed, or a non-belligerent among American, Irish, Labrador or Chesapeake, that chickens out? Those individuals may recover downed geese when sent only for dead birds. That avoids the regular dog being soured on retrieving anything because he suffered a struggling bird hurting him.

Retrieving practice would consist of standard stuff, including today's penchant for e-collar training and force breaking, gradually accustoming the dog to pick up and carry greater weight in the form of homemade dummies weighing up to 10 or 12 pounds. Just don't expect even a powerful retriever to sprint back ala field trial-style retrieve, with a goose in his mouth.

There's an adage, "It's not the size of the dog that counts in a fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog." Molly, a white and black English working cocker I enjoyed back in the 1970s, at 22 pounds, had to drag in a cock pheasant (unable to clear the ground with it) while making a retrieve. A goose was a real struggle. But she was as tough and determined afield as she was sweet in the house and refused to give up until the big bird was at my feet.

She could subdue a crippled pheasant. But I never subjected her to the punishment a live goose can dish out. I suggest similar restraint on your part, unless a dog's temperament and size make him (or her) a match for the live bird.

The presumption is that a male retriever is likely to be the choice as "goose dog," just as more shot and powder make a 10-gauge or a 31⁄2 inch 12-gauge a deluxe "goose gun."

But bitches can be mean antagonists, are calculating in a fight, clever on a hunt and less likely to get beat up than an audacious male who bumbles to finish things in a hurry or wastes time clowning around playing a canine version of fox and goose.

The vision I still have going back to the 1930s is of what looked like bedraggled miniature badger pushing a supine American bittern along on the surface of a local pond until it could be reached by a boyhood buddy. Just a tag-along boy's companion, fox-faced, rough-coated, low-slung Trixie took pleasure in glomming onto anything that dropped from a tree or out of the sky at the crack of a.22. Plus, the determination to get it to the boy who brought her to the dance; her size, sex and breed be damned.

Anyone who has lugged or dragged a limit of Canada geese across a plowed stretch of ground between the hide and the parked car can attest that Canadas (or any geese) are heavy. But rarely is a goose as big as the hunter who shot it thinks it is.

Guessing the weight of goose carcasses is almost as popular among waterfowlers as contests for shooting the largest dressed whitetail buck. A year or two back (well, maybe 10 to 12 years ago) I killed what without a doubt was the largest goose I've ever dropped over land or water from Mexico to Canada and points in between; mostly I confidently over-estimated their weight, as did follow hunters, neighboring farmers and loggers admiring this one.

One wildly imaginable estimator said "between 18 and 20 pounds." But most settled in the 14 to 16 pound bracket. My guess was "maybe a little over 12 pounds," not just to be contrary but because of what I'd been advised by a much older friend, years before.

In 1956, Clyde Mitchell, whose day job was supervising Remington Arms Co. field reps, was involved with a hunting club in Cameron Parish, Louisiana that counted and weighed geese harvested. The largest of the 590 geese shot tipped the scales at 10 pounds, another one weighed 91⁄2 pounds; the third largest was 9 pounds.

Curiosity and friendly bets prompted us to weigh my humongous honker (as you do a dog, climb on bathroom scale twice, with and without the dog.) There was a bit of acrimonious doubting about the shaky scale needle, but it was conceded that the big bird weighed "somewhere between 12 and 13 pounds" and I won beer cases enough to celebrate both Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

As an interesting note, one of the Cajun state geese shot in 1956 had been banded in 1935! Prior to the almost concurrent emergence of Ducks Unlimited (in 1937) and state governmental wildlife management divisions, banding birds by conservation-minded individuals was strongly encouraged.

Because of today's multiplicity of geese (to a point where they've been berated as nuisances in many areas), in contrast to the prizes they were in the Depression/Dust Bowl era, perhaps many birds are living longer and growing larger. At least a separate strain of "giant Canadas," announced to hunters by game managers just prior to the 21st century, weren't even speculated about 75 or so years ago.

My point is, however, that a decent-sized retriever can without too much strain walk, even trot, up to a shooter with most geese in his grip. Or were all the folktales of 10- to 20-pound foxes fleeing farmyard with the fattened domestic old gray goose slung over a shoulder mere figments of imagination?

Too much bother to try to train a goose retriever that might better be left at home?

Hardly. Some friendly statistician probably has up-to-date figures, considering money spent on various studies. But I'm satisfied to ride with that "study" conducted on the bayous by shooters in 1956. It has an addendum. Downed bird loss by hunters with retrievers was 4 to 5 percent, while 27 percent went unrecovered by those without retrievers.

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