There are many firsts when starting a gun dog on a path toward success.
Every newborn puppy is a storybook waiting to be opened and read by an appreciative person.
In 1968, my first golden, Duffy, was eight months old when dove season opened. Early that month I took him to a small farm pond for his inaugural hunt. Duffy had no idea what we were doing, so when I shot a dove, he was looking at me, not the dove. It fell about 20 yards out in the water, but he didn't see it. No problem, I thought, I'll just throw something out there by the dove and send him.
I tossed a little stick, which landed quite close to the dove, and I sent Duffy. Predictably, although it surprised me at the time, he retrieved the stick instead of the dove! So I tossed a little dirt clod and sent him again. Since the dirt clod sank, Duffy had no choice but to retrieve the dove, his first wild bird.
The lesson here, of course, is that if you have to toss something to show your puppy where a bird fell in the water, toss something that sinks.
Over the years I've introduced many puppies to water. The process is simple and sure, if you don't get impatient. You lead, rather than force, the puppy every step of the way. First you wade around in shallow water, encouraging the puppy to wade behind you. Then you gradually lead him into deeper water that requires him to swim a little. And so on.
Back in the 1970s, our five kids helped me introduce litters of puppies to water in a slightly different way. When the pups were four weeks old and well socialized (as only five puppy-loving kids can socialize them!), we'd take the entire litter to a lake every day. Each of us would take a puppy, carry him out into the lake some distance, lower him into the water, and while still supporting his belly, move him along forward, as if he were swimming. Almost immediately the puppy would start paddling with all four feet.
After a few such experiences, we could stop supporting his belly and let him swim on his own. Next we took the entire litter to a wade-able pond. Leaving the puppies on shore, all six of us humans would wade across. Mob-psychology soon had all the puppies swimming along behind us. Back and forth we'd go. By the time those puppies went to their new homes, they were swimming remarkably well.
In 1985 I bought my never-boring Chesapeake, Beaver. As soon as he and I were buddies, I took him to a pond to introduce him to water in the standard manner. I parked near shore, let him out of his crate, closed the crate door, and slipped my sneakers on. When I looked around for Beaver, he wasn't anywhere near the truck. In fact, he was already swimming in the pond, heading toward a dead tree in the middle.
He was swimming smoothly, too, not beating the water. When he reached the tree, he grabbed a limb and tried to "retrieve" it. After a short "tree tussle," I called him back to me.
"Well," I thought as he swam back, "I guess I'll have to skip a few steps in this pup's water introduction. Too bad, for on a hot day like this, I was looking forward to cooling off in the water."
Years ago, the Spencer kids led puppies across a shallow pond, first en masse, and then one at a time.
The Long And Short Of It
Back in the 1970s, when I was breeding goldens, I always invited local puppy buyers to train with me regularly. That's how Dennis O'Keefe joined my training group. His puppy turned out to be a real gem, so he started competing quite successfully in the puppy stakes of the area's summer-long "fun trial" circuit.
When his pup was about 10 months old, he won a 30-dog puppy stake in a Kansas City Retriever Club fun trial. This was quite an accomplishment, since the retrieves were long and challenging.
The next week Dennis entered the puppy stake at our local retriever club's fun trial, in which only six pups were entered. With such a small entry, and especially after his success the previous week, Dennis was supremely confident.
Two of the puppies entered were only about four months old, so the judges decided to set up an initial test that even those two could pass. It was a short landmark of no more than 12 yards in very light cover. Both little tykes did quite well on it.
Then Dennis went to the line, quite nonchalant, even though his dog hadn't seen a mark that short for many months. The guns fired the shot, tossed the bird, and the judges called his number. Dennis sent his dog, and away he went! He sailed past the bird with his hunting switch turned off and ran another 70 yards before even thinking about finding a bird. Needless to say, he failed the test.
Dennis was crestfallen, but the fault was really mine, for I had been setting up all the tests in our training sessions. The lesson here is: Don't let advanced work make you disdain the simple.
Born, Not Made
Finally, here's a story about a seven-month-old Chesapeake on his first goose hunt. I wasn't there. I heard this story so many years ago I can't remember the source. However, it was told as a true story.
A man (let's call him Joe) took his seven-month-old Chessie pup (let's call him Deadgrass) goose hunting on a solidly frozen lake. Although the ice was plenty thick, the man couldn't venture out on it because he was a bit crippled up. Shortly after setting up, he shot a big Canada goose that fell about 100 yards out on the ice. But Deadgrass didn't see it fall, and at seven months hadn't yet been trained in blind retrieves. Joe threw a rock as far as he could, but it didn't come anywhere near the goose. Even so, young Deadgrass retrieved the rock quite eagerly.
Joe was about to give up when along came another man (let's call him Bill) heeling a big black Lab (we'll call him Blackie). This man stopped, asked how things were going, and on hearing of the Joe's goose problem, offered to help.
"Blackie, here," he said, "has been winning field trials pretty regularly. Almost has his title. Hey, he does quadruple marks, triple blind retrieves, the works. Tell you what: If you like, I'll send Blackie after your goose as a blind retrieve. He does tougher blinds than this all the time, so this will be no problem for him. In fact, let me first tell you about some of the bl
ind retrieves he's done in trials."
The standard procedure for introducing a puppy to water requires that you lead, not force, the puppy in every step.
Joe listened patiently to a perhaps 10-minute spiel of this wonder dog's accomplishments before Bill finally set Blackie up and sent him toward the downed goose. Blackie carried the line like he'd been shot from a crossbow. But when he was about 15 yards from the goose, the bird revived, stood up and charged, hissing and flapping its broken wings menacingly. Blackie, having never before encountered such a huge and hostile bird, skidded to a halt, turned around, tucked his tail, and retreated back to Bill, glancing back frequently to see if the goose was still after him.
When Deadgrass saw the blustering goose, the sight must have awakened some primeval predator drive deep within his seven-month-old soul, for he took off like an enraged grizzly toward the bird. About halfway out, he passed but didn't notice the retreating Blackie. Never slowing down, young Deadgrass slobber-knocked the goose like a blitzing linebacker sacks a quarterback caught standing flat-footed.
Before the unconscious bird stopped skidding across the ice, he ran it down, picked it up and carried it back to Joe, giving it an occasional shake, as if to say, "Come to again and see what happens to you!"
As Deadgrass delivered the bird to Joe, Bill and Blackie began slinking off quietly. Joe saw them leaving, turned, held the goose up high, and hollered.
"Thanks, Mister, for all your help! If it hadn't been for you and your field-trial winning Lab, I'd never have got this goose."
Caveat lector (let the reader beware): Many Labs, including many field trial winning Labs, are good goose dogs. That Blackie wasn't is no reflection on the breed. Even so, good goose dogs are more born than made, and an amazingly high percentage of Chessies are "natural goose dogs," like young Deadgrass in this story.
Jim Spencer's books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows, Retriever Training Tests, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way, POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog, plus the Gun Dog video, Duck Dog.