When dealing with retrievers, it often helps to have a healthy sense of humor.
Funny thing: The retrieves we remember for many years are seldom the character-builders we spend so much time and energy drilling into our dogs. No, more often they're the more ordinary efforts that reveal something insightful about a favorite dog, about ourselves, or about our friends and associates. Let me give you a few examples.
Duffy with Bob and Pat Spencer after a combination duck and pheasant hunt many years ago.
Misty's "Savage" Duck
Back in the 1950s, before I got into retrievers, I hunted everything, including ducks, with my Weimaraner, Misty Dawn IV CDX. She was quite an animal, one with an amazing array of facial and bodily expressions. She could express surprise, outrage, shame, anger, expectation, delight and any other emotion she felt at the moment without the slightest need for words. For example, I trained her to ring a little bell by the backdoor whenever she wanted to go outside. She'd ring the bell, then look at my wife or me indignantly, seeming to say, "Okay, I did my part. The ball's in your court. Now MOVE!"
During one of her early duck hunts on the Arkansas River, I shot a hen mallard (which was acceptable then) that fell onto a sandbar about 40 yards from shore. I sent Misty and she swam across the channel toward the sandbar. As she approached land, the duck suddenly revived, charged at her, quacking and hissing most threateningly.
Misty stopped like she'd run into a brick wall. She turned and looked back at me with the strangest expression. She seemed to be saying, "Hey, can a duck do that? If so, why didn't you ever let me know? If not, what are we going to do about it?" She wasn't intimidated, just confused.
Brandy popping up with the duck that came unshackled and dove as he approached it in a 1974 fun trial puppy stake.
I shouted "Fetch!" with as much authority as the humor of the situation allowed. Misty then bulled her way onto the sandbar, snatched up the still hissing duck, and brought it back to me. Thereafter, she never hesitated to grab a blustering and bluffing bird of any kind. When retrieving pheasants, Misty had a special talent for getting one wing over her eyes, so I had to talk her back to me. But that's another story.
Duffy's First Quail
My all-time favorite golden, Duncan Dell's MacDuff** CD (1968-1984), retrieved a lot of ducks and pheasants before his first "quail encounter." Actually, that first encounter was an accident. We were hunting pheasants when I unexpectedly flushed a single quail.
I shot it and Duffy, wherever he was at the moment, saw it fall.
Since I've never been fussy about steadiness in the uplands for my retrievers, he immediately raced over and picked it up. He took a couple of bounds toward me, and then stopped cold, dropped the quail, looked down at it, and then looked up at me. He seemed to be saying, "Surely, you don't expect me to mess around with this little dinky thing do you? Next thing I know, you'll want me to retrieve sparrows in the backyard!"
Here, too, I commanded "Fetch!" with as much authority as the situation allowed. Duffy seemed to shrug, then picked the quail up, and brought it to me. Thereafter he retrieved quail without hesitation, although he may have considered them somewhat beneath his dignity.
Spencer, Brandy, and the trophies they won in puppy stakes.
Duffy's Last Resort
Once when we were hunting ducks at Cheyenne Bottoms, a huge marshy area dotted with millet patches, Duffy had to use a little ingenuity to avoid coming in empty after I sent him for a bird I'd just shot. It fell in the middle of a large, still green millet patch. I sent Duffy after it and he immediately disappeared in the patch. I could tell where he was by watching the top of the millet move this way and that.
He did indeed search it thoroughly. Then he searched it again. And again. Finally, he emerged with a duck in his mouth. When he delivered it to me, he held his head down, as if he weren't too anxious for me to see it. I took it and about fell over laughing. It was cold, stiff, and completely waterlogged.
Obviously, this wasn't the duck I had shot. Nor was it a duck anyone else had shot within several days. It had to be a duck that, after being shot, had dived and died clinging to millet stalks under water. Perhaps Duffy scented it and went down after it, or perhaps it popped up while he was swishing around in the millet. Whatever happened, Duffy seemed relieved that I was amused by it all.
Probably my most talented golden was Rumrunner's Brandy*** (1973-1984). My son Bob owned and trained him through his derby career and then turned him over to me when he started high school and his interests changed. Back then we ran many fun trials conducted by retriever clubs in our area. Until Brandy reached his first birthday, Bob ran him in puppy stakes, and quite successfully.
In a fun trial in Kansas City, Bob and Brandy were the team to beat after two land series and the first water series. The second and final water series was a seemingly simple single mark, for which they were throwing a shackled live duck, which was common back then.
Most dogs were doing quite well, so I was confident that Brandy would ace it and win the trial. Well, after Bob sent Brandy, the duck came unshackled! As Brandy approached it, the duck dove. Oh, no, I thought, why this? Brandy had never dealt with a "submarine" before. What a shame!
Amazingly, Brandy didn't hesitate to submerge right behind the duck. They stayed down for several seconds (which seemed like several hours to me). Then up popped the duck, but with Brandy's mouth wrapped firmly around it. Fortunately, I had a camera pointed at the right area and I snapped a picture as the duck reappeared. Brandy won several additional puppy stakes, but this one gave me an unforgettable memory.
D.L. Walters back in 1979.
D.L.'s Sense of Humor
Many years ago, then-pro D.L. Walters trained and handled NFC Butte's Blue Moon for owner Bing Grunwald. Moon was the most awe-inspiring retriever I ever saw. He lined blinds so regularly that we came to expect it, and he marked like few retrievers I've seen.
Bing, of course, handled Moon in the amateur stakes. At an amateur in Kansas City many years ago, when he was handling Moon on a difficult water blind, Bing made two serious handler errors. First, he let Moon get almost onto a point before blowing the whistle.
Under such circumstances, most dogs would refuse a cast back into the water, and would instead land and run the bank.
But Bing let Moon get his feet on the bottom near shore before stopping him. Then, instead of giving him the safer "Over" cast back into the water, he gave him an angled "Back" directly at the bird. Again, most dogs would land and run the bank. Instead, Moon took the cast perfectly, swam through the little bay and found the bird without further handling!
"Wow!" D.L. commented to those of us near him in the gallery, "I wonder if Bing has room for any more dogs in his string? Moon damned sure won't do that for me!"
In the open stake at another trial many years ago, D.L. was handling another FC Lab (not Moon) that was a bit sticky (refused to release birds). The dog stuck on the third bird of a triple (which is normal for sticky dogs). D.L. grasped the duck's head and said, "Leave it!" The dog hung on.
D.L. lifted the bird's head up a little and again said, "Leave it!" But the dog still hung on.
D.L. lifted the bird's head higher still, and so on until he was holding it above his head, with the dangling dog still hanging on. Finally, the bird separated and the dog dropped, still lock-jawed onto the bird's body, while D.L. retained only the head. As he heeled the resolutely carcass-clutching beast off the line, D.L. handed the duck's head to one of the judges, saying, "Sorry, but this is all I could get!"
During his several decades of professional training, D.L. Walters was always among the leaders of the pack, winning an impressive number of trials year after year. All through the 1970s, I traveled to his La Cygne, Kansas grounds to train under his guidance. I found him a truly great trainer, but one who was never without an entertaining and often self-deprecating sense of humor.
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, and the Gun Dog video, Duck Dog.