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War Veterans Find Healing on South Dakota Hunt

When you're starting over, there is no better partner than a good retriever.

Recently, I had the pleasure of hunting with several great men and a whole pack of good bird dogs, and all of us, in one way or another, were starting new lives. I'll get to that story shortly, but first€¦ This column, too, will have to start from scratch.

I am not qualified to continue the inimitable work of a retriever icon like James B. Spencer. Few people have impacted the American retriever scene more than Jim. His experience as a trainer, official and hunter spans seven decades. His shoes are too big for me to fill, so I'll have to go about this in my own way. But I've planned an inclusive approach to this column for the years ahead.

That approach will, hopefully, make up for my own shortcomings. I'll feature the tactics and testimony of expert trainers, breeders, test and trial judges, all of whom aren't me. I'll tell the stories of interesting "retriever people," cover current issues relevant to retriever breeds, perhaps throw in a dash of retriever history from time to time, and spice it up with stories from the hunt on a regular basis. So, let's begin with a tale.


Wounded Warriors 


With 20 years in the Army, Chuck had only a few months left until his planned retirement when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) hit the window frame of his vehicle in Afghanistan. He had been using the armored door as a shield while fighting off an ambush with his machine gun.

A small piece of the RPG, about the size of a BB, snuck under his helmet and went completely through his head. The rest of it went overhead and detonated a full case of grenades on his roof rack, sending Chuck 40 feet through the air and smashing him into the side of a stone building. He woke up three months later in a German hospital.

I met Chuck in South Dakota last October. He rolled up a sleeve to reveal three names tattooed on his left shoulder. They are the names of the men who died retrieving him from the side of the road. Until I heard Chuck's story, I thought I'd had a bad year. But my divorce and unwanted career change suddenly seemed like minor bumps in the road, even though I did lose a good Lab in the divorce.

Chuck and two other Purple Heart recipients were the guests of Wounded Warriors in Action (WWIA), a charitable organization that shows appreciation to combat veterans and facilitates their healing through quality outdoor experiences. My longtime friends Brad and Julie Boisen of Grand Ciel Lodge provided the venue, while Rick and Andrea McConico of Old Oak Retrievers near Owatonna, Minn., provided the dog power.


And the dog power was considerable. We hunted over some of Rick's outstanding Labs and goldens. One of those was Irish FTCH Rockenhart Voyager MH, a.k.a. "Sam." Sam is the first European field trial champion ever to earn an AKC Master Hunter title.

Given his titles, it's no surprise that Sam exhibits what I consider the ideal qualities of a Lab, whether British or American. Those are: compact size, a calm disposition among people and other dogs, athleticism, off-the-chart smarts and an extremely high level of birdiness.

Our party consisted of Brad, Rick, myself, John McDaniel and Dixon Gunther from WWIA, Brad's assistant Joe Brewster and three American heroes whose names I've hidden out of reverence. That's a large group in my estimation, but not by South Dakota standards (parties of up to 20 hunters are not unusual).


Black sweetness 

The standard South Dakota pheasant hunt basically amounts to a straight-forward march that covers a swath of territory 150 yards wide. I can think of no other form of hunting that involves such an utter lack of stealth. The objective is essentially to herd pheasants before the guns. Perhaps you can tell from my tone that this is not really my favorite kind of hunt. But in my opinion, retrievers are the ideal dog for this sort of hunting, so that redeems it a bit.

A retriever's strengths are a hand-in-glove fit for large-party pheasant hunts. Big-party pheasant hunting is chaotic and loud. It is often conducted in high cover, including standing corn, which obscures your view of the dogs and the dog's view of the hunters. Finally, we're talking about pheasants, so the incidence of crippled birds is rather high.

All of these factors are hanging curveballs in a retriever's wheelhouse. For these reasons, even Boisen — a pointing dog man and longtime breeder and devotee of the Braque Francais — keeps a few Labs around for this type of hunting.

Large scale pheasant hunts are conducted for two reasons: they're highly social, and undeniably effective. Their effectiveness is measured in filled limits, and we managed to fill ours two days in a row at Grand Ciel, with lots of time left over for eating and fellowship.

The effectiveness of WWIA's mission might fairly be gauged in the escalation of laughter through the course of our two-day hunt. Of course, it surely helped that our evenings were spent stroking retriever heads. Late on the second day, I turned around to see Chuck with a recently dispatched pheasant perched on his shoulder like a pet parrot. When wounded men horse around like that, you know they're moving on.

At the end of our hunt, Brad presented each veteran with a Braque Francais puppy. At that point, Rick looked at Brad and said, "I think Emma would be a good dog for Chad." And that's all it took for Brad to give me Old Oak Emogene JH — a 53-pound, 3-year-old package of coal black sweetness.

She has two legs of her AKC Senior Hunter title finished, and we'll pursue the remaining legs this spring. You'll be hearing more about her in the years ahead. Emma is just the latest in Brad's long string of generous acts toward me, and she has filled an empty space that was much bigger than a dog. Thank God for good friends, without whom the process of starting life over would be a lot more difficult.

Service Labs 

Another organization also knows that retrievers have the gift of healing for wounded vets. Paws & Effect provides fully-trained adult Labs as service dogs for persons with a variety of challenges, including veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other wounds. Puppies are placed with volunteer foster handlers, who raise and train the dogs for the first 18 months of their lives, after which the dogs are placed with veterans.

A good friend of mine here in Iowa participates in this program. Evelyn Johnson recently welcomed a yellow Lab puppy named "Del" into her home. Evie committed to an extensive training program for Del, since the dog will be placed as a personal assistance animal. She knows it will be hard to give Del up at the end of the 18-month program, but she feels honored to serve veterans in this way.

Evie is a South Dakota girl from a hunting family, and plans to include hunting in Del's upbringing. Meanwhile, she takes Del absolutely everywhere with her, since that is part-and-parcel of a personal assistance dog's training. Del goes to church and Rotary Club meetings and the store, and to the City Hall office where Evie works as an administrator.

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