When Land Access Made Retrievers Into Gun Dogs
October 24, 2016
My first retriever was a golden named Buck. I was a teenager at the time, and Ronald Reagan had recently succeeded Jimmy Carter as President. We got Buck from a backyard breeder, which was the only kind of breeder we had ever known.
GUN DOG was brand new, and we hadn't heard of it yet. We were country folks from Kentucky, relocated to South Dakota, and the only sources we knew for hunting dogs were the local newspaper, the bulletin board at the gun shop and word-of-mouth.
When we moved north to the Great Plains, we brought a lot of Southern beanfield mentality with us. The only gun dogs we had ever owned were beagles for rabbit hunting and pointing breeds for quail. Those may seem different, but there were notable similarities in hunting style. Essentially, the dogs were allowed to go wherever they wanted while we watched or listened for cues indicating that we and our guns were needed.
That method was born of a time when hardly anyone cared where you hunted. Land in America had not become the fragmented and fiercely-guarded fiefdom it is today. The geographic limits of a hunt were defined by the birds, not the county assessor. And our laissez-faire system engendered a simplistic, two-part training program: teach the dog his name (more or less), and take him hunting with more experienced dogs.
Of course, that system requires experienced dogs. It's a bit like recipes for "friendship bread," which begin with a lump of dough that already contains the active culture. Our old system of obtaining and raising bird dogs was socially and historically rooted. It depended on living in a time and place where you could count on being surrounded by friends or family and their dogs. It also depended on the breeding of dogs that already had much of what they needed for their whole lives hard-wired into them.
And then we moved. We knew the countryside of our new home was rich in pheasants and ducks, and we sensed our old ways wouldn't work in this new place. Big skies, cattail sloughs, cornfields and prairie margins replaced bean fields, hardwoods, pocket pastures and briar thickets. Blizzards replaced the damp but mild winter days of Kentucky.
That first season, we hunted without a dog and discovered this to be the most fruitless of endeavors, especially after a bird was down. Whenever we saw other hunters in the field, they were never hunting with English setters and pointers like the dogs we had always known.
So I went to the public library and checked out two books on pheasant hunting. One was the classic, Hunting the Long-Tailed Bird by Bob Bell. Published in 1975, Bell's book was still relatively current at that time. The other was the first edition of Modern Pheasant Hunting by Steve Grooms, hot off the press. After reading both of those books cover-to-cover, I reported to the family that we needed a retriever.
It takes a cold heart to resist buying a golden retriever puppy. We just didn't have what it took. (If you're looking for a retriever puppy now, I suggest you delay looking at any goldens until after you have looked at everything else; otherwise, you may never get to the other breeds.) The first litter of dogs we examined in South Dakota was a batch of lovely, pale, honey-blonde teddy bears. We took home a male and named him Buck.
We then proceeded to apply the old Kentucky laissez-faire system, minus the other, more experienced dogs. About the only "training" we did was a lot of play time involving homemade retrieving dummies. As I recall, we made them from rolled-up socks and pheasant tail feathers affixed with masking tape. Other than that, we just took Buck for walks in places where there were pheasants.
We turned Buck into quite an effective hunter that way, but he hunted mainly for himself. If we could keep up with him, we could enjoy some excellent shooting. When the shooting was over, we could always rely on Buck to find whatever we downed and bring it to hand.
Now that I put it down on paper like that, I guess Buck didn't turn out too badly. Several gun dog writers — including me — have observed there isn't much a retriever can do wrong in the field as long as he does everything he does within range of a shotgun.
Well, Buck frequently did wrong. As I see it, there are only two really awful mistakes you can make with a retriever. One is to make him gun-shy. The other is to encourage excessive independence by not teaching the dog to quarter close to the gun. A retriever that hunts at rifle range can ruin your day, and your friendships.
This is all upland talk, I realize, but we hunted waterfowl mainly by pass-shooting on land back then.
When we knocked down a duck, we took the dog to the spot and told him to hunt. In other words, waterfowl retrieves were like upland mini-hunts. If we dropped a bird in water, we gave the dog a little help by throwing rocks.
By contrast, today many of us expect a retriever to be a remote-controlled robot. Our increased expectation has been driven partly by off-season retriever games. When we got Buck, there weren't any retriever hunt tests or national retriever associations. I'm far from an authority on the history of field trials, but I've read some stories about retriever field trials from the early days (1930s). They tell about single blind retrieves of 100 yards. That's junior- or perhaps intermediate-level work these days.
But is it, really? Granted, I think hunt tests are a good thing, and in many ways I welcome the heightened expectations people have today for their dogs. I do think you should be able to point your dog in a certain direction — either on land or water — and expect him to go in that direction and hunt for something. He should also be able to take some basic directions in case he gets too far off course to rely on this nose.
Beyond that, I sometimes wonder if the retriever culture has gone a little crazy with what it expects from dogs today. Granted, we really should have taught Buck more obedience, and we should have worked on quartering. But it would be another couple of years before I learned all of that from Ken Roebuck's book, Gun Dog Training: Spaniels and Retrievers. Meanwhile, we and our dog were rough around the edges, but we still got the job done and nobody except the pheasants got hurt.
When I was 15, my grandfather drove from Kentucky to hunt pheasants with us in South Dakota. On a cold, wet, windy afternoon, he knocked a pheasant down into an immense cattail slough with his Remington 1100 20-gauge. We stood along the slough's dry prairie margin while Buck went charging into the slough. The cattails were higher than our heads, and they rattled loud in the wind. We could neither see nor hear Buck for a long time.
In a situation like this, you cannot give a dog direction. Independence becomes a virtue at times like these. Buck did not disappoint us. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, he emerged from the slough with the pheasant in his mouth. One of its wings covered his face, and he couldn't see where he was going. We spoke to him, and he came to the sound of our voices.
To this day, I don't know if Buck would have made that retrieve if we hadn't "ruined" him with lack of training.