By Mark Fike
For years now I have been involved as an assistant to my daughter who has her own Labrador Retriever breeding business. She has been “all in” and goes above and beyond in trying to learn all the aspects of the business to include training her own dogs for hunt tests and certification.
As her assistant, I get to do some of the drills and training and it often amazes me how much I DON’T know when it comes to training the dogs. I learned one such lesson the hard way this past season.
One of the male dogs we have belongs to my wife. He is an athlete through and through. He can and will make incredible leaps and bounds with all the enthusiasm to retrieve anything thrown or launched during training. It amazes me how driven he is to go get what you send him for.
I kept hounding my daughter about using him as a stud as he works even better than some of her females do. I was told in no uncertain terms that the dog did not yet meet the criteria, nor did he prove himself in the field.
Determined to prove that I knew what I was talking about, I began looking for an opportunity to take him afield. Unfortunately, the duck season was a total bust and goose season was cut very short in our part of the country. So, I had to wait until all her dogs got their field work in.
I think my daughter caught on that I was getting impatient to take the male out with us. I began doing “extra” training with him by taking him out on the field, throwing bumpers and dummies and doing other drills such as honoring other dogs, etc…
One night at supper I started bragging to my wife about how good her dog was at retrieving and how great he was going to be in the field. I looked sideways at my daughter and I could see her shaking her head. Finally, she reminded me that although he was great at picking up bumpers, no one knew if he would actually readily pick up a goose or duck.
Before I could shoot a reply back, she then reminded me how during a live training event with a Retriever club, he simply played with the dead duck instead of bringing it back. I wrote it off as he was not yet mature and that since then he had smelled many ducks and geese.
Fast forward a few weeks to a cold morning when we were finally able to get him in the field. We had a few strings of geese approach, but none wandered close enough despite my pleading calls to get taken on a date to the freezer.
Finally, when I was about to call the morning “done”, a small flock came right at us and then shifted to the left side of the spread where I was hidden. I was not going to let the opportunity go by. I had something to prove about the dog.
The geese were conversing back and forth with me with some hesitation when a few peeled off and came right towards me. Then the whole flock flew with them. When I popped out of the blind I threw the Stoeger Waterfowl Special to my shoulder, bumped the trigger, saw the third goose in line shudder and start to go down. Because it was not dropping like a rock, I hit the trigger again to be sure and then Kristy cut the dog loose.
I expected him to run right out like he did every day and bring the “bird” back. That did not happen. I had big-time egg on my face. He ran through the decoys, looked around, locked on the bird and then ran towards it. Then he began playing with it a little bit and mouthing it. NOT a good thing at all.
He was unsure of what to do. This was not a small bumper. This was a full-sized, slightly bloody goose. We approached and urged him to pick it up. He would grab it and then drop it and whine.
Fortunately, Kristy knew that teasing him with the bird would stir up his emotions and his natural drive would take over. She did just that and then threw the bird. He ran over and with a few tries to get it in his mouth, brought it back. We did this a few times until we knew the lightbulb went off in his head.
This was the same as the bumper. Now he knew that feathered birds were the same job for him. However, I had to eat some crow that morning. I was reminded that he had not been taught with real birds like he should have been and therefore my expectations were too high.
Was he trainable and huntable? Absolutely. He retrieved that bird a number of times after that as well as other birds. Does he still need work? Yes, but now that he gets real birds, the training is where the expectation is, which is realistic.
I learned two things. First, trust your trainer’s wisdom. Second, make no assumptions; train like you will hunt.