Scott: Retrieving dog’s mind inhabits a wonderfully wacky world

December 8, 2012

Some are eager to please; others have minds of their own

I’ve spent a lifetime associating with hunting dogs, so you might think I’d have them figured out.

I know a thing or two about the care, training and handling of English pointers, English setters, German shorthairs, Brittany spaniels, Labrador retrievers and beagles.

The only real conclusion I’ve reached is that a dog’s mind inhabits a wonderfully wacky world.

One often glaring example of that conclusion is the variations with which not only different breeds of dogs but also individuals within any given breed define the term “retrieve game to hand.” If I wrote a book on this subject, what follows is merely a sample of the tales it would include.

Only a few days ago, my two beagles flushed a covey of quail while we were hunting rabbits. I shot a late riser that landed in a brushy ditch about 150 yards ahead along our intended line of march.

When the dogs reached the area where the bird had disappeared, 18-month-old Amy yipped a couple of times. Seconds later, she popped out of the brush with the quail in her mouth and covered the 80 yards between us at a dead run. She dropped the bird into my hand and headed back to work amidst an enthusiastic chorus of “good girl.”

I was only moderately surprised. Amy’s jealous of praise received by her mentor, a nine-year-old veteran named Happy, who’s been lavishly rewarded for retrieving every rabbit I’ve shot so far this season.

Happy’s skill as a retriever is newly minted. According to the man who owned her until last May, she had never retrieved a rabbit before she made my acquaintance. I wish I could take credit for her behavior, but I can’t.

When I was living in Independence, I had the privilege of sharing the uplands with a once-in-a-lifetime bird dog. Duke was a Brittany spaniel who had a full measure of the retrieving prowess the breed is known for. He would cross hell and half of Texas to make a retrieve, and if the bird was alive when he picked it up, it was alive when he laid it in my hand.

He did have one wacky trait. If a dead bird fell on bare ground and he knew I knew where it was, Duke figured picking it up was my job.  I don’t know if he laughed when he won, but I know I did when I managed to fool him.

My best canine friend of all-time was a Labrador retriever named Lady. We found each other purely by chance. I was killing time in Dr. Don Anstaett’s Warsaw veterinary office when I saw a 3x5 card on his bulletin board, offering a free Lab to a good home.

Training Lady to retrieve was so easy that it only took a few sessions before she was eagerly fetching anything that was thrown for her. Or at least she was if the object was thrown onto dry ground.

Lady hated getting into the water for either work or play, and convincing her that some retrieves involved swimming taxed my dog training abilities to the limit.

One 100-degree September afternoon, she and I were hunting doves near the upper end of a newly built farm pond. Assuming she had to be even hotter than I was, I deliberately shot an occasional dove while it was over the pond to force her to take a brief swim.

This was working pretty well until I shot a dove that fell on the far side of a 20-yard-wide neck of water with steep foot-tall banks on both sides. She gave me a look that said, “You idiot,” plainer than human words ever could and then jumped into the water just like the dogs on TV do, swam across and began searching for the downed bird.

She was picking it up when another dove flew by on the same trajectory the previous one had taken. It fell almost at Lady’s feet. She carried the first dove to the edge of the bank, dropped it and returned for the second. She stood on the brink for a couple of minutes gazing across the water and pondering her dilemma.  Then she looked me straight in the eye, swallowed one of the doves in a single gulp and swam back to me with the other one in her mouth. I took the hint.

When I told that story to Purina’s head dog trainer, he was horrified that I had let my dog get away with so serious a breach of retrieving etiquette.

I’ve always believed that Lady simply used her considerable intelligence to come up with an only somewhat wacky solution to what was for her a serious problem. How could anyone find fault that?