American Field
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Retrievers I Have Known

By Gerry MacKenzie | Sep 10, 2018

Before I get into the “meat” of this manuscript, I would first like to set the record straight.

In my article which appeared in the 2017 Christmas issue of The American Field entitled “Memories”, I stated that my beginning as a field trial reporter and writer of related articles occurred when I wrote a fictitious, humorous report of a trial based on a friend’s dog having allegedly pointed a field mouse during a major stake.

That was not entirely true. My destiny as a reporter/writer was in part inherited — it was in my genes.

Allow me to reveal an idiosyncrasy my late, sainted Italian Mother possessed. To describe it decorously, one might characterize her as being “curious”. To state it more frankly, Mother was nosy.

When I was but a lad, the town I grew up in, Ladd, Illinois, did not have dial telephones. Rather, you cranked a handle which prompted one of the ladies that operated the central switchboard to request the number you wished to call, and then plug you in to that number.

It was the opinion of many in the community that when the operator plugged you into the desired number, she did not unplug her line and eavesdropped on the conversation, especially when she recognized the parties she connected and suspected some juicy gossip tidbits could be gleaned by “monitoring” the call. Mother secretly envied those ladies who worked the switchboard since they were privy to tantalizing rumors to pass on before she was.

As fate would have it, Mother would no longer have to be envious of the wire tapping biddies. The neighboring community, Spring Valley, had a weekly newspaper, The Spring Valley Gazette. The woman who had been writing the Ladd news column retired, and recommended Mother to replace her. Mother then became the person who would prepare the column which featured anything interesting that occurred in Ladd each week.

Every Monday morning she would be on the phone soliciting news of all sorts from folks all over town. Needless to say, not all of the news discussed was suitable for publication in Mother’s column. Thereby, she had trumped the ladies in the telephone office in spades, as she was now able to gossip LEGITIMATELY.

Does it not seem logical that my penchant for reporting and related journalism was in part an inherited trait?

Now, what does any of the above have to do with retrieving or retrievers? Really, not a darned thing. I simply wanted to establish the fact that the many lines I have contributed to this outlet were not simply due to circumstance. Now, as far as retrieving is concerned as it pertains to our bird dogs it is something I know very little about. Therefore, if you are reading this column in anticipation of discovering magic methods of instilling this quality in your reluctant gun dog, you may as well stop reading, because you probably know as much about that as I do. However, I can relate to you some anecdotes that you may find helpful with reluctant retrievers.

The most popular method of teaching a bird dog to retrieve is to use the force breaking technique. I do not believe in this method for two reasons. First, I am not very good at it, and second because it seems illogical to force a creature to do something that should be inherent — kindalike forcing a squirrel to climb a tree.

Most methods of force breaking usually involve inflicting some sort of pain on the poor dog, and when it cries out in protest, stuffing some unpalatable object in its mouth while simultaneously removing the source of discomfort. The dog then realizes that it can make the hurt go away by grabbing something. Then the distance between the object you wish the dog to grasp is gradually increased, until finally it can be tossed farther and farther away, wherein, hopefully, the dog will step forward to pick it up.

Initially, one must take care that the object that it chooses to grab is not a finger or hand. The most common form of pain infliction is usually a pinch on the ear, either with a thumbnail or with a thumb tack taped to one’s thumb with the point directed outward.

Another method frequently used is the toe hitch. A stout piece of twine is strategically placed around one of the dog’s toes, so that when pulled it presses on a very tender nerve ending, thus prompting the mouth to open in pain. I was never very good with gadgets, or dooflicketies, as my mother called them, thus this method was as consternating to me as using this darn computer. Again, it just doesn’t make sense to me to FORCE a dog to pick up something with its mouth when from puppyhood they seem so willing to pick up things on their own, like balls, frisbees, smelly old socks, your almost as smelly slippers, or as my beloved cocker spaniel Tar does, carry his empty feed pan around all day. I might add that he retrieved to hand the very first pheasant ever shot for him with his feed-pan toting having been his only elementary schooling ever. His sire, Dr. Wade Rosenberg’s pride and joy, dove into his pond last summer and returned to the bank carrying a bass.

All of this having been said, I much prefer dogs that retrieve naturally. If like begets like, doesn’t it seem logical that such dogs would produce offspring inclined to retrieve naturally as well?

I can offer a few suggestions as to how to nurture a dog’s development as a natural retriever.

The first time you kill a bird for your young dog, if it will mark the downed bird and pick it up, don’t try to take it away from the dog. Allow it to do whatever it likes with the bird — this is its prize — its reward for pointing it and allowing you to kill it for him. The dog may run around a bit and play with the bird — it may even start to eat it. Just let it be. After killing a few more birds for the pup, attach a check cord to its collar, and while it is playing with the bird gently reel the pup in to you hand over hand with the check cord. Do not try to take the bird from the pup, but rather lavish him with praise and petting without trying to get your hands on the bird. After awhile, the pup may offer to allow you to grip the bird, and if so do not try to take it away from him unless he releases his grip fully. Whatever you do, don’t get into a tug-of-war with him, as you will develop a hard mouthed dog by so doing.

A dog with little experience, in its excitement, may have difficulty marking the downed bird. You can help him with this by using the check cord and gently guiding him to a spot down wind of where you marked it down, and let him work his way into the wind until he scents it.

A word of caution here — a lot of chatter as this occurs is unnecessary and distracting. He will learn to work these situations out without a lot of verbal interference from you.

I have been blessed to have had many bird dogs that were natural retrievers. If you read my story entitled “The Day I Became a Purist”, I wrote of a great pointer female I had named Smoky, which was a fantastic retriever whose feats in that area were legend. However, that does not mean that there weren’t a few wrinkles to iron out early in her career. Smoky’s first hunting experiences were on pheasants, and she did a masterful job of retrieving them, no matter how large or aggressive the rooster she had corralled, as oftentimes they were still alive and quite reluctant to be picked up. Her early efforts with quail were another story.

Oh, she would accurately mark and pick them up — problem was then she would eat them, usually in just a couple of gulps. I would have to try to divert her attention away from the downed bird and race her to it, and most of the time she would win. At that time, I knew very little about bird dog training in general and virtually nothing about retrieving. So, I turned to the late Herb Holmes (of Gunsmoke Kennels fame), the man who sold me my very first bird dog and who became my guru in that he counseled me concerning their development in many areas. When I explained the problem to him, and he offered his solution, I thought he was pulling my leg.

The solution was: Hunt her in an area where you can kill several quail for her in a short period of time, even if you have to buy some pen-raised birds and scatter them about. Let her eat every one you kill until she can’t eat any more, and then she will start bringing them to you.

He assured me that he was serious, so I gave it a try. She only ate three or four and sure enough she began retrieving them as well as she did pheasants, and continued to do so for the rest of her days.

I have used this method on dogs I’ve had in training and it has never failed to solve the problem. I’ve also suggested it to folks who have called asking how they could solve the same problem, and never once heard from them that it had failed.

Despite the fact that a gun dog will retrieve naturally, it does not guarantee that a problem of some sort will not arise at some point in its career. We must be careful, however, not to create a problem ourselves.

Years ago I had a client from Kentucky, a wonderful guy, who owned a watch charm setter female appropriately named Sweat Pea. She was a darned good retriever. Any bird her fond owner knocked down was quickly gathered up and delivered dutifully to him, and oftentimes the bird was a pheasant rooster that seemed to be as big as she was. Sadly, this did not satisfy him. He did not want her to face him directly as she offered the bird.

Instead, he wanted her to circle around him, sit at his left side, curtsy, and drop the bird into his outstretched hand. A bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea. If she failed to perform all of these gyrations, he would verbally chastise her and force her to start the process anew.

I literally cringed as I witnessed this lack of appreciation for a job well done, sans all the frills and resultant unfairly perceived foibles. I finally had to express my concern that continuation of this behavior on his part would discourage the little lady from retrieving at all.

There are occasions involving a bird dog’s performance in any aspect that we must accept what they are able to give us. This was definitely one of those. He accepted my counsel, and Sweet Pea continued to retrieve effectively and more important, happily.

During my tenure as owner and operator of Knights Prairie Hunt Club I was fortunate to have a pair of my best field trial competitors that I could use to entertain hunting parties. They were a pair of pointers, one male registered as Awesome, callname Jigger. And one female registered as Alabama Shining Star, callname Dixie. Both would retrieve and would unerringly find crippled birds. Dixie was a fabulous retriever in every respect — a natural that loved the task. Jigger was equally adept at finding crippled birds, but once he captured his prize — alive or dead — he had a major flaw — he would not let go of it. I tried every type of cajolery  — blowing in his ear, blowing in his nostril, pinching his ear — you name it, I tried it.

Of course I had several macho, self-proclaimed authorities that insisted on their own means of torture to change his mind, and they usually ended up getting bit. It was amazing — he could release the bird just long enough to snap at them and quickly grab it while they were shaking their appendage in pain.

And then there was “Man”, a handsome pointer male whose parents were excellent field trial dogs. He did not have the opportunity to compete, but developed into as fine a gun dog as one could ever ask for.

When I operated the hunt club I would always use Man to entertain VIP clients, as he would never fail to render a stellar performance. Man could be hunted from foot or from a hunting vehicle, adapting easily to whatever the program was. He was so biddable it almost seemed you could will him to respond simply by thinking what you wanted him to do. And boy could he ever find birds. He established our club record one day by pointing nine coveys of quail in 45 minutes.

However, he did have one major flaw — he would not retrieve. He would find dead or crippled birds and dispatch them so that they could be easily found and gathered up, but bring them to you? Forget it, he was too intent in going on and finding some more.

Did you ever think that whatever sport or hobby you pursued, you had seen it all? Well, I was somewhat in that state of mind insofar as bird dog performance was concerned, until Man enlightened me.

I was guiding a group of hunters one day who were guests of one of the club members. These fellows had not had a lot of experience hunting upland birds, and were unaware of some of the dos and don’ts pertaining to same. I was using Man, since I felt he was foolproof and could not be messed up by any deviation from proper hunting deportment they might subject him to.

We were traveling through a sizable patch of sedge grass that ended on a slight rise in the terrain. When Man reached the crest of the rise, he swapped ends and pointed beautifully.

I motioned to a pair of the hunters to move forward as I walked in to flush. As I neared the motionless dog a rabbit skittered from directly in front of him. I espied one of the hunters raise his gun and yelled Nooooo — but too late as he shot and sent the rabbit tumbling end over end. Man immediately ran to the still kicking bunny, picked it up and carried it quickly to me and stood until I took it from him. From that moment on he was one of the finest natural retrievers you could ever ask for. Needless to say, I was amazed. That is not to say that I would recommend killing a rabbit for a bird dog to trigger the retrieving instinct. Like I said near the beginning of this article, I don’t know a heckuvalot about developing a retriever.

I’ve told you about a few that I’ve been involved with, and certainly can’t claim any credit for their excellence or accept any criticism for their lack thereof.

In your quest for a topnotch gun dog, certainly one that is an excellent retriever will be a top priority. Hopefully you will be fortunate enough to be blessed with a prospect that retrieves naturally. If so, understand that there will be times that the job might not be done perfectly, or sometimes due to extenuating circumstances, not at all. Be patient with your canine hunting partner so that you will not discourage it from performing this task for you, but rather will continue doing so because it is enjoyable. If your prospect is not so inclined, you might try your hand at force breaking it to retrieve. You can find books on gun dog training that have chapters devoted to this process. If you don’t feel that you are capable of doing so, there are many folks out there who are. With a little searching you should be able to find a competent, reputable individual who can get the job done for you.

As stated earlier, I am not your guy.

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