Six wood ducks covered the distance from the creek bottom that frames the southern portion of the public land to the flooded backwaters we were tucked into in a matter of maybe 20 seconds. As soon as they whistled overhead and banked to land in our decoys my partner popped up. Following his cue, I did as well.
He dropped a hen onto a patch of high ground and I dumped a drake as the small flock scattered. Both birds seemed stone dead so I sent Luna for the hen first. When she brought the first duck back, I sent her to the drake. She started paddling her way toward the floating duck when he found his second wind and started swimming away as well.
We watched as the duck kicked in the afterburners and started using his wings to flop across the water, easily staying ahead of my dog. I told my hunting partner that it would only be a matter of a few seconds and the chase would end. I was wrong and while I was digging in my pack for my camera my buddy said, “Do you want to shoot him again?” The woodie, content to lead my dog in circles around our half-acre of backwater, clearly wasn’t going to give up and despite the fact that I knew my dog would catch him in seconds, she wasn’t any closer after two minutes. So I waited until the drake took a hard turn and put enough space between him and my dog and sent him to the great pond in the sky.
My hunting partner laughed and said, “Your dog’s good, but...” And I knew what he meant. I’d be lying if I said that was the first time I’d overestimated my dog’s ability. We all do it, and it’s a hard, hard habit to break.
The worst lies we tell ourselves about our duck dogs involve those that could get them in trouble. For example, say you’re running a hard-headed Chessie with drive to spare and just know that no matter how cold the water is or hard big the waves are, he’ll be able to bowl his way through the rollers and retrieve any big-water cripple you send him out for. All dogs have their physical limits, no matter the level of general ability they possess, and the worst thing we can do as owners is to overestimate how tough our dogs are and put them in harm’s way. If you’ve got a great waterfowl retriever, by all means brag him up and embellish all you want. Just don’t start believing that he’s invincible or impervious to harsh conditions.
When it comes to dangerous tall tales, the other category that gets a dog in trouble is simple physical ignorance. Or in other words, how fit our retrievers really are. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say their dog is in great shape, only to see the dog and realize that’s simply not true. If you believe an overweight dog is in good shape, you might be tempted to hunt that dog likes it’s an athletic rock star instead of a canine couch potato. That’s when injuries, or worse, occur. A good rule for dogs and weight is that you should be able to feel a dog’s ribs but not see them. You don’t want them so skinny you can see the ribs, or so chubby you can’t feel them when your run your fingers along your dog’s side.
Have you ever hunted with someone who has told you their dog is rock-solid in the boat only to find out that steadiness is not the retriever’s strong suit? We all have, and it sucks. What sucks worse is watching someone in your hunting party nearly suffer a major chest grabber at sunrise because his dog just isn’t listening. What sucks even worse than that is almost suffering a major chest grabber at sunrise because your dog isn’t listening.
Don’t be that duck hunter. If your dog isn’t steady, or doesn’t have its obedience house in order, acknowledge that. All dogs can learn new tricks, but when we give ourselves a training out by believing the malarkey we spew about our dog’s then we lead ourselves down a frustrating path. A dog that struggles with steadiness, or marks, or whatever can almost always be fixed through proper training. And when you do shore up your dog’s weak spots, you won’t have to lie anymore, which makes life much easier.
Naturally there are plenty of outright lies and half-truths we tell about our dogs that are harmless and really, sort of a rite of passage for being a retriever owner. It’s just when those fibs morph into something that could lead us to not train the way we should, or worse, ignore our dog’s physical danger that it’s time value true honesty again. So brag up your retriever any way you’d like to whomever will lend an ear, just don’t get so far down the rabbit hole that you can’t recognize something that could be potentially harmful in your dog’s life.