June 05, 2023
In May of 2017 my wife Alicia and I moved to Montana leaving behind everything we have ever known for a new and exciting adventure. For me that included saying goodbye to some good hunting buddies and their dogs. Over the previous two decades I had built some amazing friendships and developed a great appreciation for the value of a well-trained retriever. Fast forward to 2019 and I was deep into my third season in Montana and hadn’t yet forged a friendship with anyone that had a good retriever. I deeply missed that part of the hunt, but I wasn’t sure if getting a dog would work with our lifestyle. I was at a crossroads because I knew I couldn’t count on someone else for this anymore, yet I wanted that element of enjoyment back in my waterfowl hunts.
Setting the Stage
December of 2019 found my wife and I flying back to Pennsylvania for the holidays. My parents, who had found a love for Labs shortly before we moved west, had started a small kennel (Swift Run Labs) and just happened to have a couple litters ready for pick-up while we there. As we walked into the puppy room it was total chaos, but amidst that chaos there was this one chocolate puppy who stopped what he was doing and just stared at me everywhere I went. We spent some time handling several puppies but we hadn’t made any kind of decision about actually getting a dog yet. Our next visit I walked into the puppy room at feeding time and the same thing happened. My mom recognized the connection this little brown dog had to me and said, “That’s your puppy if you want him, he’s one of the few that isn’t spoken for.” I couldn’t deny the bond this puppy had with me. I looked to my wife and said, “Let’s figure out if we can get him back to Montana.”
We quickly found out that flying a pet is a challenge. He was too young for us to take home on the airline we were booked on, not to mention we didn’t have time to get required paperwork from a vet to fly. It just so happened that the following week two of my PA buddies were coming out to Montana to hunt with me and by then he would be old enough to fly on the airline they were booked with and it would allow my parents the time to get the required vet paperwork. My buddy Rick was happy to help out and got him home without issue. Meanwhile I had been scrambling to get everything we needed for this unplanned puppy, starting with a training plan so that I didn’t mess this up. I knew what a great dog looked like, but had no idea how to turn a puppy into one. I remembered hearing on a podcast about an online dog training program called Cornerstone Gun Dog Academy (CGA) that is geared to teach anyone how to train a dog. It has daily video lessons to follow and in just over a year you should have a finished gun dog. It sounded exactly like what we needed, so I signed up.
We named the little brown dog Crosby (after NHL Pittsburgh Penguins Hockey Captain Sidney). CGA training starts with six months of basic obedience work without any retrieving. That seemed counterintuitive to a rookie trainer like myself, but this proved to be a solid way to create a great gun dog because when we moved into retrieving his obedience was on point and his recall was amazing. The program is designed to progressively build a dog’s skill set while creating confidence. Our biggest struggle in training was hold conditioning, probably from my lack of experience as a trainer, but we got through it and moved into basic gundog skills. I was amazed at how fast the training progressed and how quickly Crosby learned.
Our 2020 hunting season started with a few pigeon hunts late summer and then we moved into waterfowl season. That first fall I only asked Crosby to do what he was trained on to that point, which meant focusing on steadiness, only having him do marked retrieves or me taking him out to a point where I knew he saw the bird and sending him, then making sure he was delivering to hand every time. I paused on the CGA training and got Crosby on the job training. We traveled across the country on work assignments and he retrieved over 300 birds that first season. He was good luck on banded birds, retrieving six his first fall! The last hunt of the 2020 season found Crosby and three of my friends on a hot goose feed in Montana where he performed flawlessly on a 16-bird limit of giant honkers. I was elated with how far he had come his first year and knew this was just a glimpse into his future.
During the spring and summer of 2021, we were back to CGA training and polishing up Crosby’s skillset, with longer lining drills, diving into blind retrieves and casting as our primary focuses. We’d train at least 5 days a week and sometimes multiple times a day, incorporating drills into our evening walks.
One of the beautiful things about the CGA method of training is that we have a great relationship that is far beyond hunting dog/handler. Crosby rides shotgun in the pickup, lays next to me on the couch and wants to be where I’m at, yet he’s still a great gun dog.
During the 2021 season Crosby hunted eight states, retrieved six swans, added another 300-plus retrieves and has now fetched 24 species. His luck ran out on banded birds, but he has been the ultimate conservation tool, finding downed game in thick cover.
We just wrapped up Crosby’s third season and his total retrieve count on birds is now over 1,000, which is one of the reasons he’s doing so well. He’s a high drive retriever, yet you don’t know he’s there until he is needed. My expectations of Crosby are extremely high, and I’ve caught myself getting too caught up in the few things he doesn’t get right instead of how much he does do right, and that’s something I need to work on as handler.
Crosby also happens to be handsome and has the most captivating eyes. As a photographer he’s been a great subject to photograph and has earned his keep with over a dozen published images before this feature, including the April/May 2022 WILDFOWL Magazine cover. Training a highly skilled, well-mannered retriever is a lot of work, but it’s one of the most rewarding things a person can do, and if you happen to be a photographer you might just get lucky and create a superstar.