As a kid, my father and I floated Ohio's Mahoning River for Christmas mallards and black ducks, scooping up birds with a nylon mesh dip net from a cold 12-foot aluminum skiff. And we slogged through Wolfe's swamp, picking up our own dead woodies from the duck weed — two men, no dogs.
I finally started hunting over a retriever in 1994, two decades into my duck hunting career. Originally, Maggie was to be a replacement for my wife's German shepard, Judd.
A mix of pit bull, chow-chow and black Lab, Maggie was initially afraid of water. But one morning at Storedah's quarry, she made the turn. Sitting at my side, Maggie watched as I doubled on wigeon.
Without hesitation, she splashed into the cold waters of the East Fork, grabbed the first, and brought it to hand. "What about the other one?" I asked her, not expecting anything. To my surprise, she spun, swam out, and snagged it!
That began a 13-year relationship with the finest retriever I've had the pleasure of working with. Ducks, geese, doves, pigeons, grouse, pheasants, quail; it didn't matter to Maggie.
I've been blessed with three fantastic dogs — Maggie, Julie's Little Jet (1998-2012), and Jet's son, Deacon, now 10. But it wasn't always so easy. Puppies are hard work, and just finding the right one can be challenge. Then there's the housebreaking, basic obedience and — the real work — producing a finished hunter.
If it's time for a new pup, whether it's your first or fifth, these expert dog trainers can set you on the right path, and get that new retriever ready for years of faithful service.
Breed of Choice
Nick Hall is a jovial sort. Laughing and upbeat, it's plainly obvious he enjoys what he does.
"Retrievers, narcotics dogs, police canines...," said Hall, who's been training dogs for 10 years. "I'll compete in AKC tests across the country throughout the year, and will have 25 to 30 dogs year-round here at Hall Kennels."
When it comes to choosing a retriever, Hall suggests sticking with traditional breeds.
"Some folks believe that perhaps a Chesapeake is best if you're going to be hunting big water. Or a Lab if you're going to be hunting waterfowl and upland birds," he said. "But there's no true rule of thumb here. A lot of what goes into choosing a breed and picking a pup is personal preference. Labs are versatile, whether you're hunting ducks, geese, or upland birds. It's important not to try to reinvent the wheel. Go with tradition."
Where you hunt is often a determining factor in breed selection. "If you're hunting, say, shallow flooded fields in a moderate climate like southern Arkansas, a poodle might be perfect," he said.
"You might not need a Chesapeake in a situation like this. A lot depends on the environments being hunted on a regular basis."
I'm partial to black Labs. And I never thought there was a difference in trainability between the various colorations, until now.
"From a mind stability standpoint," said Hall, "I believe black and yellow Labs are more stable. Chocolates, it's been my experience, sometimes have some small aggression issues. Don't get me wrong, I've seen some great chocolates over the years.
I just haven't seen the trainability differences between blacks and yellows as I have, at times, with the chocolates."
I asked Hall about a hotly debated subject in many waterfowling circles when the topic turns to retrievers: How important is it a pup have valid documentation (American Kennel Club papers)?
"If both parents can hunt, the chances are good the pup can hunt," Hall said "Papers are important to genetics and good health. And by that I mean the pup's hips, elbows, eyes, and overall health. That's what papers reveal."
Making Your Pick
I've hunted male Labs, but am more partial to females. They have been a joy to shoot over the last two decades. They're intelligent, easy to train, obedient, non-defiant, and exceptional hunters. But does gender truly make a difference?
"I think it (male versus female) is a matter of personal preference, but as a trainer, I will say this: With a male, it's been my experience you have a better chance of a dog turning out," Hall said.
"You can have an exceptional female, but it's been my experience they're harder to find. Females do seem a bit easier to handle. They can be more compliant, which is always good. And if they display all the drive and get-up-and-go of a male and are more compliant — well, there you go."
My wife and I were blessed with two fantastic litters of pups from our Lab Jet-Dog. From the first litter, we kept a female — Lacey — who turned out to be too much for us to handle. She found a great home on a nearby Iowa farm.
The second, Julie's Deacon, was 106 pounds of mellowness, but with a strong appetite for the field and a burning desire to please us. He's been a remarkable dog.
So from two different litters, we had one washout and one retrieving machine. How do you select the right pup?
"At the end of the day, picking a puppy is still just an educated guess," Hall said. "But if you're working with a trainer — a professional breeder — let them help you choose. A lot of times, I'll actually pick the dog for the person based on what I know of the dog and what I know about the person.
If the dog has drive and ambition, they can be trained, but what are you, the hunter, looking to live with all the time?...My goal is to find the right dog for that person. It's kind of like Match.com for hunters and their new dogs."
The Three Elements
Dan Irhke's enthusiasm as a professional breeder and trainer is immediately obvious, even over the phone. Now 41, Irhke is currently co-owner of Green Acres Sportsman's Club, where he's served in a variety of capacities for the past 15 years.
"I have a biology degree," Irhke said. "My dad and brother are both veterinarians. Dad was a horseback field trialer, working with golden retrievers." Today, Irhke and his wife, Cindy, finish 50 to 100 dogs each year, specializing in British Labs and British cockers.
Years ago, I heard a majority of retrievers shouldn't begin formal training until 18 months, and even waiting as long as two years. So I asked Dan if there was any truth to this.
"This period between taking the pup home and taking pup to the trainer really depends on both the breed of dog, as well as the individual," he said. "In general, with the retrieving breeds, most dogs usually reach formal training age at six months. And the reason behind this 'hard number' lies with the dog's teeth; rather, the pup's teeth are at the last stage of maturity, so we can begin the process of conditioned retrieve or force-fetch.
"This decision is based on our evaluation of the dog, its maturity level, ability to take pressure and how well it's been socialized and prepared by the owner."
Much has been written about what should and should not happen in the time between pup's new home and the trainer.
"It's a huge book," Irhke said bluntly. "And again in generalities, I'm always working on three elements during this time period in order to simplify things. It gives people a good mental picture of what we do with dogs, and what they should be doing with them when they first get them home."
The first is socialization, or, as Irhke says, "getting the pup positively accustomed to the things it will see and experience as an adult.
"People, places, and things. Other dogs. New people. Rides in the car," he said. "As the dog matures and becomes more confident and immunized (to its surroundings), then we begin to expose them to other environments. But, it's baby steps. Hold the dog a lot when you first get it home.
You're getting it used to the house. You're house-breaking pup. Letting it drag its leash around. Spend time in its crate. You're providing positive and negative reinforcement; positive with treats and praise, and negative with the use of the leash."
Next comes obedience. "Here, we're teaching the dog a set of commands, and the reinforcements that go along with those commands," Irhke said. "We're not expecting the dog to do the commands perfectly, but we're going to teach the dog how to learn. We're going to teach the dog the general format it's going to see for the rest of its life."
And third is accentuating the dog's natural instincts. "We're bringing out their potential," said Irhke. "If we have a retriever, we're going to get the dog excited about retrieving.
We're going to get pup retrieving both inanimate objects, such as bumpers, and we'll also begin to get pup used to real birds and real bird objects. We'll start with a wing and work our way up to dead birds, possibly even some work with live birds, if the dog's ready."
Modern technology can be helpful during pup's first weeks at home too. "Often, we'll refer owners to our video series available through D.T. Systems called 'DT the Dog,' where we start a Lab and work our way through the system. Somewhere around three months, we'll see the dog, do an evaluation, and provide the new owner with a customized lesson plan.
"None of this," Irhke stresses, "is very complex. We're looking for holes in pup's training, and making sure the new owners are fulfilling the minimum requirements."