My first hunting dog seemed like any other dog. Just as my first duck hunts were about shooting a bird on the wing – and it would take a box of shells; my first hunting dog was a rudimentary animal that fit my skill level. Jack, a chocolate lab, was the filthiest lab I could have brought home. He left Jack-shaped dirt marks on my white suede furniture. He drooled out of both sides of his mouth at the sight of food – long strands of drool that went all the way to the floor and sometimes dried in stripes across his nose if he shook his head. He pushed my limits when he wanted to climb into bed with me at night. It wasn’t going to happen. No way.
That was eight years ago. If someone had asked me, “Should a hunting dog retrieve?” back then, my answer would have been simple: Yes. If it weren’t for the need to have a dog retrieve, I would never have ended up cohabitating with one of the smelliest animals I’d ever owned. My girlfriends all had adorable, well-manicured, purse dogs that wouldn’t bring back a slipper. But what I needed was a dog that could bring back a bird. It only took one lost duck across a slough at high tide (and a trip back home for a fishing pole) to convince me. It was much better to plead with a dog for a half-hour while he dug a hole in search of a rock and still lose the bird before I realized that “retriever” and “dog that can actually retrieve” are two different things.
Jack retired from hunting before he ever became a hunter. He was a rescue dog, and his past included a spine injury he would have the rest of his life. I ended up getting another chocolate lab, this time a puppy with a hunting heritage. Cheyenne is an excellent retriever of ducks. She is also excellent at opening up boxes of shotgun ammunition and dancing across the shop floor atop bird shot with an expression that is part guilt and part pride. She’s the first dog that ever smiled at me. She does it all the time. And I can’t help but smile back.
With a better retriever, I needed to become a better shooter, and I started spending my Sundays at the trap and skeet range. Frustrated with nearly six months of repeated scores of 19-21/25 at trap, I watched a pro-shooter from the sidelines. The Old Trap Boys had shared plenty of tips, but none of them were what a person would call helpful. The tips were more like commentary. They were esoteric sayings that reflected more on life than they rendered any meaningful advice. “Shoot where you are looking” was my favorite. But maybe the pro could give me something useful. I didn’t even have to ask.
“I’ve been at 23 for weeks,” I said. “Some days I get 24 and choke.”
He spit a wad of tobacco as a response.
“It’s really helped me in the field, though,” I said. “I shoot more ducks now. I just can’t shoot 25 straight.”
“This isn’t hunting,” he said. “This is a game.”
Here it comes, I thought. More veiled philosophy in the form of shooting advice. But he didn’t say anything else. He just walked away. Two weeks later he brought me my first shooting jacket. He had purchased it for his wife, but she had never taken to the sport. A year later, I shot my first 25 straight. It was with a BT-99, my favorite trap gun. It was hardly a field gun. After the initial shooting practice improved my shot gunning skills in general, it turned out more practice did not improve my skills more: the better I got at trap shooting, the worse I had gotten at field shooting.
While Cheyenne still chewed up ammunition without remorse and Jack mined the yard for rocks like he was searching for gold, my hunting partner had brought home an English setter. We spent most of our time in the mountains hunting white tail ptarmigan. Winchester would point birds, but he wouldn’t retrieve them. He didn’t chew up anything in the house and he didn’t dig up anything in the yard. From the time he was a pup, all he cared about was pointing.
English setters, as I came to learn, were a breed apart. The chocolate labs were like the group of guys you know in high school – the ones that can drink all night and go fishing in the morning. They show their affection by punching you so hard you think that you’re going to pass out. And that just means they care. They borrow money and don’t pay it back. They have big shoulders and hard heads and soft hearts. They get jobs as truck drivers or in the lumber yards because they could never sit behind a desk. English setters, on the other hand…
It took me a while to adjust to sensitivity and smartness in a dog. Winchester wanted to point birds. He didn’t want to eat them whole instead of retrieving them or run off on a wild tear as I had seen plenty of Labradors do (mine weren’t the worst!) He gave me looks that seemed to say, “You’re being rather silly.” If he was a person, he would be a professional at what he did and would spend his evenings in his study reading books on ornithology and doing pencil sketches of game birds. I felt responsible for getting him an education. Early on, we took him to a game farm for training on live birds. We harnessed pigeons and planted chukar.
If someone asked me today, “Should a hunting dog retrieve?” my answer would not be so simple. Anthropomorphism aside, my dogs aren’t family dogs, they’re family. Winchester grew tired of field trial scenarios he had mastered just as I came to realize that trap shooting was an entirely different activity than hunting. Hunting involves more than the skill it takes to acquire game. It involves more than the aesthetic of tradition. It is the sum of all the parts, and the parts are constantly in motion. Every hunter and every dog is at a different stage in the process. And so much depends on the weather.
Retrieving is a small piece of a moving picture in the sporting dog life. If it’s there or if it’s missing, the picture still exists. Maybe, if only one thing mattered and a single image of perfection needed to be placed upon the mantel, it might be the picture of a point or of a retrieve as the symbol of what a dog is capable of. But.
“This isn’t a game.”