We are going to be getting a female to pair up with my dog Tanker soon, so I am starting a separate page here at Taking Game Journal devoted to the dogs. I want to be clear, I’m not a professional trainer, and I do not claim to be an expert. However I have some views on training methods from the old school to the modern that I want to share. Over the next few months, as we bring a new dog into our home and eventually prepare for litters in the future I will share information and opinions on training, breeding stock, force fetch, health issues and more.
My first introduction to hunting dogs, I was about 6 years old and it was right at the beginning of shooting time. My Uncle was going to jump a bank where some mallards were along the Snake River. He handed me the leash to his Labrador-Springer mix, Bear. I’m not sure how old Bear was at the time, but she was probably about 2. Mike told me to hold onto her as he crept to jump the bank. Hold on I did-- next thing I knew a shot had been fired, Bear broke at the shot, and I ended up with a good mouthful of dirt and rock before I finally let go of the leash. Mike was very apologetic but as I recall seemed a bit more concerned that Bear was still on a leash which could get caught on a snag in the river. She completed the retrieve without issue and brought the bird to Mike’s hand. I choked back a few tears, and wiped the dirt from my face. There’s no crying in hunting. We continued our hunt.
While some might view that story as a lesson of importance as to why a dog ought to remain steady to shot, I simply look back on it and relish in those first days I had in the field and the beginning of a love affair I have had with hunting and hunting dogs ever since, always dreaming about the day I would be able to train a hunting retriever from a pup. Later, a few years older, a bit more back strength, and my Uncle would let me pet sit for him occasionally, because he knew I would get the dog some work. Growing up in my house we had everything from shih tzus to basset hounds, miniature poodles, dachshunds and a few retrievers. I worked some with the retrievers we did own, some did okay, some did not. Mostly there were, let’s say "political barriers" within the family dynamic of my childhood home(s) that made proper training of a retriever difficult. Later, as an adult, my wife already had a dog when we met, and we ended up with a stray who had been shot in the neck in Texas (that is a story all on its own). We named her Bulleit and she is still a part of our family.
Something about becoming a father changes a lot of things in a man. It has taken me on a few journeys, if I am being honest, but in 2012 and early '13 when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I had a strong desire to get better at hunting, and do it more often, as I had done when I was younger. I needed to spend more time in the field, not less. Hunting ducks or turkeys with my Uncle when I went home to Idaho for a visit was not enough. I did some deer hunting and a bit of waterfowl hunting out of a canoe so I could make retrieves, but it just wasn’t the same as hunting with a dog. After a season of doing that, I decided that a good hunting dog was in order. I pondered breeds: Boykins, Drahthaars, Goldens, Chessies, German Shorthairs, Wirehairs. But in the end, with a new baby in the house, I decided I wanted a breed I was familiar with: a black lab. I contacted John Greer at Tiger Mountain Pointing Labs in Washington and put a deposit down on Tanker, a male pup with pointing instincts. Tanker came to live with us when he was 12 weeks old. He went hunting that year and, though he never made a retrieve on a bird, he loved being in the field from the get go. He even broke ice at about 20 weeks old on about a 5 foot retrieve. He has been an outstanding hunting dog, he has retrieved hundreds of ducks and geese since 2014, many of which were retrieved in brutal icy conditions when folks smarter than me had stayed home. While I have not run him in any hunt tests or trials, he is descended from champions, and frankly I am less concerned with ribbons and trophies and more concerned with 500 yard retrieves on crippled geese in the Snake River.