Jack, a chocolate Lab and my first hunting dog, was the filthiest of the dogs 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 12 years ago. If someone back then had asked me, “Should a hunting dog retrieve?” 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 cohabiting 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.
What I needed was a dog that could bring back a bird. It took only 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” means “a dog of a breed that can retrieve game” and not “a dog that will actually retrieve.”
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 bloodline.
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 low scores, 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 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 clay targets 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 the wise shooter didn’t say anything else on the subject. 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, being a single-shot. After the initial shooting practice improved my shotgunning skills in general, it turned out more practice did not equate to better hunting: The better I got at trap shooting, the worse I shot in the field.
While Cheyenne still chewed up ammunition without remorse and Jack mined the yard for rocks like he was searching for gold, Steve brought home our first English setter, Winchester.
We spent most of our time in the mountains hunting 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 — birds, bugs, anything.
Some hunters will insist that a bird dog retrieve and will use a training technique called “force fetch” to ensure the dog delivers a bird to hand on command. Some training programs use negative reinforcement to “finish” a dog so that it retrieves consistently, if not robotically.
English setters, as I came to learn, were a breed apart. The Labs, if human, were like Alaskans in the summer — no matter how late they stay up, they are still excited to go fishing in the morning. The Labs wake up ready to go and show their affection with athletic feats of joy. They don’t take anything personally or carry a grudge — 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 greater sensitivity and stylishness 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 are being rather silly.”
If he were a person, he would be a professional at what he did and would start his mornings after coffee and 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 in the yard and planted chukar and quail for him to point in nearby fields.
We did not need him to retrieve — most upland birds are accessible for us to pick up ourselves, and Winchester will not retrieve. He turns his nose up at the work. And neither Steve nor I have ever “forced” the subject.
If someone asked me today, “Should a hunting dog retrieve?” my answer would not be so simple. Anthropomorphism and stereotyping 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 trapshooting was an entirely different activity from hunting.
Hunting involves more than the basic skill it takes to acquire game or 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 in motion. 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 dog on point or a retrieve as the symbol of that which a dog is capable. But, hunting is not a game.
Christine Cunningham is an avid hunter and lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.