Robert Chester Ruark was in many senses a miserable excuse for a human being — narcissistic, chauvinistic to an incredible degree, irresponsible, an alcoholic, and someone who absolutely had to be the center of attention no matter what the setting. But mercy me, could the man write. Simply put, no one ever captured the sporting experience in a more telling, insightful fashion than Ruark. His classic tales of “The Old Man and the Boy,” mostly set in neighboring North Carolina, were first published as columns in Field & Stream magazine before being collected in two books, The Old Man and the Boy and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older. They are among the finest outdoor material ever produced by an American writer.
“What,” you might ask at this point, “does this have to do with duck hunting dogs?” Well, to put it bluntly, pretty much everything. Ruark, speaking through the wise, winsome voice of his maternal grandfather (the “Old Man”), offers multiple snippets of wisdom that go squarely to the heart of determining the complex set of considerations that enter into the making of a stellar canine companion with which to share a duck blind, camouflaged pirogue, or other waterfowl setting.
The starting point comes with recognition of where superior wisdom and ability lies when it comes to any and all aspects of duck dog ways and duck hunting days. Ruark quotes the old man as saying, “Boy, I will tell you a very wise thing. If a man is really intelligent, there’s practically nothing a good dog can’t teach him. But a dumb man can’t learn anything from a smart dog, while a dumb dog can occasionally learn something from a smart man. Remember that.”
For the astute waterfowler, this line of thinking offers a straightforward map for traveling the mystical road to a partnership where man and dog function as a smooth-working pair, understanding and complementing each other in a fashion that makes the whole better than each of its parts. When that happens, it produces a situation that can be about as rewarding as any aspect of the sporting experience this writer can conceive. After all, you are paired with a compatriot that enjoys the unique privilege of being the only earthly creature privileged to see and worship its god in the flesh. If you manage to achieve at least some small degree of the status that your canine companion accords to you, moments of magic lie in the offing.
The real question is, of course, how does one become part of such a partnership? It’s a conundrum as old as the interaction between man and dog, and one of its delights is that putting all the puzzle’s pieces together never quite happens. There’s always some refinement to be made, some quirk of dog behavior to consider, a new breed to ponder, or another training trick to try. As Horace Kephart, a prominent sporting scribe from a century ago, once put it, “In the school of the outdoors, there is no graduation day.” That translates to a potential lifetime of joy for the waterfowler. He may well find himself blessed by close alliances with a number of dogs over the years, always finding something new for both to learn and unvisited horizons to explore together.
Here are peeks at a few of the myriad matters to consider when it comes to dogs for duck hunting. But keep firmly in mind that every dog has its nuances or behavioral peculiarities and that what works well with one breed or a specific hunting companion might be a non-starter with another. It also helps to be mindful of the thinking of another grand hunting scribe, South Carolina’s own Archibald Rutledge, in that regard: “Every puppy begins by conceiving his master to be a god; it is that master’s business never to do anything to make that dog change his mind.”
What Breed Do I Choose?
Many considerations enter into one’s choice of the ideal breed of retriever, and the ultimate selection can vary depending on the hunter’s personality, personal preferences, amount of time he can devote to training, how hard or often he hunts, and a variety of other factors. A big, boisterous Labrador (the most popular of all breeds of retriever) may be too much for some owners while the “wound tight” personality of an English or a Boykin spaniel can test the patience of others.
The operative wisdom is that you should give some thought to interaction between your outlook and that associated with various breeds of retriever before making a choice, and it’s never a bad idea to chat with a couple of trainers or maybe highly experienced duck hunters to get their insights. Golden retrievers please many, thanks to their personalities and biddable nature, while you can find arguments aplenty in support of various breeds of water spaniel, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, curly-coated or flat-coated canines, and more. Over the course of my years as a hunter, I’ve also seen more than one first-rate duck-fetching dog in action that wouldn’t have stood up to much scrutiny when it came to lineage. Or, as a friend once said about such a dog after it had made a difficult and truly impressive double retrieve, “The least said about his ancestry, the best, but I reckon he can more than hold his own with pretty much anything with American Kennel Club credentials a half-mile long.”
Canine Care, Exercise, and Feeding
One of the more contentious areas connected with the overall approach to waterfowling dogs involves optimal steps for having a productive retriever working at peak performance level. Obviously fitness is a vital factor, and exercise should occur with a high level of consistency not only immediately prior to and during the hunting season but throughout the year as well. A key responsibility of any dog owner is to see that such is the case. Properly done, whether it involves simple daily walks or arduous retrieving exercise, a fitness and “fine tuning” regimen can be as meaningful to owners as to their dogs.
Beyond that is the endlessly debated, never-fully-settled matter of where to draw the line between working dog and family pet. I grew up in a family, both immediate and extended, with hunting dogs. None of them ever darkened the door of a house. They resided in kennels, and while they received affectionate shows of approbation for stellar performance, pats of fond greeting, and other displays of warmth, they were never considered pets. That’s a call each individual has to make, but at the least I would suggest that you get some expert insight from dog trainers on their thoughts regarding the dividing line between family pet and field performing work dog. This varies according to breed and even from dog to dog within a given breed, but just keep in mind that too much of a house pet can translate to too little effectiveness afield.
As for general care, a healthy diet with consumption of the right foods according to the season, an ample amount of exercise, age of the dog, and assorted other factors all come into play. Overfeeding and insufficient exercise not only reduce a retriever’s effectiveness, but they can also shorten its life span. Similarly, regular visits to your veterinarian for shots, a checkup, and any needed medications should be obvious. This can be pricey, and one way of keeping costs at bay is through personal knowledge and understanding of many of the basic issues associated with canine care. Here, as in so many other situations, owning a retriever (keeping in mind that in truth it really owns you) places a premium on that most precious of quantities — time. Simply but bluntly put, if you don’t have or can’t find the required time that ownership of a working retriever involves and you can’t figure out a way for others to fill various “must” functions on your behalf, the hard reality of the matter is that a working dog really shouldn’t be in the picture for you.
A veteran of many decades of dog training once commented to me: “Bad habits are all too easy to make and all too difficult to break.” His thinking came from a lifetime of dealing with dogs whose owners had, through carelessness, lack of knowledge, or insufficient attention, allowed their retrievers to develop lamentable habits. The easiest way to avoid this is by never letting those habits emerge, and that translates to proper training from puppyhood forward. You can hire an expert to get a dog “started,” do it yourself, or perhaps pursue a training regimen involving a combination of your personal input and hired expertise.
Whatever your choice, the unfolding wonder of the entire training process can be a pure joy at most times and occasionally the epitome of frustration. It’s your job to guarantee as much pleasure and as little disappointment are experienced as possible. Always keep in mind, during training, that you can learn as you go as surely as you want your retriever to do the same. Finally, pay close heed to some words of wisdom from two eminently quotable authorities. As Robert Ruark put it, “A man who’s got to break a dog don’t deserve the dog,” and Archibald Rutledge knew whereof he spoke when he said, “Establishing oneself in a dog’s confidence is the foundation of training.”
In the Field
Those marvelous, mystical times afield, with whistling wings at dawn as ducks come to decoys or persuasive calling out of leaden skies laced with rain can only be topped by fine wingshooting and stellar retriever work. When all those things come together, the cherry sits squarely atop the hunter’s sundae as you and your canine companion bask in the glories of shared experiences. In these times of “proof in the pudding,” however, do keep a few points in mind:
• Actual hunts are seldom a proper time for serious training.
• An alert retriever will almost always hear and see ducks before you do. Paying attention to them can be an early warning alert system for you.
• You should do all you can to hold up your end of the man-dog deal. That means closely marking downed ducks, having your gun and other equipment in fine functioning order, and paying attention to the comfort of your dog.
Some Final Thoughts
The many and varied aspects of a partnership with a waterfowl retriever can produce moments of frustration, times when you shake your head and silently wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, and, sooner or later, deeply rooted sorrow as a staunch companion from many a happy day leaves forever. Yet set against that on the ledger of the duck hunting life are countless moments of sheer wonder — the inexpressible pleasure of gazing into your dog’s eyes at the moment a duck is delivered to hand and the realization of what it is to experience unbridled joy and the ever unfolding mixture of magic and mystique that are the essence of a well-trained retriever at work. And somehow, at the end of the day, any day, deep comfort can be found in realization that a close relationship with a working dog always improves the man.