The Retriever

In quail hunting, “marking” a bird means making careful note of where it fell so it can be retrieved. As the wagon driver on a hunt, I try to mark any birds that fall in my vicinity. Landmarks are scarce in quail country, so I might use a tree, a shrub, or the edge of the road. On one cold January morning we were hunting near a water-filled low area called a “bottom”. When one of the birds fell in the middle of that bottom in a foot or two of water I marked where it splashed down, but assumed it was lost. Nobody was likely to wade out into the freezing water to retrieve that bird.

The hunter and guide gathered at the water’s edge to gaze out to their lost quarry and to my great surprise the guide turned back to the wagon and called for Joy. The excited cocker had been watching intently. She scrambled down off the wagon without hesitation to join the hunters, but she did not stop at the water’s edge. She blew past the men, jumped into the water, and splashed out to where the bird had fallen. A few moments later, she was back on the wagon soaking wet with a quail dangling from her mouth and muddy ice-water dripping all over my seat.

Libby the golden retriever

Our thirty-pound cocker had no trouble bounding through the water to retrieve a six-ounce quail. But what if we were hunting waterfowl? Joy couldn’t possibly retrieve a three-pound mallard. That would be a job for a big dog like Libby, my son’s golden retriever—a breed built to find and retrieve waterfowl. Libby, however, is not a trained hunting dog and will not be swimming after any downed ducks. But I do know another Porter dog that can retrieve—my nephew Jared’s yellow Labrador retriever. Penny lives up to her AKC description as an enthusiastic athlete that requires lots of exercise, like swimming and marathon games of fetch to keep physically and mentally fit.

I thought of Penny when I saw Joy go after that quail that fell in the water. Penny’s skill at marking birds was evident at just one year of age, when Jared and Penny were hunting the greater white-fronted goose during a trip to Louisiana. The “specklebelly” is a large species that weighs in at more than five pounds. Jared managed to hit a bird, but it sailed a good two-hundred yards.

“Penny marked it the whole way,” Jared told me, “and when I sent her after it, she disappeared over a levee. A minute later back she came, toting a goose that looked as big as she was.”

Penny’s 1st sniff

Jared is an avid outdoorsman and hunter who knew he wanted a hunting dog that had the drive to hunt but that could also live inside as a companion dog. He and his wife acquired Penny about four years ago from a breeder who specializes in hunting retrievers. Penny apparently inherited all the right traits because her drive to hunt is intense.

I don’t see that drive in all of the young cockers that are trained on my wagon. Though they all have the same natural instincts, some dogs like Shep and Millie show interest in the hunt and love to find birds. Others are content to lick themselves and try to climb into my lap. These dogs end up going home to some family. A few lucky dogs, like Penny, get to be family dogs AND hunters.

Penny and a good day on the hunt

“I think people who see her lounging around our house and yard in a pink collar,” Jared tells me, “would be surprised to know that she relishes chasing down geese at a hundred yards. I do look at [her] like two different dogs, a spoiled house pet, and an attentive and driven field dog.”

Come to think of it, Penny is a little bit like me. I am attentive when on the wagon—perhaps because people are waving loaded shotguns in my direction—and I also enjoy stretching out on the couch after the hunt like a “spoiled house pet”. But I wonder if there is a trade-off to having a hunting dog live in the house. Next week, we’ll take a look.


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  1. This is a fun read!


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