When I began my retirement career as a wagon driver about five years ago, part of the morning routine was driving the wagon to the kennel to load all the dogs—all the dogs, that is, except Joy. Joy did not sleep at the kennel during hunting season. She slept on the seat of the wagon. She was there every morning when I arrived, curled up on the blanket I had prepared the evening before. She refused to be lured into the kennel or the barn on cold nights, so we had to rig up makeshift tents and heat lamps. I’m not sure how or why the practice began, but that’s just the way it was. Joy was about as pure a hunting dog as I ever saw. I don’t believe she would have ever been happy sleeping on someone’s couch. Penny the Labrador retriever, on the other hand, seems to enjoy both worlds. She sleeps in a comfortable house but is a formidable hunting dog.
Like most dogs, Penny arrived with her hunting instincts preloaded. At just a couple of months old, she was bounding after and retrieving her stuffed penguin in the house. Soon after, she was introduced to bumpers, which are plastic or rubber dummies that are used to train retrievers. She quickly learned how to “heel”, or stand at the trainer’s hip, and to wait until her name was called to retrieve the bumper. Jared hunts out of a wide kayak known as a “layout boat” so Penny had to learn where to sit and how to jump back in the boat after she retrieves ducks.
A hunting dog has a lot to learn and will thrive on training and practice, so I wonder if there is a trade-off by having a hunting dog live in the house. Jared wonders that, too. Perhaps, he suggests, if he were stricter or “kept it more businesslike”, Penny would be even better in the field. But her being a mix of family dog and gun dog is what he and his wife want. So Penny must make up for her lack of intense training with some instinct and a good bit of skill. And one of the best illustrations of her combination of instinct and skill was illustrated on one recent trip.
“Wood ducks were the main bird we hunted,” Jared recalls, “and we had to work hard to sometimes scratch out one or two. This day ended up being … especially noteworthy because one duck actually dove, and Penny went under as well and came up with it. That’s definitely not a trained skill!”
As a dog owner, it is useful for me to know what makes my dog happy. Dogs like Libby and Penny are retrievers, so they want to, well, retrieve. Penny is an expert at retrieving ducks from water-filled swamps while Libby is constantly trying to sneak sticks into the house after a walk. Cockers like Millie, Shep, and even Alice, will enjoy an opportunity to take their time and have a good sniff around their world.
And which of these hunting dogs have it best? My son’s dogs Libby and Alice, who live a life of ease and comfort; Joy, who slept on a wagon seat and knew nothing but the hunt; or Penny, who appears to have the best of both worlds? There is no right answer to this. Dogs are our original hunting companions—our oldest canine partners. They just want to be with us, doing what we do.
Come to think of it, these hunting dogs are a little bit like me. I love the hunt and am attentive when on the wagon—perhaps because people are waving loaded shotguns in my direction—but I also enjoy stretching out on the couch after the hunt like a spoiled house pet. And, contrary to what my wife says, I require very little training.