By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
When I met Gunner he was in a 3-by-6-foot wire cage. His only respite from barking was to stop and lick his paws, which had open sores from his anxious licking.
He was a shelter dog, and only by the grace of the person running the shelter was he still there. Having been there for three weeks he would have normally been gone, but she saw something in him and kept him just a little longer.
Gunner is a chocolate Labrador retriever, approximately 9 months old and about 75 pounds when we met. Going to the shelter has always been distressing to me. Seeing animals caged just reminds me of zoos, which to me are unbearably depressing at best. In any event, in fall 2006 after a hunting trip to North Dakota and hunting with two great dogs, my hunting partner and I decided we could commit to the time required to have hunting dogs. For the previous 15 years I had been saddled to a 24-7 on-call work schedule and simply had no time to appropriately care for a dog.
She knew someone at the shelter who said they often get surprisingly good hunting breeds because people get them and then cannot deal with their energy level. Like almost everyone I wanted a puppy. Starting with a puppy makes for a much easier training and bonding period, but when the call came that they had this Lab I thought, why not at least go see him?
I took him from his cell and walked him around in the yard at the shelter. His tail started wagging so hard I thought he might dislocate his butt, and he gave me a look that made my decision for me. He was one happy boy riding home that day, and his excitement at seeing me still is one of those priceless things that are all too rare these days.
Hunting dogs are special, and retrievers even more so. They are family. If you can go to the field and watch a dog swim across a freezing tidal slough or break through ice to retrieve the bird you just shot and not want that dog to come in and lie at your feet, then don’t get one. There are few things more heartwarming than watching these beautiful animals give their all just to please you.
Gunner’s first hunt, a November day with a fresh covering of snow in the grouse woods, wasn’t perfect. He was enthusiastic and ran to and fro after a shot. He did come up with a bird, but didn’t want to let go. After a few more birds he began to get the idea, dropping them at my feet with reservation, but his tail never stopped wagging. At the end of the day we dropped my hunting buddy off at his home and I went in for a minute. When I came out Gunner was sitting in the front seat, feathers all around his muzzle, still wagging that damn tail.
Of course he ate the three grouse that I had not secured from his prying muzzle, and he loved them. Not so much with ducks or geese. He hits the water with a great splash to retrieve them but he spits them right out as soon as he gets to me and doesn’t want any more to do with them.
Just last week in a small, secluded area with open water that I hunt once or twice a year for mallards that stay late, I shot one and it dropped across the water that had ice all around the edges. The best of dogs are unnerved by ice breaking as they go for a retrieve, and Gunner is no exception, but go he did and these are the moments when you understand when hunters say, “I wouldn’t even hunt if it were not for the dog.”
Watching hunting dogs work their magic in the field is a true joy for the hunter. Working through heavy cover and watching them jump up and look around, muscles taut, coats glistening in the sun as they make sure you are still in range, is a joy to behold. A hunting dog that is out there for you is tireless and will literally work into exhaustion if you allow it to.
A hunting buddy of mine had a yellow Lab that once went after a wounded pheasant on one of those Indian summer days in Montana when it was 75 degrees. That pheasant gave Drake a run for his money, but he eventually got the bird and headed into the brush on the retrieve. He didn’t come out, and after a time his owner went in and found him sitting with his front paws holding down the still-live bird so he could catch his breath. He was so exhausted he couldn’t get enough air with the bird in his mouth, but give up that bird? Not a chance.
This is why I wanted to talk about dogs this week, as it isn’t always a picnic. All dogs need attention, but even more so hunting dogs. They need to burn up energy and they need their owners to pay attention to them. They are nearly always eager to please but they have to know what you want.
Getting Gunner at his age with no history was a challenge that I will always be grateful I accepted. He has grown to be a beautiful animal who is loyal to a fault and a joy to be with. But he was at the shelter because the individual who got him as a puppy was not prepared to deal with the exuberance of a Lab.
According to the folks who run shelters, this is why they often have these purebred dogs that no doubt cost their original owners a small fortune. The uninitiated quickly find out the initial outlay of cash is just the start of your investment in a dog. Time, food, vet bills and destruction of household items all come as part of the deal.
With the holidays coming, folks often get puppies as gifts. Be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time with them if they are going to be hunting dogs. Get one of the training books, and Richard Wotters’ “Gun Dog” and “Water Dog” are two of the best, even though they have been around a long time. Help your dog be the hunter and companion you always wanted.
Think of it this way, if you have thought about taking a couple of college courses at night and don’t think you have time, then you probably don’t have time for a puppy. If you are not willing to accept that they will do things you won’t like, just like children, and be patient and teach them, then a hunting dog is probably not for you. But know that if you do take the time and do make your hunting dog a member of the family there are few things in life that are a greater reward.
Having a hunting dog come in with you at the end of a long day of hunting and lie at your feet (or in your lap, as Gunner does) is, at least in my mind, about as good as it gets.
Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at email@example.com.