Common Ground: Dogs teaching owner new learning tricks

Photos courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Three Labs, one English setter and an Irish setter make a snuggly heap around the computer.

Photos courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Three Labs, one English setter and an Irish setter make a snuggly heap around the computer.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

A chocolate Labrador was my gateway dog. From there, my hunting dog family expanded to include a few more chocolate Labs, some English setters and an Irish setter.

At first, I thought one should only have as many dogs as hands to pet their heads. But then a friend explained to me that there’s no finite amount when it comes to love — it’s like a candle that can light a hundred other candles. But if there were a hundred sporting dogs in my life to feed, groom and exercise, well, that’s not a lot of metaphorical love, that’s a house fire.

Hunting dogs are family. They all but sit around the table at night playing poker and tuck themselves into bed at night like a regular frontier family. Every night I say, “Goodnight Jack, goodnight Gunner, goodnight Cheyenne, goodnight Winchester, goodnight Parker, goodnight Red.”

By the time I get to the end, I start my good mornings. It’s not like I can sleep anyway, when everyone in the bed dreams about running. One time, Cheyenne had a dream in which, I assume, a pintail fell 100 yards away in the river and she had to swim for an hour against the current while fending off a red-tailed hawk.

The hardest thing about training a diverse group of sporting dogs is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. For instance, Labs are stomach-driven, and if you promise a treat, they are capable of doing nearly anything. The same dog that can’t figure out how on earth to retrieve a duck across a slough, when promised a biscuit, can perform a tap-dance routine to rival the showmanship of professional river dancers. An English setter, on the other hand, has no interest in treats. Especially when they are busy.

I was cooking dinner while all the dogs were watching with fascination. I cut up little pieces of ham to give them, since I come from the school of parenting that rewards all forms of behavior, including an epic drool. I pitched the first ham bite to Jack, the chocolate Lab, who caught it in the air expertly. The next pitch went to Gunner, another chocolate Lab, who performed a bounce pass to Cheyenne, who sacrificed personal safety to catch the ham as she slammed into the kitchen cabinet. The third ham would go again to Gunner, to make up for the ham he forfeited to a teammate, but Cheyenne was covering him so I decided to aim one for the back row of setters.

Parker, an orange-and-white setter, was sitting very prettily when I tossed the ham to her. She sat completely still and the ham bounced off the end of her nose to be gobbled up by a Labrador. I quickly threw her another piece, and the exact same thing happened. Setters are very sensitive creatures with expressive faces. Her look as I prepared to toss her a third ham seemed to say, “Why are you throwing ham at me!?”

The different learning styles of the three breeds of dogs I happen to possess are: a. Learn by eating (Labs); b. Learn by doing (English setters); and, c. Don’t learn (Irish setters).

Cheyenne, a setter, and Winchester, a Lab, are ready to go hunting.

Cheyenne, a setter, and Winchester, a Lab, are ready to go hunting.

The Labradors are the great learners by eating. It shouldn’t even be called “learning” since there is no retention. Their philosophy is much like Heraclitus, who said you could not step twice into the same river. Labs are born anew every morning. If you tell a Labrador to “stay” he will stay until the treat is dispensed, and then the lesson is over. If you take a Lab on a duck-hunting trip, if the daily limit is eight ducks, take eight treats. You may not need them because the dogs love to retrieve. It’s just that they love treats more and sometimes help themselves to a favorite duck recipe such as shot-seared duck breast with swamp compote.

Setters, on the other hand, are very sensitive and have long memories. If you swat them on the butt for being bad they act like members of the royal family would. First they think, what makes you think you are worthy of swatting me on the butt? Second, it’s rather embarrassing to be swatted on the butt in front of the peasants (the Labradors). Third, I will never forget that you swatted me on the butt. Never!

I spoke to Parker in a harsh voice once and she ran to the corner of the room and pouted. The pouting lasted for over a week and she ate very little. A friend smacked his setter on the nose once for hard-biting a bird, and the dog never picked up a bird again for the rest of his life. Another friend told me that you simply cannot speak harsh commands to setters. If you want them to come, you must say, “Come along, little sweetheart.” As for training, most setters have no problem training their people. They are pointers, after all (their job is to find and point the birds), and not always retrievers.

It wasn’t until Red came home that I encountered the most interesting of learning styles. Red is an Irish setter, and he is not particularly stomach-driven or emotionally fragile. He’s his own dog and he’s not going to learn anything unless he wants to.

I was dumbfounded as I yelled, “No, stop it? No, getoutofthat! No!” and he just kept along on his business, seeming not to hear. Since I’m applying dog stereotypes and being a bit anthropomorphic anyway, I might as well add that Red is stubborn and charming and loves beer. He’s also not going to come to his name. You might as well be whistling jigs to a milestone.

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or “like” Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.



Filed under hunting, pets

2 responses to “Common Ground: Dogs teaching owner new learning tricks

  1. Steve Meyer

    For the record, Winchester is NOT a Chocolate lab!

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