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Gundog authorities explore the qualities that define greatness in a retriever
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But what makes a good retriever? How did a young dog’s performance on the creek that night turn a slow afternoon into a hunt I’ll remember for years? Such questions prove more complex than they first appear, with answers full of the kind of subjectivity usually reserved for discussions of art and politics. I have my own ideas, but when I tried to extrapolate the significance of Kenai’s long retrieve from the specific to the general, I decided it would be interesting to solicit opinions from a cross section of knowledgeable retriever enthusiasts. And since retrievers can mean so many different things to different people, I wanted to sample opinions from a variety of viewpoints.

As editor of Retriever Journal, my old friend Steve Smith seemed a great candidate to express an outdoor writer’s viewpoint. “Brains!” he answered with the lack of equivocation for which he is famous. “Oh, I know—and agree—that there are other traits we like our dogs to have: courage, drive, good eyesight, a solid body structure, a great nose, a cooperative spirit . . . but the greatest of them all is intelligence. A great dog learns quickly, which means getting a finished dog sooner than if you’re trying to train a hammerhead. A smart dog learns to compensate for his own shortcomings; he teaches himself, which defines experience. He’ll mark off the gun, watch carefully, and let the memory that comes with high intelligence help him out. The best dogs usually end up being the smartest ones.” It’s hard to argue against smart dogs, and no one I spoke with did.

Respected Indiana Lab breeder James Keldsen is also a fan of high IQ dogs, but raw intelligence didn’t top his list of desirable traits. “When searching for a new puppy or choosing a stud, trainability is always foremost in my mind,” Keldsen explains. “Dogs that are trainable with a high desire to please their owners are far and away the best. Willingness to please will help overcome a dog’s inherent weaknesses in field work. I love to work with dogs that have so much desire to retrieve it’s obvious from the moment they leave the dog box that there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.”

Since his carefully bred Pine Acre retrievers are scattered all across the country, Keldsen has had abundant opportunity for feedback about what customers appreciate about his dogs. “When we hear from people who have purchased puppies from us and love their dogs,” he explains, “they invariably describe dogs that are fun to hunt with because they’re fun to be around. It isn’t just that the dogs find birds for them; it’s how the dogs work with them in the field and in the home that makes them special.”

It would be hard to imagine a better qualified candidate to express a trainer’s point of view than Wisconsin-based professional trainer Mike Lardy, who made history by winning the National Retriever Championship seven times. Lardy gets to train and observe many of the country’s most successful field-trial competitors, and while seconding many of the opinions others have voiced here, he also brings his own perspective to the discussion.

“Among retrievers operating at the highest competitive level,” he explains, “drive is a given. I just don’t deal with dogs that don’t have a powerful instinct to retrieve. What I want is a dog that can turn it off and on.” As much as he appreciates the importance of skilled training, Lardy concedes that most of that ability is innate rather than learned.

A believer in the “ready-set-go” approach to retriever performance, Lardy expects his trained dogs to deliver “110 percent” the moment they step to the line, but he acknowledges that it’s unrealistic to expect a dog to maintain that level of intensity throughout a long day in the field. Lardy considers it a mistake to confuse high-strung behavior with desire and looks for a dog that can go from being an intense, focused competitor to a relaxed family dog quickly and smoothly.

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