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Top Dogs

Gundog authorities explore the qualities that define greatness in a retriever
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With more than 20 top dogs belonging to longstanding clients under his professional eye throughout the year, Lardy has time for only one retriever of his own. Interestingly, when he selected his current personal retriever, he deliberately chose bloodlines that he knew would give him a relaxed working dog rather than another champion.

Jeff Lander, another old friend, guides waterfowl hunters in Alberta, where the menu includes a heavy emphasis on geese. Years of concentrated experience in the field have given him the “pleasure and displeasure” of sharing blinds with retrievers of various backgrounds. “I want a steady dog in the blind,” he reports. “I don’t like dogs that try to run over us to get to the bird. I like my dogs to be quiet; nothing is more irritating than a dog that whines constantly. Because we shoot so many geese, I look for a dog that isn’t afraid to tackle big, wing-shot Canadas, which can lay a beating on a retriever when dog and goose collide. That means a dog with some size; bigger retrievers also seem to adjust better to our tough Alberta weather. But I still want a great family dog that’s good with kids. Of all the retrieving breeds, Labs seem to fit this job description best.”

We’ve heard professional opinions from a journalist, breeder, trainer, and guide. Now for my own short list of characteristics that define a top dog, from the admittedly amateur perspective of an enthusiast who loves retrievers, trains his own, and hunts with them a lot. Some are predictable while others admittedly border on the warm and fuzzy. But these are the traits that make the memory of my own best retrievers stand out from all the rest.

Give me a dog that’s good company in a blind even when the birds aren’t flying. Fast action can disguise bad manners; it’s the slow days that test the worth of the company, canine and otherwise. A dog that fidgets, squirms, and otherwise seems to take up most of the space inside the blind quickly grows tiresome. On the other hand, a dog that curls up and goes to sleep until the shooting starts doesn’t contribute much to the ambience. I like dogs whose behavior falls between those extremes in a combination of enthusiasm and restraint.

In the same vein, I like dogs that sit patiently and study the sky. Rocky defines this trait; he’ll look and listen for birds from the moment we start hunting until I finally have to drag him home. This virtue has practical implications. As my eyes—and especially my ears—grow older, Rocky’s body language often alerts me to incoming ducks I never knew were there.

I want retrievers that are good inside the house and good with children. I concede that these qualities don’t have much to do with waterfowl, at least directly. But retrievers figure heavily in my own mental record of our family life, and I still correlate my memories of the kids’ activities with the names of the dogs in those faded pictures. In this era of fast-food dinners and digital playgrounds, there’s much to be said for that kind of camaraderie.

I’ve always been a sucker for great water entries. Theoretically, a strong transition from bank to water helps a retriever maintain a straight line to the fall, but that great geyser of spray has always meant more to me than simple geometry. A bold entry defines enthusiasm and dedication better than words ever could. Our late Jake had the greatest water entry of any of my Labs; unfortunately, that was just about his only virtue. Even so, I’d leave better dogs behind hunt after hunt each season just so I could watch him hit the water.

As the song says, you’ve gotta have heart. My dogs work hard, and much of that work takes place under challenging conditions. Like any trainer, I’ll make them do what needs to be done as part of their education at home, but I have no interest in trying to make dogs hunt. At some point, good judgment may dictate that the temperature is too cold or the water too rough. But my best dogs force me to make that call, and they trust me enough to keep hunting until I make it.

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