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Top Dogs

Gundog authorities explore the qualities that define greatness in a retriever
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Sky, my first top dog, illustrated this quality better than any of my other Labs. Several times each season, he’d make a retrieve that left hunting partners asking: How did he do that? But my all-time champion in the “no guts, no glory” school of retrieving was a minimally trained Chessie that belonged to my friend Bob May on Kodiak Island. More times than I can count, I watched Yaeger negotiate tidal currents that would have made a team of Navy SEALs pause and reconsider. None of those adventures were anything anyone made him do; in fact, Bob couldn’t have stopped him from hitting the water if he tried. Rest in peace, Yaeger. You were one of a kind.

Accurate marking and crisp handling are standard hallmarks of a good retriever. Both skills represent a fusion of nature and nurture. I’m frankly more interested in a purely innate canine attribute: the dog’s nose. This matters to me because I use my versatile retrievers so much on upland birds, especially wild pheasants. You can’t teach a dog scenting ability any more than a basketball coach can teach size, but it’s sure nice when it’s there. A dog with a great nose can make any trainer look like a genius even if that ability came straight from its breeding. I’ve always said that Sonny had the best nose of all my Labs, but young Kenai already looks as if he may successfully challenge that title.

I’ve heard sentimentalists claim there are no bad dogs, but I’m not buying it. You can’t hunt as many different things in as many different ways as long as I have without running into dogs that were stubborn, stupid, gutless, hard-mouthed, impossible to like, or occasionally downright mean. I’ve always found those dogs in the minority among the retrieving breeds, but I remained philosophical even when I found myself strapped with one. The way I see it, their role in life was simply to make me appreciate the top dogs more.

Trying to summarize this long list of canine traits esteemed by knowledgeable retriever enthusiasts reminds me of the parable about the three blind men and the elephant. That should hardly be surprising; retrievers are more complex creatures than their basic job description superficially suggests. The Labrador retriever has been the most popular breed registered by the American Kennel Club for years. With all those Labs running around out there, it’s inevitable that different observers should seek different traits in their dogs. At the end of the day, the definition of a great retriever may be like the definition of great art: You’ll know it when you see it.

But among retriever owners who appreciate their dogs’ original job description—providing companionship in the blind while fetching waterfowl under adverse conditions—it’s a safe bet that smart, loyal, enthusiastic dogs will never have trouble finding loving homes.

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