By T. Edward Nickens
She drives me crazy with geese. She's a little thing, all of 50 pounds caked with mud, so perhaps I should cut her some slack. But Minnie's modus operandi for a Canada goose retrieve is to launch into the swamp, beeline for the bird, circle it at a wary distance, then grab it by the wing and drag it to somewhere approximating my feet. Not exactly textbook.
The circling I understand. On her very first goose retrieve, I waited a few moments after the goose hit the water to make sure it was dead, then sent her for the bird. The goose came to its senses just as Minnie approached, and there was a little mixed martial arts action before the honker ultimately expired. Minnie's been slightly cautious around the big birds ever since, and I don't blame her.
But the wing retrieve—jeez. It's embarrassing. And to watch her haul a goose over a downed log or clump of muck is painful. It's like watching the neighbor drag a trash bag to the curb.
Then one day, after she'd lugged a goose back to the blind by the primaries, I stretched out in the muck behind the dead bird. I wanted a Minnie's-eye-view of the situation, and I got one. With my chin on the ground and a face full of feathers, I couldn't see over the goose. And that's when it hit me: With a goose in her gums in textbook fashion, that little dog was swimming blind. She couldn't even navigate by the sun. And all the while she was toting the physics equivalent of me swimming with a 60-pound barbell between my molars.
I know there are other small dogs out there who can pull off a goose retrieve with classic style, but I decided to give my pup a break. I haven't given her a hard time for her unorthodox technique since. As long as she brings me that bird. For all I care she can drag it by the femur the way I eat a smoked turkey leg at the fair.
Let's be honest. We all want a hard-charging, rock-solid, steady-to-shot-after-shot-after-shot duck dog that can decipher hand signals through 200 yards of fog. We'd love our canine companions to deliver magnificent fowl to hand every time with nary a tooth mark to be found. And not even shake until they've been given permission. That's the goal. That's the gold standard. But what most of us have is... not that.
Pretty Good Dogs know the difference between
marsh camo (Hot dog, I'm going!)
and blaze orange (Dang! Deer hunting again?).
Most of us, I'd wager, have a Pretty Good Dog.
Most of us don't have a "finished" dog—although I figure that Minnie, at seven years old, is pretty close. Most of us put up with some level of whining, and fidgeting, and breaking, and gnawing. There are plenty of hunters who don't, and plenty who have trained, or purchased, a rock star. And there are likely plenty out there shaking their heads about now, tsk-tsk-tsking my failures as leader of the pack.
Pretty Good Dogs will bring doves to hand most of the time. They're solid performers who only break every now and then, and most of the time, when they do, they pull down only half of the blind. Pretty Good Dogs know the difference between marsh camo (Hot dog, I'm going!) and blaze orange (Dang! Deer hunting again?). And while Pretty Good Dogs will greet you at the side of the bed three seconds after the alarm goes off at four a.m., and dance circles all the way to the truck, they're just as happy rolling in a dead catfish by the lake as fighting through briars for a crippled teal.
And we love them fiercely, our Pretty Good Dogs. Warts and all. Because we know that most of their deficiencies are of our own making. We let them sleep on the sofa, we sneak them hush puppies under the table, and we let the kids play tug-of-war with old socks. We love them as we break every rule in the Book of Really Good Dogs.
And we know this: You would point out their shortcomings at your peril.
It's not that I don't know better. You could stock a library with all the dog training books I own, from the classics like Richard Wolters's Water Dog to The 10-Minute Retriever and Sporting Dog and Retriever Training the Wildrose Way. Dummy launchers, check cords, tubes of feather scent, bushels of bumpers—I have it all. I have almost as many books, in fact, as I have excuses. And oh boy do I have excuses. Training dogs while raising small children puts a fellow between the devil and the deep blue sea. I know I should tell my kids they can't throw the ball for the puppy. I know they're making her soft when they snuggle on the sofa. I hear the tsk-tsk-ers. I might have trained up a more solid retriever if I had listened to all those dog-training voices in my head, but those are the kinds of things your kids hold against you for life.
And then there's the matter of my bride, Julie. She is a committed morning walker, and she and the pup hit the road every day at five a.m. for a four-mile romp. When I suggest that letting Minnie pull on the leash and snap at squirrels for an hour each day might make it hard to hone the edge on a hunting dog, she negotiates: "Walk with us in the morning and you can keep Minnie at heel all you want to." As you can imagine, I hit the snooze button on that offer.
We love them fiercely, our Pretty Good Dogs.
Warts and all. Because we know that most of their deficiencies are of our own making.
So I've been a Pretty Good Dog man pretty much all of my life. And I can't say I'm unhappy about that. Julie and I have owned three Labrador retrievers in our 30 years of marriage. Sweet Emma Pearl was our first Christmas present to each other. She had very poor eyesight but compensated with a nose that could ferret out a wood duck in a 10-acre landfill. Brown Sugar Biscuit was our next dog. That's the moniker you get when you let your five-year-old name your dog. And now there's Lela Minnie Pearl. Again, be careful ceding naming rights to your children. I hunted those Labs hard. Put them all together and you'd have one heckuva dog. One by one, well, welcome to Pretty Good Dog City.
Minnie is a classic example of the evolutionary clash between nature and nurture. She has great blood lines. I wanted a small retriever that would fit into a canoe stuffed with decoys, and she's a slim little fireball that I can take anywhere. She seems to have a few strands of errant kangaroo DNA, because she's a jumper par excellence. But by and large, nature dealt me a fine hand of cards.
Of course, there's the nurture part of the equation. It's often said that a critical element of raising a young hunting dog is exposing the animal to multiple stimuli and a broad range of experiences. We crushed that training protocol at our house. With a middle school boy and a high school girl under one roof—and they even had to share a bathroom, to add to the horror—Minnie was raised in a world of tantalizing smells, strange and unusual sounds, and a near-constant opportunity for unsupervised exploration and personal growth. Being gun-shy was never an issue. The kids had bedrooms upstairs, and as much hollering as went on to get the kids out of bed and get the dirty clothes thrown down the laundry chute, training a puppy to be comfortable with loud noises was a cinch. And I didn't have to do much training when it came to trailing crippled ducks in the field. Years of scent-tracking two-week-old uneaten sandwiches stuffed into book bags sharpened Minnie's olfactory skills to perfection. She could find a Goldfish cracker in a pants pocket buried in a waist-high mound of dirty clothes. With that kind of life experience, finding a duck gone down in the swamp woods was a snap.
Years of scent-tracking two-week-old uneaten
sandwiches stuffed into book bags sharpened
Minnie's olfactory skills to perfection.
She could find a Goldfish cracker in a pants pocket
buried in a waist-high mound of dirty clothes.
Minnie's world was a soundtrack of brother-versus-sister fights over the television remote and arguments about who didn't flush the toilet. And she received a near constant feedback loop of undeserved praise and love. That Minnie is a slightly anxious dog is no surprise. More miraculous is the fact that Julie and I still function fairly normally in an organized society.
And all along poor Minnie boomeranged between periods of toe-the-line discipline when I was at home and weeks of virtual anarchy when I was on the road, which was frequent. Yet somehow, through it all, she emerged as a Pretty Good Dog. She has her shortcomings. She struggles when she doesn't see where the duck fell, and she wouldn't recognize a hand signal if it were wrapped in bacon. She's a bit of a whiner when the going gets really cold. But in her defense, she's slept on 800-thread-count sheets and a memory foam mattress all her life. I can almost see it in her eyes: What's with all this ice on the ground?
And while Minnie might have her faults, her strong points are rock solid. She is cold steel death on doves, as long as she's not stuffed too far back in the weeds and has a good view of the playing field. She will sit and stay in the middle of the woods while I sneak to the swamp edge. When signaled in, she dashes to my side and sits again. She will ride in anything—truck, boat, or canoe. She couldn't care less about an unguarded trash can, which is a miracle for her breed.
Minnie spends a lot of time on the beach, and she will walk at heel until I release her with two open hands, palms out, and the command take off! Then she's off like a rocket, chasing blobs of foam in the breakers and rolling in pelican poop. She ignores other dogs, and when we get close to other dog walkers, I heel her in and she sticks to our knees like a mud dauber's nest. Other dog owners seem astonished by her finely tuned behavior as they two-hand their leashes to prevent their straining beasts from dragging them across the dunes.
"Did you train that dog?" they ask. "I've never seen a dog so obedient." That's how you know they're not duck hunters, of course. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue to not respond. Walking at heel is hardly Minnie's best trick.
"Hey, if you think that's something," I want to say, "you should see her scoop up and swallow a beaver turd while on a cflat-out run, never breaking stride, and before my holler of No-No-Nooooooo! has a chance of reaching those floppy black ears."
Or pull a goose over a log like a caveman dragging a bear out of its den.
I'll look down at her, double strands of drool trailing down her chest and a smear of seagull poop on her forehead, and beam with pride. I'm telling you: This one here is a Pretty Good Dog.