Dogs that hunt for professional guides may retrieve more birds in a single season than most dogs do in a lifetime

By Gary Koehler

Right out of the box, Ruff hardly took my breath away. When Tony Vandemore released his black Lab on a hilltop cornfield in northwest Missouri, all I saw was a diminutive pup, short in stature and weighing maybe 45 pounds. This was the dog that was going to be handling all the retrieving chores during our spring snow goose hunt?

To be sure, there was a sparkle in the pup's eyes and a spring in his step, accompanied by the typical stretching, sniffing, leg-lifting, and other dog business that precedes such outings. But Vandemore and fellow Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Tyson Keller and their crew had killed more than a hundred snows the previous afternoon. And Ruff was the only retriever in camp.

'He's still learning, but he has learned a lot in a short amount of time,' Vandemore said in the dark of that February morning two years ago. 'Ruff gets after them pretty good.'

Four hours later, after the gun smoke had settled and more than a hundred snow geese had found the last stop on their northern migration, Ruff was still patrolling the field, picking up cripples that had fallen up to 400 yards from our layout blinds. No less than a dozen had sailed out of sight over the field's rolling humps. A handful wound up along the banks of a tiny creek.

The hilly terrain didn't faze Ruff, who time and again returned with a goose in his mouth and then looked up at Vandemore for a signal directing him toward another bird. In a word, Ruff was a trooper-diligent until we were all confident that every last bird had been accounted for.

Retriever bloodlines are an important consideration when selecting a pup, and Vandemore had done his homework. He had also spent the necessary time training Ruff for the many challenges of waterfowl hunting.

'Dog work is what's important to me when I hunt. Ruff came out of good lines and has an excellent pedigree. That's no guarantee you're going to get a good retriever, but the probability is better,' Vandemore says.

'I've been around a lot of dogs that were not well mannered, and when that takes away from someone else's hunt, that's not good. I didn't want that kind of dog,' he continues. 'Everything in the hunting world is expensive, and having a dog as part of your family, well, it didn't make any sense to me skimping on that portion of it.'

Unlike the other individuals featured here, Vandemore is not a professional guide by trade. He conducts some guided hunts each season, however, and often hosts Avery clients, media members, and others interested in seeing firsthand how the company's products perform. He was in the field 160 days last year, beginning with early Canada goose and teal hunts, continuing through the regular duck and goose seasons, and finishing up with spring snows. Ruff was by his side nearly every day. Their travels included stops in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Mississippi, Kansas, and Vandemore's native Illinois.

'He goes pretty much every day,' Vandemore says of Ruff. 'There were a few days I left him home because there was too much ice. Hunting is still fun, but it's not the same without him.

'Ruff has hunted almost every situation known to waterfowling-big and small rivers, shallow marshes, flooded timber, flooded crops-just about every environment you can think of, we hunt sometime during the year.'

Vandemore sent Ruff to a pro for basic training and then assumed that supervisory role when the dog returned home. Being 30, single, and having spent two years in the San Diego Padres minor league system, Vandemore has the energy, time, and an outfielder's arm when tossing bumpers.

'The first thing we hunted together was early-season honkers,' Vandemore says. 'But a lot of his training was set up for hunting. You can't sit a dog in a blind with a bunch of shots going off and expect him to go out and do it. It takes time to prepare a dog for actual hunting.'

Ruff has taken to his job well. And then some. By Vandemore's estimate, Ruff, now five years old and weighing a little over 60 pounds, picked up 3,000 birds last season. Included was one three-day stretch while spring snow goose hunting when Ruff retrieved 500 geese.

'At this point, regardless of where we are hunting, he marks and handles well because of his experience,' Vandemore says. 'The first time in flooded corn, he didn't mark so well because of the depth perception. It took him a little while to get used to it. Timber hunting was the same way. You can't expect a dog to go into a new situation and nail it right off the bat. Now, there's not a situation he goes into that he's not familiar with.'

My lesson learned? Don't judge a dog on first-look impressions, because drive can be measured only by performance.