There has been a recent trend toward using smaller dogs to retrieve waterfowl. This includes not only smaller breeds, such as Boykin spaniels and English cocker spaniels, but also smaller individuals from more traditional retrieving breeds, such as Labs, goldens, and Chessies.
Dave Rorem, the Hall of Fame retriever trainer from northern Minnesota, has kept an eye on these changes over the years. “The dogs you saw in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s,” he says, “tended to be substantially bigger than the dogs you see today—both gun dogs and field trial dogs. But as smaller dogs began to have more success in field trials from the late ’80s to the early 2000s, some breeders started going that direction, and you see dogs of all sizes today.”
Lifelong waterfowler Bruce Deadman, who lives in Wisconsin but hunts extensively on the US and Canadian prairies, recently switched from Labs to an English cocker. “I’d been impressed by the cockers I’d seen,” he relates. “And as I was in a general downsizing mode I decided that a smaller package was the better way to go.”
Deadman’s cocker, Carson, has been a revelation. “When I got a cocker,” he explains, “what I thought I was giving up was a dog that could retrieve geese. Well, I haven’t given up anything. Granted, Carson’s big for a cocker—he weighs 40 pounds—but retrieving a Canada goose is no problem for him. And on snows he’s spectacular. He’s so fast that he beats my friends’ Labs to the birds! Now, he’s not going to do 250-yard retrieves, and while he’s a strong swimmer, I’d be cautious about sending him into a river with heavy current. But for the kind of hunting I’m doing at this point in my life, he’s everything I need a dog to be.”
Still, for the birds some hunters pursue, the places where they hunt, and the time of year they do it, a larger, more powerful dog makes sense. Bruce Posey, of Billings, Montana, is one such hunter. “I like big Labs,” he says. “And by big I mean a dog weighing 90 to 120 pounds. I do a lot of hunting for large Canada geese, and a big dog can pick up a heavy goose with no problem. A smaller dog ends up dragging it in by a wing. I also do a lot of hunting in snow as deep as two or even three feet and, again, big dogs are able to handle that a lot better than small dogs. It doesn’t bother them at all.”
River hunting is another situation in which Posey believes bigger dogs have the edge. “When I send my dogs into a river for a retrieve,” he explains, “they’re able to power through the current without drifting downstream.”
One of the most famous Labs of all time, Cork of Oakwood Lane, tipped the scales well north of 110 pounds. Rorem has a vivid memory of standing next to Cork when he (Rorem) was six years old—and looking him straight in the eye.
“I’ve never forgotten that,” Rorem laughs. “He was a huge, gorgeous animal, and I’ve always liked that kind of big, powerful, stallion-type dog. Having said that, though, I think that with a few exceptions, size doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s between a dog’s ears and what’s in his heart.”
Mary Howley, the legendary breeder of Labs and the owner of Candlewood Kennels in Portage, Wisconsin, agrees. She is emphatic that size “is mostly a matter of personal preference. The qualities that really matter are desire, heart, intelligence, and eagerness to please. As long as you have those, you’re going to have a dog that’s capable of doing pretty much whatever you want him to do.”