Top Dogs

Gundog authorities explore the qualities that define greatness in a retriever

Photo © Justin Patton

By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

One December afternoon last year, I left my desk early to head for the creek and shoot a few ducks. When I stopped at the kennel, I bypassed Rocky, my veteran yellow Lab, in favor of his son Kenai. A promising youngster, Kenai still needed work in the field. Despite the howls of protest from Rocky's kennel, the low-key hunt I had in mind promised an ideal opportunity to advance Kenai's training.

There were mallards in the air when I threw the decoys into a favorite backwater, but the birds trading up and down the creek paid no attention to the blocks. I've certainly hunted ducks on colder mornings, but the air always feels colder than the thermometer reads when the birds aren't cooperating. By the time the first hour had passed without an opportunity to fire a shot, I was shivering even if the dog wasn't.

Finally, a lone greenhead appeared over the cottonwoods and turned into the freshening breeze. He sensed trouble on his final approach, though, and flared prematurely at the edge of shotgun range. Ordinarily I might have passed up the shot, but Kenai had been waiting so patiently for a chance to retrieve that I felt obligated to provide one.

I wanted a dead duck 30 yards away across the creek to test the young dog's ability to stay on line through moving water. What I got was a mallard with a broken wing fluttering down in a dense tangle of frozen cattails 150 yards away. Chiding myself for this development, I gave Kenai the line and sent him.

Because of a sharp bend in the creek, the direct route to the bird required the dog to cross the moving water not once but twice before arriving back on the same side from which he had started. He handled that challenge like a pro. Because I'd been standing up to shoot while he lay quietly in the grass, I'd marked the long fall better than he had. I gave him one correction on his way to the cattails, and he read that perfectly. I already knew he had an excellent nose, which he confirmed by running down the crippled bird quickly despite the thickness of the cover. That was the only duck I shot all afternoon.

A lone mallard hardly sounds like the conclusion of an epic duck hunt, but as we walked back up the bank together that night, a limit of geese hanging from the game strap couldn't have made me happier. I wouldn't walk across the street to shoot a limit of ducks without a good retriever at my side, and most veteran duck hunters I know share similar feelings. Ethical concerns for lost birds aside, a good retriever is simply an essential part of the waterfowling experience.

But what makes a good retriever? How did a young dog's performance on the creek that night turn a slow afternoon into a hunt I'll remember for years? Such questions prove more complex than they first appear, with answers full of the kind of subjectivity usually reserved for discussions of art and politics. I have my own ideas, but when I tried to extrapolate the significance of Kenai's long retrieve from the specific to the general, I decided it would be interesting to solicit opinions from a cross section of knowledgeable retriever enthusiasts. And since retrievers can mean so many different things to different people, I wanted to sample opinions from a variety of viewpoints.

As editor of Retriever Journal, my old friend Steve Smith seemed a great candidate to express an outdoor writer's viewpoint. "Brains!" he answered with the lack of equivocation for which he is famous. "Oh, I know—and agree—that there are other traits we like our dogs to have: courage, drive, good eyesight, a solid body structure, a great nose, a cooperative spirit... but the greatest of them all is intelligence. A great dog learns quickly, which means getting a finished dog sooner than if you're trying to train a hammerhead. A smart dog learns to compensate for his own shortcomings; he teaches himself, which defines experience. He'll mark off the gun, watch carefully, and let the memory that comes with high intelligence help him out. The best dogs usually end up being the smartest ones." It's hard to argue against smart dogs, and no one I spoke with did.

Respected Indiana Lab breeder James Keldsen is also a fan of high IQ dogs, but raw intelligence didn't top his list of desirable traits. "When searching for a new puppy or choosing a stud, trainability is always foremost in my mind," Keldsen explains. "Dogs that are trainable with a high desire to please their owners are far and away the best. Willingness to please will help overcome a dog's inherent weaknesses in field work. I love to work with dogs that have so much desire to retrieve it's obvious from the moment they leave the dog box that there's nothing else they'd rather be doing."

Since his carefully bred Pine Acre retrievers are scattered all across the country, Keldsen has had abundant opportunity for feedback about what customers appreciate about his dogs. "When we hear from people who have purchased puppies from us and love their dogs," he explains, "they invariably describe dogs that are fun to hunt with because they're fun to be around. It isn't just that the dogs find birds for them; it's how the dogs work with them in the field and in the home that makes them special."

It would be hard to imagine a better qualified candidate to express a trainer's point of view than Wisconsin-based professional trainer Mike Lardy, who made history by winning the National Retriever Championship seven times. Lardy gets to train and observe many of the country's most successful field-trial competitors, and while seconding many of the opinions others have voiced here, he also brings his own perspective to the discussion.

"Among retrievers operating at the highest competitive level," he explains, "drive is a given. I just don't deal with dogs that don't have a powerful instinct to retrieve. What I want is a dog that can turn it off and on." As much as he appreciates the importance of skilled training, Lardy concedes that most of that ability is innate rather than learned.

A believer in the "ready-set-go" approach to retriever performance, Lardy expects his trained dogs to deliver "110 percent" the moment they step to the line, but he acknowledges that it's unrealistic to expect a dog to maintain that level of intensity throughout a long day in the field. Lardy considers it a mistake to confuse high-strung behavior with desire and looks for a dog that can go from being an intense, focused competitor to a relaxed family dog quickly and smoothly.

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.

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.