By Doug Larsen


Illustration by John Denney


In a discussion of dogs used for waterfowl hunting, we should begin with the basics. To bring ducks to hand, hunters will often employ the services of a retriever. This specially trained dog will run or swim to the downed game, locate it, and return, carrying a duck or goose in his mouth. It seems quite simple really, but duck hunters don’t like anything to be simple. Thus, we have divided into factions, and devotees of certain breeds or types of dogs have splintered off into yet other factions. Today, it seems that there are as many types of retrievers as there are types of waterfowl hunters. Here’s a light-hearted look at some of the more well-known members of this canine cast of characters. See if you recognize any of these critters, or if you maybe have one lying at the foot of your easy chair.

The Professional


Illustration by John Denney


If you have spent any time around waterfowl guides, you know that they don’t have time to mess around. They buy and use the most rugged and dependable guns, trucks, and accessories they can get their hands on, and their choice of retrievers often mirrors this desire for foolproof gear. They typically have a no-nonsense dog that is equally at home on the bow of a skiff or the rack of a four-wheeler, and these tough retrievers usually ride to the hunt in the back of a pickup in a crate that is cabled to the truck bed. Usually, the guide’s dog is a big male with a name like Frank or Coot, but you probably won’t know the dog’s name unless you ask—hunting is their day job, and they are good at what they do. These dogs don’t need direction, and they are always where they need to be. They are used to being around different clients every few days. They don’t really care to receive attention from clients, nor do they care who pulls the trigger. They just love to pick up birds and hand them over to the boss.

The Pampered Pup

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Illustration by John Denney


If the Professional is at one end of the spectrum, the Pampered Pup is at the other end. These coddled canines are sometimes named after ornamental trees or popular television or movie characters. You won’t find Mulberry, Pluto, or Waffles riding in a crate—these dogs signed a lease for the front seat of the family SUV. If you hunt with their owner, you may be surprised to find that rather than sitting out on a dog stand or a muskrat hut, this pooch is right there in the blind with you, where you can easily read the name embroidered on his collar and where he often partakes in the sharing of blind snacks. The Pampered Pup may not make a lot of retrieves, but he is always front-row center in the family’s Christmas card photo.

The Athlete


Illustration by John Denney


This high-spirited field-trial specialist usually descends from very impressive canine lineage. His owner can recite generations of the animal’s breeding back to a time and place when some dog breeder lived in an actual castle. When you first encounter this dog at a duck camp, you might see him emerging from inside a very fancy and very large aluminum dog box in the back of a very clean lifted truck. Often a black Lab, this leopard-like physical specimen can run to the actual curve of the Earth and pick up a training bird that has been expired for days, and he can do it on a warm, windless afternoon in June. I am not going to poke fun at the white-coated trainers and handlers of these athlete dogs, because their charges are typically breathtaking. But I would like to see one of them toss their dog the occasional Frisbee or a jelly donut. As far as names go, all these retrievers have titles and long names, but they go by a kennel name that is short and appropriate, such as Jet, Ace, or Zip.

The Continental Dog

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Illustration by John Denney


There was a time when you saw many more German shorthaired pointers and German wirehaired pointers in the duck blind, along with some of the other European breeds, like Vizslas. They are often do-everything dogs, capable of pointing upland birds and retrieving all manner of creatures, from geese to rabbits. My first dog when I was a kid was a shorthair that was all business. I went everywhere and did everything with that dog. He was not affectionate, but one winter day he gifted me a live raccoon, proving it’s the thought that counts. Many of these dogs are named Max or Fritz, and a wirehair’s little beard always reminds me of a coffee-shop hipster or Burl Ives. The one drawback is that these dogs don’t have tails. Make of that what you will. Some consider it a benefit. I like a dog’s tail because it lets me know what mood he’s in.

The Adrenaline Junkie


Illustration by John Denney


There is a distinct difference between the Athlete and the Adrenaline Junkie. While the Athlete is carefully bred to succeed in a complicated game at the highest levels of canine competition, the Adrenaline Junkie is just plain wound tight, probably because his owner is wound tight. These dogs are often named after energy drinks or landscape features—Monster, Slash, or Tundra, for example. Their owners will typically mountain bike for miles into a lightly hunted area while the dog runs alongside wearing panniers full of ammunition and maybe even a spinning-wing decoy. The Adrenaline Junkie’s owner also has an adrenaline addiction, and he has always wanted to hunt sandhill cranes, because it would be super cool if he could get pictures for Instagram of his retriever wearing dog goggles for something other than extreme winter sports.

The Micromanaged Dog


Illustration by John Denney


We have all met this dog at one duck camp or another. Normally, the Micromanaged Dog—let’s call him Sparky—is well trained, enthusiastic, and biddable. He does an admirable job retrieving game for his owner, who seems to be a nice enough fellow. But for one reason or another, Sparky’s owner just won’t let Sparky hunt. Trained to stop on a dime when the whistle sounds and to respond to complex hand signals, Sparky will get sent on the simplest retrieve in the world, say a duck that is 50 yards away and belly-up in shallow water, but his owner will make the task anything but simple. While Sparky may have run a nice, tight line toward the bird, if he is even a few yards off, his owner will stop him and then redirect him over just a bit. Typically, this isn’t necessary—the dog was three strides away from entering a cone of scent that would be akin to you or me walking past a bakery that has its door wide open. Of course he was going to find that duck, but his owner just can’t resist toggling the poor fellow over those few yards, because he likes to handle the dog so much. When Sparky has finally had enough of this overhandling, the scene will short-circuit spectacularly. One of these dogs I knew was sent to retrieve an easy pheasant in a cut bean field and was last seen sprinting down a fence line, hundreds of yards away from the hunting party, with wild pheasants billowing out in every direction.

The Designer Dog


Illustration by John Denney


There has been a trend in recent years to breed dogs whose colors are somewhat out of the norm. You see this in golden retrievers that are as white as Charolais cattle. You also see it more broadly in dogs such as Labradors, which now come in colors like charcoal or silver. As something of a professed black, yellow, and chocolate Lab snob, I kept my comments to myself when a silver Lab appeared at a hunting preserve nearby. He was not among the brightest dogs I have seen in the field, but I will say he was handsome—his coat reminded me of Helen Mirren’s hair. I was told that his owner was cashing rather large checks as payment for the silver dog’s various modeling jobs and work in television commercials. My snobbery doesn’t pay as well, and there’s a lesson in there someplace.

The Mystery Dog

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Illustration by John Denney


There used to be a lot more Mystery Dogs in the field, back in the days when farm dogs often doubled as retrievers once hunting season rolled around. Even though you don’t see as many of them as you once did, your reaction when you see one in a duck hunting scenario is usually the same. Here is this shaggy dog of questionable breed and lineage with a tail shaped like the sickle from the old Soviet Union flag. Yet many of these dogs can be serviceable retrievers, and they are happy to swim out and grab a duck when asked or walk a fencerow to harass the occasional upland bird. The Mystery Dog finds waterfowl hunting to be a happy distraction from chasing the mail truck, barking at livestock, or waiting at the end of the lane for the school bus to bring the kids home. Mystery Dogs have all sorts of names, usually inspired by a blaze or some other marking on their coat. So you run across names like Tippy, Patch, or Spot, or maybe farmhand names like Butch or Wayne. I hunted with a brown-and-white spotted dog named Fred once in western Canada. I have no idea as to his breeding. He had one blue eye and one brown eye, but he picked up every duck in the field like there was a sale on and he had to fill his shopping cart.

The Fun-Size Dog


Illustration by John Denney


Funny thing about the Fun-Size Dog—there never used to be any around. Back in the old days, many hunters believed that it was ideal to have the biggest, boldest Lab or Chessie you could afford to feed. You wanted a dog that was big enough and tough enough, the thinking went, to swim strong currents and break through ice. Then one day, somebody in the dog world woke up with a lightbulb over his head. Tired of sharing his house with a dog the size of an offensive lineman, this visionary decided to downsize. Soon it was discovered that a dog wouldn’t have to break ice if he was small enough to walk across it. Voilà, the Fun-Size Dog burst onto the scene. Now we see Boykins, springers, curly coats, and tolling dogs in the duck blind, each with his own dedicated following. Any trained version of these small-framed yet big-hearted creatures is perfectly capable of collecting your gadwalls from a pond, and they are just the right size for a small boat or blind. Worthy of note: I did once see a Jack Russell terrier carry a Canada goose out of a cut cornfield, which was Herculean yet somehow also weird, like a nature documentary showing an ant carrying 50 times its own weight.

The Veteran


Illustration by John Denney


In a camp full of duck dogs, he may be the only one allowed indoors. Everybody has had one, and I have one under my desk right now. The Veteran, like Farmers Insurance, has seen a thing or two and done a thing or two. Regardless of his breed or his color, his chin and feet have gone white, and the sparkle in his eyes belies the stiffness in his hips. He will respond to the name that was given to him as a puppy, but now he also responds to names like Old Boy, or simply Friend, because he is both. His hearing is largely shot, but despite that fact, he will trot across a room when he senses the barely perceptible jingle of a leash coming off a hook or the sound of a shotgun case being unzipped. He needs a lot of rest and might need some help getting his more southern parts up into a boat, but he is eternally game to sit on one more dog stand for one more morning in the sun, and every single one of us is game to include this elder canine statesman that has given us so many glorious years.