If our retrievers aren’t athletes, Webster must have redefined the word. Either that, or I’ve labored my entire life under a deeply flawed understanding of what the term athlete means. Athletes, if I’m not mistaken, run, jump, swim, lift, climb, and negotiate obstacles. They are expected to display speed but also stamina, strength, and flexibility. Tenacity, determination, intensity, and the courage to push to the edge of physical limits—if not beyond them—are all qualities of elite athletes.
Over and above these foundational abilities, there’s the matter of having the skills necessary to play the game, whether it’s kissing a jumper off the glass, roasting a drive down the middle of the fairway, or churning through icy slush to retrieve a greenhead that sailed way back in the cattails. A good retriever has to perform whether he sees a duck fall or not, whether the bird is stone dead or still alive and furiously intent on staying that way, and whether the hour is breaking dawn or coming dusk.
Darn right our retrievers are athletes—phenomenal, world-class ones. But what makes a canine athlete “great”? Or, to frame it a little more precisely, what are the qualities that distinguish great retrievers from all the rest, and where do these qualities come from? Is it a matter of nature (breeding), nurture (training and experience), or some measure of both?
I put these questions to a cross section of people who have long and varied experience as retriever breeders, trainers, hunters, field trialers, and authors. Their responses were enlightening and thought provoking. Here’s what they had to say.
One of the most honored wildlife artists of the contemporary era, Tom Quinn has a style that’s all his own in everything he does. His book The Working Retrievers is an acknowledged classic, while his dynamic black Lab Nakai Anny was inducted into the Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1995. Based on his experience, Quinn believes that great retrievers are born with exceptional athletic abilities, just like star players in professional sports.
“If you’ve done your homework and identified a well-bred litter, one pup, perhaps more, will be what I call ‘super coordinated.’ It’s a gift, and it comes from who knows where,” Quinn says. “It’s like pro athletes who can catch a ball with one hand on a dead run. And it’s an ingredient for a really good dog. Why? Because when they’re carrying out a task, running hard over, above, and through obstacles in order to make a retrieve, the super-coordinated dogs don’t see the problem. They sail over it. They’ll go straight up a cliff; they’ll leap a brush pile. They don’t have to stop and think ‘how am I going to do this?’ It just comes naturally.
“Risky Business Ruby, a national champion that I owned for a while, had it, and it just makes the dog’s job so much easier. If they’re willing students, they’ll learn faster, too, because they’re not perplexed by physical challenges. Obviously, no dog can realize his potential without really good training, but I’m convinced that athletic ability helps expedite the process.
“I also think that exceptional marking ability is an ingredient of this. And, like super coordination, it’s genetic. Marking can be taught to some degree, but the ‘trained’ marker is never going to match the dog who has an innate gift for it.”
Some large retriever breeds can outrun the fastest humans. Athletic Labs and goldens can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour for short distances.
Many retriever breeds have double coats, consisting of a long outer coat that repels water and a shorter, softer undercoat that serves as an extra layer of insulation. This enables retrievers to withstand much colder conditions than many other breeds.
In addition to training gun dogs at her Rocky Mountain Training Kennel in Colorado, Erica Christensen has bred her Quartermoon line of golden retrievers for more than 40 years. Equally at home on land and in water, her goldens actively hunt in all parts of the country and have earned numerous hunt test titles as well. Throughout her career as a breeder, Christensen has observed that the best retrievers all share a strong hunting drive.
“Fundamentally, I believe that exceptional retrievers are the ones closest to their wild ancestors, or most like the dogs who were the beginning of the breed,” Christensen says. “My goldens are great examples. They’re on the smallish side, their coats tend to be curly, and they’re not classically beautiful. But they hunt.
“Another characteristic of exceptional retrievers is they have an innate ability to find birds. On a certain stream on my hunting lease, I have watched one of my females, Reddi, jump in and pull cripples out of their hidey-holes along the cut-banks. Folks would ask how I taught her to do that, but there was no training involved; she did it instinctively.
“Finally, exceptional retrievers must possess tenacity—an underlying perseverance. It never occurs to them that there’s a bird they can’t get. These are the dogs that climb trees, dive completely underwater, and burrow into holes to retrieve birds—and yes, I’ve seen my dogs do all those things.”
Mike Lardy is a living legend. The youngest person ever inducted into the Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame, he has won a record seven National Open Retriever Championships and trained more than 100 Field Champions. Above all else, he believes that intelligence is the number-one factor that determines how well a retriever will perform, both in the marsh and in competition.
“Certainly, desire is essential—they have to want to do the work and they have to have the courage to enter cold water and do all the things that are expected of them, whether it’s in field trials or hunting,” Lardy says. “But they also have to be really smart and know what they’re doing.
“The really top-notch dogs I’ve trained and handled have all been exceptionally intelligent. Field trials provide opportunities to reveal a dog’s intelligence in ways that you rarely encounter in a hunting situation. Although when you do get into those difficult hunting situations, you can see the difference between the really smart dogs and the ones who aren’t quite as smart.”
Researchers have concluded that retriever breeds are among the most intelligent dogs. Studies have revealed that especially intelligent dogs can understand the meanings of up to 250 words.
The founding editor of Retriever Journal magazine and the author of several books about wingshooting and gun dogs, Steve Smith has been a prominent member of the outdoor press for more than 40 years. Smith has hunted with many talented retrievers throughout his career, but the quality that he values most in a gun dog is versatility.
“I’m a hunter who doesn’t compete in field trials or hunt tests, but as someone who hunts both the uplands and lowlands, I need a dog with a variety of skills,” Smith says. “Poor dogs have some, average dogs have many, and good dogs may have all but one. There are only a very few that have all of them. I’m talking range in the field, obeying the whistle on water and land, taking casts, basic obedience—you know the list.
“I think, like so much in life, the great ones are those that don’t necessarily do everything perfectly; they just don’t do anything really wrong. The difference may be a slight one, but it’s there nevertheless.”
A Well-Mannered Companion
According to Mike Stewart, who trained Ducks Unlimited’s dogs, Drake and Deke, great retrievers combine an exceptional game-finding ability with a high level of compatibility with people. “A dog that’s outstanding at recovering birds but a nuisance in the blind isn’t what I call a great dog. Barking, howling, whining, not staying put, breaking, scuffling with other dogs—that’s totally unacceptable,” Stewart says. “Your dog is your partner; he should work with you and complement the hunt, not detract from it. That’s what I mean by compatibility. You can tell me all about the ribbons your dog’s won and all the fantastic retrieves he’s made, but if he’s a nuisance nobody will want to be in the duck blind with him.”
A household name among Ducks Unlimited members, Mike Stewart is the proprietor of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, and the author of Sporting Dog and Retriever Training: The Wildrose Way. Specializing in British Labradors, he’s been a professional trainer and breeder for more than 30 years. When it comes to performing consistently at a high level, Stewart believes there is no substitute for the experience a retriever acquires through time in the field.
“Certainly the genetics have to be there. Scenting ability, love of the water, cold-hardiness, athleticism, the desire to find game—all the natural qualities—are very important,” Stewart says. “The trainer’s job is to bring out the dog’s natural ability, hone it, and make it applicable to the kind of hunting the dog’s intended to do. Every dog is a combination of qualities that are intuitive and qualities that are created.
“But the really great game dogs have a knowledge of birds. They’ve hunted a lot; they know what birds are going to do in a given situation. For instance, if you’re hunting on a river, they know what the current is going to do. A good dog will go to the splash; a great dog will know to go beyond the splash in the direction of the current. They know what a bird will do when it falls in the brush, or when it’s diving. They know how to work the wind, how to efficiently chop through thin ice, and so on.
“To get from good to great, a dog needs hunting experience. You can’t have a game dog unless you’re hunting game. You can throw all the bumpers you want in training, but a great retriever is a bird dog.”
The noses of some retriever breeds have more than 200 million scent receptors, which is about 40 times the number humans have. While almost impossible to quantify, the olfactory senses of retrievers could be anywhere from 10,000 to 1 million times more sensitive than ours.
Swedish researchers identified five distinct personality traits for dogs. These include playfulness, curiosity/fearlessness, chase proneness, sociability, and aggressiveness.