There are few things in this life as revered as a good hunting dog. Four years ago, I set out to get myself just that.
I was twenty-two and getting close to the end of my final semester at college. Over the previous three years I had comfortably grown into my waterfowl obsession and had come to the conclusion that it would be a good time to take the leap and get a hunting dog. After contemplating kennels and costs, I found a reputable kennel through a hunting buddy and had inquired early enough to get the first pick of an upcoming spring litter. With this being my first attempt at training a hunting dog, I had begun training myself around the same time I committed to picking a dog. I had read Richard Wolters and Tom Dokken’s books, trying to find the best way to bring out the most in my new dog. The references in Wolters’ books of being with Ted Williams revealed their maturity, but I figured the world of dog psychology hadn’t changed much over the years since it was written and I was confident the Dokken’s books could fill in any techniques that had since been discovered. Even with all of the knowledge and experience the books contained, every dog listens and learns in different ways. No matter how many books I read, if I couldn’t figure that out what worked best for my dog I’d be lost. In my head I had developed what I thought would be the perfect dog. I imagined a dog with a strong will to retrieve, who was willing and able to run all day. I wanted him to listen to my every command with enthusiasm. I wanted him to be able to stay on chase of diving ducks, find lost birds in the brush, flush stubborn roosters, and do it with style. After doing all of my homework I had the expectation that I would be able to mold him into the likeness of my vision.
Six weeks before graduation I received some bad news. The litter in which I was supposed to choose was having complications and was unsuccessful. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been counting down the days until I could pick up my dog and was emotionally invested in the fur ball that I hadn’t even picked out. The silver lining in all of this was that I was offered a male black lab from another litter. The person who had the last pick wanted a chocolate lab and was willing to wait for another litter to get it. I was concerned about potential problems given the result of the previous litter and the stranger’s willingness to give up a dog. After putting in all the time, in my mind, I had almost already had a dog. If I didn’t take him, I would be starting from square one in search of a new kennel. With it almost being spring, I was sure that most litters would be spoken for. With the build-up and anticipation of being done with school and having a dog, I opted to take him. Not ever seeing him, I’m sure most “professional puppy selectors” would grimace. After hearing my situation, one of these self-titled individuals had offered that I was getting “the leftovers”.
Finals week had come and I needed to rearrange a few exams so I could make the four hour trip south of Duluth to pick up my dog. The long drive gave me plenty of time to finalize my decision for a name. I decided that would I would name him Dalton, after Patrick Swayze’s character in The Roadhouse. I was a fan of the unintentional comedy and enjoyed the lore that accompanied the name in the movie. With my mind wandering the trip was quickly over as I made my way off of the freeway and onto the gravel roads that led to the kennel. I had finally made it to the kennel. As I walked inside I could hear crying from a back room, “You must be here for him. He’s been quite ornery since his sister was picked up”, said the owner. Inside was the last dog to be picked up, the one that someone didn’t want, the leftovers. None of that mattered to me because he was mine. When the door opened, eight pounds of spit fire came running out. He clumsily ran around the room examining and smelling everything he could as he studied his surroundings. His focus quickly changed when a pigeon wing was taken out and joyfully went after it each time I threw it. I was immediately impressed with his enthusiasm for the wing. After a short play session I took him outside and got ready for the trip back. As I put him in my truck he began crying, the change of scenery was something he was not yet used to. Eventually his crying subsided into a deep sleep. The continuous stops along the way made the trip longer but were necessary to avoid any kennel accidents. Still being in a college house for a week I gave him a grace period to do the puppy thing for a while; getting away with most things, being cute and forgivable. In the beginning I would guess that it was more effort to train the people around Dalton and let them know my expectations for him. I would cringe every time someone would play tug-o-war as I tried to politely let them know that he wasn’t allowed to do so. It was amazing to see an eight week old dog experience things for the first time. The world must have seemed so big once he was out of the kennel that held him and his siblings. The sights, smells, sounds all new and appealing must have been overwhelming and made training all the more difficult.
I knew that every time we played or trained, it was making an impression on what he would turn out like. I made an effort to pay close attention to my reactions and emotions because they would be read in a way that only a dog could. I made sure to train him frequently and in short sessions. I combined training sessions with walks in the woods so he could have the balance of structured sessions and exploration. I knew that I had to curb my expectations for progress based on his age and experience. Things would eventually come with time and repetition. He picked up on basic obedience quickly while retrieving to hand without distractions took longer. As soon as he was big enough I got rid of the pigeon wing and he graduated to retrieving a Dokken’s teal. Time quickly passed as training became more demanding. Based on my actions and voice, he began to distinguish between play time and training. This made it easier for me to decide when I could try to get more out of him and push a little harder. I also tried to balance training on water and land. Like most labs, Dalton took to the water right away. He began swimming in gichigami on the shores of Duluth chasing his teal. I liked to think that if he could take on the cold waters of Lake Superior than he could handle any body of water. I wanted the water to be something that he associated with work instead of leisure play time, but at times it was difficult to keep the two separate as he had even grown to retrieving floating fish at the cabin. Early on, I saw his intentions to keep retrieving as long as there was something to retrieve.
Summer was flying by as Dalton had started to grow into his long dangly legs. The puppy that I had picked up at the beginning of summer had gained enough traction with his training that he would be ready for the quickly approaching hunting season. I was anxious to see all of the hard work pay off when I took him into the field….