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Sporting Dogs Part 2: Retrievers



Boykin Spaniel waiting for a command

Boykin Spaniel waiting for a command

          The retriever is the most popular sporting dog. And the Labrador is the most popular breed. While this discussion will not talk about breeds specifically, we will mention some as we will discuss the function of the retriever and its role as a sporting dog.

By design and name, the retriever is intended to find and return game to the sportsman. They are normally fairly easy to train, well-mannered and are tolerant of poor shots and bad manners by their handlers. Many of the desired traits of retrievers include the ability to follow commands very well, and patience with young and old hunters alike. The intelligence of the retriever is vital to turning a good hunt into a great one.

The ability of retrievers to follow basic commands will make the day better especially when there are more dogs around and distracting their attention. Besides the basic, sit, stay, hold, heel etc. Retrievers are largely able to understand the mumblings, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of their hunters. They are taught to mark downed birds regardless of how far they fall. They willingly leap into icy waters to find geese as big as they are and attempt to swim with them to grinning hunters. Retrievers will sit for hours in the sweltering heat of a dove field – panting all the while, and happily returning doves to the shooter.

Wise dogs are able to mark several birds at once. Concentrating on the swing of the gun and watching the result. Waiting eagerly for the command to go and get the game. For the occasion that a bird fell beyond their vision, well trained retrievers are able to do a ‘blind’ retrieve. By following hand, voice and whistle commands, they can find game that is beyond their normal range and function. Many are able to make retrieves out to 80 or even 100+ yards. Often when hunting, especially geese, birds will often glide a long way before falling. Having dogs that are able to find these birds that are often far from the gun.

Black Labrador and Hunter

Black Labrador and Hunter

Other desired traits of retrievers include having what is known as a ‘soft mouth’. This is best described as carrying game in their mouth without damaging it. This is one of the most sought after traits since a ‘hard mouthed’ dog can often render the birds unfit for the table.  In doing this, retrievers are asked to bring the bird and hold it for the handler to take if from their mouth on command. Granted some will train the dogs to drop the bird at the feet of the hunter. Most want the dog to hold the bird until commanded to release the bird into the hand.

Since many sportsmen who use retrievers are also waterfowl hunters. Hunting from a boat is a norm. This being the case, the retriever must be trained to be steady. Sitting still and not rocking the boat and thereby causing unsafe conditions. Being steady prior to the shot and after is vital. As the dog leaves the boat, he must do so only when commanded. A well-mannered dog when he returns to the boat will drip dry and not shake water all over the hunters and their gear.

The retrieving breeds are many, some are very popular, others are less known but are still great breeds. It has been argued that some of the most popular breeds, namely the Labrador and Golden have lost some of their hunting instincts due to over breeding and use as service dogs and companions. While there is a great argument for this, there are still many solid lines of gun dogs in these breeds. There is no doubt that the black lab is the dominant breed of retriever in America. Many other breeds also are available to hunters. It is best to research and see the nuances of these breeds before making a decision.

The retrieving breeds are the most popular of all sporting breeds due mainly because of their ability to follow commands and be well trained. Having a good dog that will follow basic commands can be a great thing. All hunters need a good dog, and one that will double as a companion as well as a hunting partner only makes the days afield all the better. Whether it is a Labrador, Griffin, Boykin, Golden, Chesapeake Bay, or even an American Water Spaniel, finding the best breed for you and for what you want in your dog is a serious decision. Lists of breeders are available of all breeds, a simple internet search will help find good breeders. Follow up on your research, call references of previous dogs sold from the breeders and know what you are getting. Buying a good sporting dogs is as much about buying the pedigree as it is the dog itself.