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Dogs for Ducks

How to find your most important hunting partner.

If you hunt waterfowl, you need a retriever. You can get plenty of shots at birds without a dog. But the birds you hit will often be lost without a dog along to find them and bring them to you. Quite simply, retrieving is the most important task any gun dog can perform.

The question is, which retriever breed is for you?

This brief review of the characteristics and personalities of the most popular retriever breeds will help you find the dog that fits your hunting style and your family.

Labrador Retriever
Of the 147 dog breeds registered with the American Kennel Club, the Labrador retriever is far and away the most popular (166,000 pups registered last year). It follows that the Lab is also the most popular breed used for hunting waterfowl in the United States. Unfortunately, that does not mean that all Labs make good hunting retrievers. Their tremendous popularity has led to widespread breeding, with thousands of Lab pups whose parents may have little or no retrieving instinct or love of water.

That being said, it is still easier to find a Lab that fits the average hunter's requirements than any other breed.

Just be sure that the pup you buy comes from parents who were used successfully for hunting and companionship, and be sure the parents exhibit the looks and temperament that suit your fancy.

Labs are famously friendly. They'll be anybody's pal. Many of them also have insatiable appetites and will eat anything and everything, if permitted to do so. Your lunch is always in danger around a Lab.

Labs come in three colors: solid black, solid yellow, and solid chocolate. Pups of each color may appear in the same litter. Each color has its proponents, but it cannot be proven that dogs of one color are any better for hunting than the others. Labs have smooth coats that are easy to keep clean. They range in size from about 50 pounds to nearly 100, depending on the size of their predecessors.

In general, Labs are easy trainers. Those that are bred right have an instinctual desire to please, a wish to stay near you, a natural urge to bring things to you, and an innate love of water. With those qualities already built in, adequate gun-dog training is mostly a matter of channeling the Lab's natural abilities to suit your individual wishes.

The Lab is America's No. 1 gun dog for good reason. The typical Lab combines a happy temperament with handsome looks, a desire to hunt and bring back anything that falls, and the ability to be content whether hunting or in the house, as long as it can be with you.

For breeder referrals, check www.thelabradorclub.com.

Golden Retriever
The golden retriever is the second most popular breed registered by the American Kennel Club (62,500 pups last year). But be warned: The majority of goldens are never used for hunting and may not exhibit natural hunting desire or natural retrieving instincts. Be sure to choose a pup from parents that were used successfully for hunting and retrieving.

Goldens are notable for their beautiful flowing coats, placid temperament, and usually gentle nature. Their owners say that when a golden is on its way back to you with a duck or goose in its mouth, the look in its eyes reaches the zenith of canine bliss. Certainly, there is no task a well-bred golden enjoys more than retrieving fallen waterfowl for its owner.

Although they often exhibit a hesitancy that can make training time consuming, well-bred goldens from good hunting stock develop into outstanding gun dogs given patient instruction. They do, however, require methodical, repetitive training techniques and may become rattled if forced or pushed too hard.

Goldens come in various shades from light yellow to copper. All shades are commonly used successfully for hunting, though many owners put camo vests on the dogs when waiting for warfowl. The golden's long coat has a tendency to gather burrs and debris and requires regular grooming but is not otherwise troublesome.

Ask any owner of a golden what makes this breed outstanding and you'll likely hear a story about the dog's devotion. A golden often becomes exceptionally attached to members of its human family. There are many tales of children rescued and accidents thwarted by the unhesitating heroism of goldens that risked their own lives to save a family member from peril.

For breeder referrals, check www.grca.org.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Don't be misled by those who say, "You train a golden with sweet talk, a Lab with a rope, and a Chessie with a 2x4." Nothing could be further from the truth. Chessies require intelligent training, not extra force.

This all-American breed originated as the market hunter's dog back in the days when waterfowl were shipped from Chesapeake Bay to distant markets. The market hunters lived a rough life and needed tough dogs that could share their load. Through selective breeding, they created a superintelligent dog with a camo-colored, thick, and oily coat; a dog that would work in any weather, retrieve countless downed birds without much direction, guard the hunter's bag and his possessions, and defend against all assailants. The Chesapeake Bay retriever has all those traits in spades.

Unfortunately, the Chessie's specialties are increasingly seen as obsolete today. Consider this: Chessies are capable of working in any weather, but most hunters today stay home when the weather is really bad. A thick, oily coat gathers dirt and smells bad unless washed regularly. We don't shoot countless birds anymore, and most any dog has the fortitude to pick up the few birds today's bag limits allow. The Chessie's determination to guard the hunter's bag and possessions can also be interpreted as a likelihood that the dog may bite the mailman. And as for its intelligence, the Chessie is so smart it doesn't need a trainer to figure out the most effective way to get a job done, and it often resists being forced to do things the trainer's way.

For all these reasons, Chessies have lost popularity among trainers who found the other breeds easier to mold to modern standards, and the breed's popularity among hunters has eroded as well (4,400 registered last year).

Nevertheless, if you are a hard-core hunter who cares more about getting the bird than maintaining field trial etiquette; if you want a one-man dog that can carry a 12-pound goose effortlessly and will follow a cripple to the ends of the earth; if you want a dog that will never, ever refuse a retrieve, and will do anything for you if you will simply take it hunting, then the Chessie is the breed for you.

For breeder referrals, check www.amchessieclub.org.

English Springer Spaniel
English springer spaniels make excellent waterfowl retrievers, even though they were originally developed for flushing and retrieving upland game. They will burrow into the thickest cover to rout or retrieve a bird and naturally bring back anything that falls with a merry enthusiasm that will put a smile on anyone's face. Springers generally have a love of water that equals that of any other retriever.

As an all-around gun-dog breed, the springer ranks high with anyone who has seen a good one work. They are easy to control when stillness is required in the duck blind and have a good eye for marking and remembering where birds fall. The eagerness with which they complete retrieves is hard to match. As with other retrievers, there is a distinction between springers bred for hunting and those bred for the show ring or strictly as house pets. Choose a pup from parents who were used successfully as gun dogs. Springers are almost always suitable as house pets. Good ones are notably obedient, very friendly, and cheerful to have around.

Training the springer for retrieving on land or water is the same as for any other retriever.

The breed's medium size (40 to 50 pounds) allows them to fit into households and vehicles comfortably. Their liver-and-white or black-and-white coat is silky and fine, often with a pronounced wave. Though it tends to pick up burrs and debris, the springer's coat combs out easily and stays clean without undue grooming.

Only extreme cold limits a springer's use for hunting waterfowl. Springers lack the heavy undercoat that protects Labs, goldens, Chesapeakes, and Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers and should not, therefore, be worked for long periods in icy water when the air is frigid.

Springer owners are smitten with the breed's versatility. Hunt anything with fur or feathers, and the springer will help you find it, flush it for you, and bring back whatever falls with an enthusiasm that can't be surpassed. If you're not hunting, the springer is equally happy taking part in any other activities you enjoy.

For breeder referrals, check www.essfta.org.

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Ask any Canadian waterfowler to talk about waterfowl dogs, and he is sure to regale you with accounts of feats performed by Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers. Unfortunately, the breed is not well known in the United States, even though it fulfills the requirements of most North American hunters.

"Tollers," as they are called, look like miniature, very animated golden retrievers (40 to 50 pounds). Quick and very intelligent, Tollers have super retrieving instincts and overwhelming determination. Their small size makes them convenient house pets, and their intelligence makes training them easy if logical methods are used and force is not employed.

The Toller gets its name and fame from its unique ability to "toll," or lure, ducks and geese from open water into shotgun range. Repeatedly tossing out a stick or ball, the hidden hunter causes his dog to run back and forth on an open beach within sight of resting waterfowl. The dog's flashy tail and copper color suggest a fox at play, and ducks and geese react by swimming in close to harass their natural enemy. When the waterfowl are tolled into range, the hunter stands to flush them, makes his shot, and can count on his Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever to bring back every bird he downs.

The breed has an extraordinary natural desire to retrieve anything that falls on land or water, and its heavy coat offers good protection in cold water. The dogs are also commonly used for flushing pheasants, grouse, and woodcock in their native Nova Scotia coverts.

Toller owners adamantly insist that their breed is the ideal all-purpose hunting dog and house pet combination, with a unique skill other retrievers lack.

For be around.

Training the springer for retrieving on land or water is the same as for any other retriever.

The breed's medium size (40 to 50 pounds) allows them to fit into households and vehicles comfortably. Their liver-and-white or black-and-white coat is silky and fine, often with a pronounced wave. Though it tends to pick up burrs and debris, the springer's coat combs out easily and stays clean without undue grooming.

Only extreme cold limits a springer's use for hunting waterfowl. Springers lack the heavy undercoat that protects Labs, goldens, Chesapeakes, and Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers and should not, therefore, be worked for long periods in icy water when the air is frigid.

Springer owners are smitten with the breed's versatility. Hunt anything with fur or feathers, and the springer will help you find it, flush it for you, and bring back whatever falls with an enthusiasm that can't be surpassed. If you're not hunting, the springer is equally happy taking part in any other activities you enjoy.

For breeder referrals, check www.essfta.org.

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Ask any Canadian waterfowler to talk about waterfowl dogs, and he is sure to regale you with accounts of feats performed by Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers. Unfortunately, the breed is not well known in the United States, even though it fulfills the requirements of most North American hunters.

"Tollers," as they are called, look like miniature, very animated golden retrievers (40 to 50 pounds). Quick and very intelligent, Tollers have super retrieving instincts and overwhelming determination. Their small size makes them convenient house pets, and their intelligence makes training them easy if logical methods are used and force is not employed.

The Toller gets its name and fame from its unique ability to "toll," or lure, ducks and geese from open water into shotgun range. Repeatedly tossing out a stick or ball, the hidden hunter causes his dog to run back and forth on an open beach within sight of resting waterfowl. The dog's flashy tail and copper color suggest a fox at play, and ducks and geese react by swimming in close to harass their natural enemy. When the waterfowl are tolled into range, the hunter stands to flush them, makes his shot, and can count on his Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever to bring back every bird he downs.

The breed has an extraordinary natural desire to retrieve anything that falls on land or water, and its heavy coat offers good protection in cold water. The dogs are also commonly used for flushing pheasants, grouse, and woodcock in their native Nova Scotia coverts.

Toller owners adamantly insist that their breed is the ideal all-purpose hunting dog and house pet combination, with a unique skill other retrievers lack.

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