Minnie the Retriever, Our Little Debutante

On opening weekend of dove season, my 2-year-old Lab, Minnie, got a crash course in field retrieving. I’ll admit, my son, Jack, and I weren’t so sure about this dog. Last year she was barely a year old. She mouthed the birds and especially had trouble with the young-of-the-year doves. Minnie was not fond of a muzzle full of feathers from juvenile birds that seem to shed like a poodle. She’d pick the bird up, drop it, spit out feathers, bring it 10 feet, drop it again. She loved looking for cripples, but bringing the birds to hand was not her strong suit. And she was the worst kind of steady to shot, meaning not really.

To all the hardcore dog-handlers out there who might be fuming that this was all my fault, that I’ve been soft on the dog, I say: You’re probably right. But this is also right: Like the vast majority of hunting dogs out there, Minnie is a family dog for more months out of the year than she’s in the field. My wife walks her 4 miles a day and tells me that if I want to force Minnie not to pull on the leash then I’m welcome to get up at 5:05 a.m. every morning and walk with them. Uh-uh. I know I should trap pigeons and train with live birds, but I don’t. I know I should have her force-fetched, but I should also pay the college tuition bills on time. Minnie rides in the front seat of the car and gets not one but two treats after dinner. She licks us in the face. We kind of like it. I’m betting we’re like a lot of dog owners out there.

So Jack and I got super strategic. Over the last six months, we have worked on a very limited playbook of training. Heel, no matter how many dogs are running around or whether or not the neighbor’s cat is in the yard. Stay, period. And steady to shot. Not kinda steady, or sorta steady, or when-you-want-to-steady. But screw your black butt to the dirt until Jack or I say, “back!”

In the backyard and in the park down the street, she’s been an A-plus student. Then the bell rang on opening day and things got super serious. But Minnie was ready.

Over two days of hunting, Jack and I limited out each day. That little dog picked up our 60 birds and found a dozen cripples from other hunters. She broke only once. She sat without us having to give the command. I know you’re not supposed to brag on your dog, but little Minnie Pearl shined.

So here’s what I learned, with a data set, admittedly, of only one: This dog responds to focused learning. She does best when asked to do only one new thing at a time. She is equally attached to both Jack and I, so hunting with us together seems to confuse her at this point: Should she bring the bird to me or Jack? Who does she sit with? These are missteps I can certainly live with.

Our strategy now: Don’t change a thing, don’t add a thing. Let her get through dove season and duck season doing just what she’s doing. We’ll re-enforce these good habits. Hand signals, triple-blinds, fancy tricks—that can come. Right now we’ve got a dog that will sit until we send her, and bring back whatever falls from the sky. It was a dove opener to remember.