Some of the best trained retrievers that I’ve ever observed (and owned) will break training and make their owners look silly under the excitement of their first real hunt of the year. For months they’ve been used to working on training dummies and dried bird wings. Suddenly the hunters and dogs are in out in the field, hunting relatively close together, guns are going off everywhere and it seems to be raining birds from the air. Hunters as well as dogs are excited and suddenly the training regimens are forgotten. The instinct of retrieving overpowers the training that has been pounded into the dog’s head for months.
Probably the most embarrassing incident that I’ve ever personally experienced with a retriever happened to me last year on a youth only, tower shoot for pheasants. I was invited to come along on this hunt with my grandson and was also bringing a dog that had been given to me only a few weeks prior to the tower shoot. The yellow lab was as highly trained as any dog I’ve ever owned. I’d spent just a few days actually working with this dog prior to taking him on a hunt among experienced and inexperienced hunters as well as other dogs.
The only people that were allowed to actually shoot on this hunt were the youngsters (under 16 years of age). Each hunter was accompanied by an adult and the hunt only began after very strict hunter safety instructions were given.
Basically a tower shoot works like this.
In the center of an open field a tower stands about 50 feet high. There’s a platform on top of the tower from which bird handlers release adult, pen-raised, ringneck pheasants. The hunters form a large circle about 100 yards away from the tower which is in the center of the circle. Hunters (and the adults accompanying them in this case) are spaced about 60 yards apart around the perimeter of the circle. All hunters are under strict instructions not shoot at low flying birds or in the general direction of the other hunters on the hunt. If a pheasant is flying at a hunter’s position and seems to be passing over his head (or off to the side not more than 25 yards to either side) the hunter is open to take a shot.
When the pheasants are released from the tower they fly off in random directions. Birds are released quickly and, when multiple birds are released at the same time, the shooting can happen quickly. I’d estimate that at least 60% of the birds that were released made it safely to the brushy cover near the field. Probably 30% of the hunters had brought along their dogs to retrieve the game they brought down. In most cases, these dogs were disciplined and well trained.
The young hunters and their supervisors were well controlled but for some of the dogs, the excitement of the moment was more than they could take. In my case, my new dog provided the entire group of hunters with a good laugh and supplied me with a very red face.
I knelt a few feet to the rear of my grandson as he fired at oncoming pheasants and held the new dog (Luke) on a leash. I’d anticipated that the shooting and the sight of birds falling from the sky was going to be exciting for Luke and felt that the leash would helped to insure that he didn’t break, What I hadn’t figured on was Luke’s strength combined with his enthusiasm.
Luke’s former owners had described Luke as being “a tremendously strong, 90 pound, athlete.” I should have paid more attention to that!
Forrest had just taken his fourth unsuccessful shot at a pheasant when a nearby hunter made a successful shot. The combination of close-by missed shots and falling birds all around us was more than Luke could take. Breaking his training of not going after a downed bird until he was commanded to do it, Luke was off like a shot. It wasn’t like a shot from a little 20-gauge shotgun; it was like a shot from a cannon. It wasn’t hard for a 90-pound dog to jerk a kneeling hunter who was firmly attached to a leash around the dog’s neck
Off went 90-pound Luke dragging a 170-pound granddad behind him. The yellow leash was wrapped firmly to my left wrist and I followed the dog like a sled follows the dogs in the Iditarod sled race across Alaska. In this case the “sled’s” runners were my face and belly and the husky was a very strong yellow Lab.
Using my toes like the brake on a dog sled I finally managed to get Luke stopped long enough to untangle the leash from my wrist and free myself from the dog. Off went Luke, streaming the yellow leash behind him, retrieving every pheasant he saw fall to anyone who’d accept his gift without discrimination as to who shot it. Off went Granddad as I brushed off mud, grass and an ego.
The point is that even well trained dogs can and will break training in the heat of the opening day of dove season. Dove hunters are usually shooting relatively close to the other hunters in a field and, on the first day of the season, the sounds and enthusiasm of the hunt can overpower the training of a dog.
Similar things have happened during the opening days of waterfowl season conditions like you could find on well-known public waterfowl hunting areas. In retrospect, some of the yelling and screaming directed by hunters at their dogs under conditions like this can be downright comical and, at the same time, maddening. It’s unfortunate that most scenes like this happen at about the same time as the brief morning flight of ducks is occurring and hunters are trying to pack in as much shooting as they can during this short period of time. Scrambling dogs and shouting hunters don’t stay very well hidden from duck’s keen vision.
If hunters do everything they can do to properly train their dogs before embarking on a hunt, it’s all one should expect from them. We humans have the ability to control our emotions under the excitement of an opening day but our dogs sometime have a mind of their own. The misbehavior of sporting dogs can be forgiven in most cases because most hunters have had similar experiences at one time or another.
Always put safety in the field foremost and try to keep your sense of humor about you when dogs don’t behave exactly by the book. Who knows, there might be some Alaskan up there that needs a good strong sled dog.