Although the Labrador retriever got its start fishing, it was a breed capable of far more. Here was a dog that loved the water, had webbed feet to swim like a duck and the fur of an otter.
“She truly had a sporting mania,” one writer said of a particular Newfoundland dog in 1870. She was fetching out of the sea or the river, despite ice or snow.
One might wonder how the world’s most popular dog breed — born to retrieve fish and fowl, pull sleds and nets, and carry messages on north-facing sea coasts — stowed away in our hearts across the centuries.
I don’t know so much about dogs that I’d be any good at winning an argument with a breeder or trainer. I probably wouldn’t start an argument. My only claim is in the form of stories and time spent with various sporting breed dogs, either hunting or loafing around the house.
With a new Labrador puppy joining the family this fall, I have reacquainted myself with a book on training water dogs. “Water Dog” by Richard A. Wolters is my favorite. Even though he wrote it more than 50 years ago, it has pictures and the basics.
It’s a perfect refresher on training a waterfowl dog without covering general puppy information or getting too technical. I ignore the parts about using a whistle to communicate with the dog. I’m sure many ears — both dog and human — are grateful for the invention of the e-collar.
One of the things many books and articles mention is how important it is to socialize a new pup. While rereading Wolter’s book, I wondered why more isn’t written about how to adventurize your dog.
One of the most important things, according to Wolters, is that a dog has confidence — both in himself and in you. This is important in retrievers more so than with hounds or pointing dogs because a retriever finds success in bringing something back to you.
How do you teach confidence or build trust? There are only a few pages in my favorite book that discuss confidence, but the idea is there throughout — teamwork requires trust. Your dog must believe you when you tell him to follow a line when he can’t see the bird. And she must believe in herself, which means not being spooked by fear and insecurities.
It might not make sense to take a puppy ice fishing or duck hunting. But Steve and I brought Rigby along with us on as many trips as we could this past month.
We made sure he always had a way to get warm and were prepared to end the trip when Rigby was done. We brought everything we could think of to make him comfortable.
Ice fishing might seem too dangerous for a pup. There are rods, hooks, heaters and ice holes. He might get cold. And besides, what purpose does a dog serve on an ice fishing trip?
We wanted Rigby to experience as many new things as possible and be successful at them. He might get cold, but we brought a mat, dog bed and blankets. He might approach the heater or an ice hole, but we were right there to tell him “No” and put him back on his mat.
While it’s important to know a puppy’s physical limitations, it also matters that his mind is stimulated. We all crave adventure; it’s whether we believe we are capable of it that often sets us back.
“He’ll never retrieve any ducks in your living room,” says Wolters. So the pup might as well get used to traveling and to new sights and smells, and to learn limitations within the safety of two humans who care enough to bring a sled full of food, water and toys.
I was sitting in a camp chair and jigging my ice fishing rod when Rigby woke up from a nap in my shanty. His head popped up like an animated lion cub, looking around with bright eyes. Before I knew it, he pounced on my line and started to get tangled up in it. Just as I had a bite.
I scooped him up and kept him in the crook of my left arm while I untangled line and pulled up the fish.
Just as it cleared the hole, the fish spit the hook. I grabbed the lure as quickly as possible, stashed my rod at the top of my shanty, unzipped the door and set Rigby and the fish outside to keep them both away from the hole.
Rigby’s delight at the flopping fish was second only to Steve’s at the sight of the two of them wrangling on the ice. I killed the fish as quickly as I could with the hope that it would forgive the slight delay under the grace granted to puppies and perhaps extended just a bit to those who love them.
On Thanksgiving Day, Steve and I always go duck hunting. Our chances of seeing any ducks are usually slim, but we agree there’s nothing better than getting out — you never know what you’ll encounter.
We took 11-year-old Cheyenne and Rigby, going on 9 weeks old, on a short trip to a creek that still had open water. The only bird we saw was a young swan, perhaps injured — it was alone and seemed unable to fly.
If we had found ducks, our plan was for one of us to keep Rigby back while the other shot. If Rigby got cold or tired, I had his kennel and blankets in a sled I had pulled behind me and stashed nearby.
Rigby followed Cheyenne faithfully through the grass. I don’t know what he thought or will remember.
I’m of the mind that animals are far more gifted than we give them credit. If Rigby was a child, he might be at home reading outdoors adventure books in the hope of a day when he could test himself in the marsh and feel rich in life.
Dogs aren’t people, and I remind myself that it isn’t the similarities that are as interesting as much as the differences. We were all grateful to have a day together. It’s only for a short while that you have this fragile and wild young creature in your care before he is the giant ruffian hauling a duck out of the water or at home in front of the fireplace, running in his sleep, and dreaming of the places you’ve been.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.