One sunday morning last September, a nice old lady took a walk along the Bronx River in Scarsdale, New York and met a grumpy middle-aged man with a large black dog. "What kind of dog is that, sir?" she asked. "It's a Labrador retriever," said the man. "What does it do?" said the lady. "It retrieves ducks," said the man. "I beg your pardon?" said the lady. "Here," said the man, "I'll show you." He commanded the dog to sit, then gave it a hand signal toward a clump of brush 100 feet down the path. The Labrador raced toward the brush, plunged into the thick of it and emerged with a plump mallard drake in his mouth, which he delivered to the man.
"My goodness!" said the lady. "Does he always do that?" "No, ma'am," said the man. "Sometimes he retrieves a pheasant. Like this." He flicked his hand toward a tangle of grass on the other bank of the creek, and the dog swam the creek and dashed into the grass. In a minute he found a dead pheasant and, holding it tenderly in his mouth, he swam the creek and delivered it to the man's hand.
"Well, I declare," said the lady. "You mean that any time you want a duck or a pheasant you just send this creature out and he brings one back?" "Yes, ma'am," said the man and walked on with the dog at heel.
I know this story to be true, for the black dog was mine and the man was I. The day before I had been to a field trial of the Shrewsbury River Retriever Club in New Jersey, and after the trial (which I'm happy to report my dog's sire won) I had bought a fresh-shot pheasant and duck to use in training my young Labrador retriever to make blind retrieves. Earlier that morning I had walked down to the park alone and tossed the dead duck and pheasant into the thick cover, and the old lady met me as I was bringing the dog along the path near the hidden birds. Probably if I had breakfast I'd have explained that normally retrievers bring back pheasants and ducks only when somebody has just shot them and that they are bred and trained to work with gunners, retrieving downed birds—especially ducks, which often fall in open or running water, and pheasants, which often run long distances even when mortally wounded. (I might even have told her that my Labrador once retrieved a six-pound crown roast of lamb from somebody's back porch and that, even though we made inquiries, we never found out where it came from.)
If she'd been spoiling for a lengthy discussion I might have explained that retrievers recover tens of thousands of upland game birds that would otherwise never be found in thick cover and hundreds of thousands of wildfowl that would float away on a tide or river before the gunner could pick them up by boat or wading.
I'd have declared that as the ratio of game to gunner decreases there must be a shift of emphasis from limit bags (even reduced limit bags) to other pleasurable aspects of wing shooting—and a well-trained dog can immensely enhance the enjoyment of a day afield. The duck hunter who formerly got most of his satisfaction from difficult shots well-executed will find that a good retriever beside him in the blind, or walking at heel as he jumps pothole ducks from a marsh, will add a new dimension of interest and pleasure to his sport, not merely by its enthusiasm and style in retrieving game but by providing a kind of companionship that is silent but quite real.
And I'd have pointed out that the training of his own dog is a task in which the gunner may find rewards of satisfaction that no number of dead birds in the freezer can provide.
Kinds of gun dogs
Gun dogs are of three types: bird dogs (which locate birds on the ground and point them until the hunter comes up and flushes them into the air), spaniels (which locate birds on the ground and flush them into the air whether the gunner is ready or not) and retrievers (which are generally trained to stay at heel or in the blind until ordered to retrieve a dead or wounded bird). Many bird dogs are trained to retrieve (the Brittany spaniel does so naturally), and some gunners use their retrievers to locate and flush upland game.
The Labrador retriever
Sometime during the 17th and 18th centuries, along the coast of Newfoundland, a remarkable breed of dog came into being. Its ancestors had almost certainly come from Europe and probably included the famous black hounds of St. Hubert. By 1800 two distinct types had developed: one so large and heavy it was often used to haul carts and sleds, the other smaller, smoother-coated and used by local hunters to retrieve wildfowl from the cold, rough sea and by fishermen to retrieve fish escaping from the net. (Most retrievers can be taught to retrieve a played-out trout or salmon.)