Hunting-dog owners who subscribe to Sam Goldwyn's axiom that anyone who sees a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined, should consult John (Jack) Cassidy of Middletown, N.Y. The burly, 60-year-old former New York City fireman specializes in problem pooches, such as retrievers who won't retrieve and pointing dogs who won't point.
Many owners, influenced by research on canine behavior done in the 1960s at the Jackson Laboratory in Maine, begin serious field training when their puppies are only two or three months old. The Jackson research suggested that the ideal time to separate a puppy from its litter was at seven weeks, before individuals start to dominate or be dominated by litter mates. Also, contrary to accepted practice at the time, which held that dogs should not be trained until they were almost a year old, the Jackson studies suggested that training could begin at eight weeks.
Cassidy believes that this is wrong and that serious training should not start until a dog is at least six months old. He says, "The most common problem I see—and it often starts by trying to teach a dog to retrieve when he's too young—is the dog that runs away from his owner. It begins when the dog doesn't bring the dummy back a couple of times, so the owner runs after him. The dog then will have a great time playing 'chase me now.' Then the dog starts running a little farther and a little farther, and a little faster and a little faster, until he's out there barking at the moon and the owner can't figure out what went wrong. And that's when I get the dog."
Eight years ago, at the urging of Helen Ginnell, breeder of Whygin Cork's Coot, twice winner of the National (Open) Retriever Field Championship, I took Buster, my then 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, to Cassidy. The dog had been great, doing up to 60 retrieves a day, putting the dummy right into my hands like a center giving the ball to the quarterback. His sire, Trumarc's Zip Code, was one of the alltime top field-trial retrievers in the country, and I had great plans for Buster. Then, suddenly, he began these "chase me" antics, which gave me fits. After four or five retrieves Buster would dance around, 20 feet from me, with the dummy in his mouth, daring me to try to get him. I knew better than to chase him, so, feeling frustrated, I would go back into the house. Two or three hours later Buster would scratch to come inside. The next day, after four or five retrieves, there would be more of the same.
After Buster spent two weeks with Cassidy, I got a call. "Buster's cured," Cassidy said. He explained that I had overtrained Buster, having him do too many retrieves a day. After a while Buster had gotten bored doing the same thing over and over, so he had started a game of his own. Cassidy restricted Buster to only two or three retrieves a day, which left the dog eager for more, and if he started to dance about, well, a marble on his behind from a slingshot quickly brought him around.
The Brooklyn-born Cassidy began training his own Labs for hunting and field trials 33 years ago. At the time, trials were largely the province of the Eastern gentry, and Cassidy remembers that when he wrote "Bklyn" as his place of residence on the membership form of the Westchester Retriever Club, the club secretary smiled and pertly asked, "And just where is Bklyn?"
Had it not been for his day job, Cassidy would have started working with dogs earlier and probably would have become a trainer on the national field-trial retriever circuit, which runs year-round. In 1986 he retired from the New York City Fire Department after 27 years in a hook-and-ladder company as a driver, tillerman, roof man, forceful-entry man and can man. The can man carries a fire extinguisher. Cassidy says, "Most fires are actually put out with a fire extinguisher, not by hose companies."
To Cassidy, the No. 1 dog is the black Lab—usually the male, who "will take much more punishment from the elements than the female," he says. The black Lab is also "the easiest dog to train, the hardest worker, a good family dog, a watchdog," Cassidy adds. However, now that the Lab is the most popular breed in the country, Cassidy warns, "everybody and his brother are breeding them, and in a few years you won't find a decent one for hunting or a house pet except for one from field-trial stock. Just the other day I was training a dog in a nearby park, and a woman called out, 'Look, a Labrador that listens!' "
Cassidy ranks the yellow Lab second, followed by the chocolate Lab. "The yellow is good, but when the chips come down, the black will take two or three more steps in the right direction. The chocolate is a good hunter, but most people who buy a chocolate want to put a red ribbon on him and parade him in the park. A good black Lab pup will cost maybe $500-$600, but any chocolate pup now goes for around $600-$700, because chocolates are fashionable."
Cassidy has informed opinions on other breeds as well. About the Chesapeake Bay retriever, he says, "A rugged, tough, smart individual. He's smarter than the Labrador, but he uses it against himself. He has to be trained so that he thinks that this is his way of doing things. Who should buy a Chesapeake? Crazy people! The Chesapeake is just too macho. He becomes too possessive with people. He believes that he owns the family, the family doesn't own him, and he gets so possessive that he may bite anybody who comes around."