Every hunting dog, of which there are thousands in this country, has their first hunt. Like a baptism into what they are bred to do, we as their humans, can only hope that this hunt is both successful and memorable; that the memories made this day will be held near and dear to our hearts for as long as we are hunting partners to our K9 companion. For me, the hopes for a successful and memorable 'dog's first hunt' were met. Toby is not my first hunting dog, but I think he will be my best hunting dog.
Toby is a yellow Labrador retriever. Just barely 14 months old, today was his first hunt. He was born and bred to this activity we call bird hunting. Like many of his breed, he carries in his genealogy all the game finding ability he will ever need. Combine that natural ability with a phenomenal desire to please and a year of solid training, and I felt like this introduction would be enjoyable and memorable for me, for Larry (who shoots the birds I miss) and hopefully for Toby.
This last year Toby and I worked diligently at refining his basic obedience skills along with the general ‘hunting’ skills he would need in order to be successful on this ‘first hunt’. He learned to be steady, to retrieve and deliver to hand the game he collected, to watch for birds or bumpers as they were thrown in training, to wait patiently and quietly in a specified location, and, the most sought skill by many hunters, to run blinds – or retrieve game which he did not see fall.
The day started at 4:30 am. Young Toby didn’t know what to think when I woke him so early, but I suspect the difference in schedule had him wondering what the heck was going on. I am also sure the next time I wake him at such an early hour, he will.
Upon our arrival at the boat launch Larry and I unloaded the canoe – which was full of decoys, shotguns, and blind material – from the back of the truck while Toby surveyed the area. He’d been here before so it wasn’t a new place to him. Still, he was doing typical dog stuff til I told him to sit. After Larry parked the truck and we were ready to go I told Toby to ‘load up’, which he happily did. He’d been in the canoe a few times as part of our ‘hunting training’ this summer. No freaked out dog here.
At departure – an hour before shooting light -Larry took the stern, and I the bow. Toby sat calmly in front of me. Paddling, we made our way about ¼ mile to a location which would allow us to hunt from solid ground. This, I felt, would be ideal for a young dog’s first hunt, even though Toby had retrieved from the canoe a few times during ‘training’.
Upon arriving at our hunting location we put out the dekes and went to shore to set up the blind. With 25 minutes to shooting light – Larry exclaims to me, “Oh ****, we left the guns!”.
How’s that for comical? We both laughed and Larry got in the canoe and high tailed it back to get the shotguns, which were in the truck. While he was gone, I found a location for Toby along the left side of the blind and told him to ‘sit’ while I got the blind, seats and other hunting paraphernalia organized and set up. Toby didn’t budge.
A few minutes later Larry returned - just as shooting light was approaching. Already I’d seen multiple birds fly by our dekes. Some even landed in them and only took off when Larry got too close for comfort. Toby saw them fly off and didn’t even bat an eye, although he was on full ‘alert’..He knew what those were! I felt it would be a great hunt for the three of us, and I was right.
In the best interest of making sure Toby’s training did not ‘go out the window’ due to multiple guns being fired, I opted not to shoot for the first few birds. I wanted to make sure Toby minded his manners. Besides I am a terrible shot and have just as much fun calling the birds in and handling the dog as I do shooting. Shortly after shooting light a lone duck sailed in – ‘Take it!’ I said, as it came over the dekes. Larry obliged. BANG!
I watched Toby, who was steady as a rock, quivering in excitement as he watched the bird splashing in it’s death throws just a scant 20 yds away. When I was sure he was not going to break I released him to make the retrieve, ‘Toby!’ – Off like a shot and as fast as he could swim he made the retrieve quick work. Upon his gentle delivery to hand, I swear I could see the pride in his eyes... I know for certain I had pride in my eyes! Pup’s first wild bird. What a memory. Nothing spectacular about a 20 yd retrieve, I know. It wasn't the retrieve. It was his FIRST retrieve on an actual hunt. That is what made it special.
A few minutes later a small group of widgeon settled in for landing. Bam, Bam, Bam went Larry’s gun…The third shot connected and Toby was still sitting – waiting for release. At hearing his name he energetically made his second retrieve. Then – over the course of the next 3 hours – he made retrieves 3 through 7. Each time Toby waited to be released, and each time he delivered the bird right to my hand.
While I was very happy with Toby’s behavior for this first hunt – he wasn’t perfect (and I didn’t expect him to be). He had one controlled break during our time in the blind. He saw two ducks land just beyond the decoys and after a few seconds of watching them swim about he decided he ought to go get one. He came back quickly after I told him ‘get back here!’
The last retrieve of the day was a 140+ yd blind retrieve - a crippled diver Larry had gone after in the canoe and sluiced. Because the bird was quite strong – with just a broken wing - I decided it would be better to have Larry take the canoe after it, rather than sending Toby on a ‘wild duck chase’ that would have been impossible for him to catch. Larry could have picked up the bird and brought it back, but Toby did not know that bird was out there. This was a perfect opportunity for Toby to build confidence about running blinds during hunting scenarios. The bird was pretty much in the wide open and I knew it would be a simple blind. I lined Toby with the cue ‘dead bird’ - indicating to him that this was a blind retrieve - and sent him on his way. He leaped into the water and swam straight as an arrow right to the duck. I smiled. There is a great satisfaction in watching a dog you’ve trained yourself succeed in a making a blind retrieve on his first hunt.
With that, we decided the day had been a true success and packed up our equipment. We paddled to the boat launch talking about the day’s events. In conclusion we realized it wasn’t the retrieves Toby made that impressed Larry and I the most. Toby displayed what we consider to be the attributes of a ‘perfect’ hunting dog. We considered his calm and quiet demeanor in the blind, his attentiveness, and good manners. To us, nothing about this dog indicated a 14 month old pup. It felt to me like he’d been in this situation 100 times before.
I know this was the first of many, many wonderful hunts the three of us will have together and I can only imagine how much better Toby will get – as long as I take Larry to shoot birds for him, anyway.