BUY THE BOOK
Use this PayPal button to buy Life Along the Apalachicola River directly from me for $15 + $4.99 shipping.
The voice on the other end of the phone sounded tense and a bit frustrated. “What exactly are you expecting this dog to do?” It was Mark, the trainer who had spent a few weeks working with my Labrador retriever, Pete.
It seemed a little late to be asking that question, but I patiently explained that I was planning to shoot birds and I wanted Pete to go get them.
“We tried it the other way around,” I said, “but Pete doesn’t have thumbs and my mouth’s kind of small for ducks.”
Mark cut me off before I could add that Pete also failed his firearms safety test.
“What I mean is, are you going to try to enter him in field trials?”
Truthfully, I hadn’t given it any thought. All I wanted was a dog that would retrieve ducks, dove and quail. But maybe Mark had seen a spark of greatness. Even though he was only six months old, maybe Pete was a puppy prodigy.
“Do you really think he would be good at it?” I asked.
“No,” Mark drawled. “I don’t.
That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. I paused for a second, hoping he would add something like “I think Pete would be great at it.” When he didn’t, I jumped to the next logical conclusion.
“So, what you’re saying is that he wouldn’t be good at it now, but you’ll turn him into a champion?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all.” Mark added with a note of impatience in his voice.
I didn’t understand where he was going with this, so I gave him another chance.
“But you still think he has the potential to be really, really good once he matures?”
Now, Mark was exasperated. “What I’m trying to tell you is that if you want a good hunter, you need a dog that’s been bred to be a good hunter. Pete, here . . . well, Pete’s just a big ol’ yellow dog.”
I’m not sure if it was his words or his tone that was most disturbing. I was shocked that he would challenge my dog’s lineage. Especially since Pete had come from one of Alabama’s best breeders. At least that’s what the Craig’s List ad said — the one headlined “Cheap Puppies” and that also mentioned hubcaps and a washing machine for sale.
I admit that I never actually saw the kennel where Pete was born and raised, but the overweight, under-bathed man who sold him to us said it was really nice. And from the empty Busch bottles and shag carpet in his windowless van, I could tell he was a man who knew about nice.
He had also assured me that Pete’s papers would confirm his champion bloodline. (But all of those records were destroyed in a tragic fire that also burned down his Website, apparently.)
I think Mark could sense that I was offended.
“Look, Pete’s not a bad dog,” he said. “He does like to retrieve. And if you let me work with him for a little while, I think he’ll be able to do the basics okay. It’s just the more advanced stuff he’s going to have problems with.”
“What do you consider advanced?” I asked him.
Mark was silent for a moment, searching for a precise, professional answer.
“For Pete, advanced is going to be everything other than eating, swimming and playing fetch. Get beyond that and you may have some issues.”
I’d heard enough and decided maybe Mark just wasn’t up to the challenge of training such a high-quality dog. I let him stay a couple more weeks, then I brought him home where he could get the individual attention he deserved.
That was eight years ago. In the time since, I’ve been working with Pete, hunting with him and training him. And despite the time he spent with Mark, I’m the reason Pete is the dog he is today.
And the dog he is today is living proof that: 1) you should never buy a dog off Craig’s List and 2) it pays to listen to the advice of an experienced trainer.