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As I’ve written before, a professional trainer warned me once that my yellow Lab, Pete, might not have the stuff great dogs are made of. In the years since, I’ve witnessed him nearly drown trying to retrieve a bait bucket tied to a dock, and swim half way across Santa Rosa Sound because he thought I was throwing the mullet that were jumping.
Now that he’s eight, I’ve made peace with the fact that Pete is basically a sentient throw rug and a transport device for an ever-wagging otter tail.
But in his first two years, I still had hope that he was going to be a great hunter. After three months of work and a small fortune spent with the trainer, I was assured that Pete was fully “started.” All he needed was some actual hunting experience to polish his skills.
Somehow I took that to mean I should take Pete on a real hunt where I expected to shoot ducks and have him retrieve them.
Turns out that was a huge mistake. What the trainer should have said instead was, “If you work with Pete constantly over the next several years, it’s possible he won’t be a complete liability in the field.”
Sadly, I didn’t realize that before his first hunt.
Thus with great enthusiasm, I went out to the pond the day before the season opened, set up my blind in a prime spot and even put an auger in the ground to which I could attach Pete’s leash. I knew that young dogs often “break” and go fetch before they are given the command. What I didn’t know was that breaking early would be the least of my problems.
* * *
Well before daylight the next day, our party assembled at the barn and we let the dogs run off some of their excess energy. For about half an hour, Pete and the other two dogs ran around in circles getting warmed up for the intense action ahead.
In retrospect, I should have let Pete run for about three or four hours. Instead, we went to the blind and hunkered down to wait for the ducks.
For the first 20 minutes or so, everything was going as planned. Pete sat beside me quietly, leashed to his auger and behaving like he was generally happy with the whole state of affairs. I couldn’t have been more proud – I was in my blind with my genuine duck dog, waiting for first light. It was a peaceful, perfect Field & Stream moment.
Right up until the first birds came in.
Just before dawn yielded to day, a flight of wood ducks came whistling in at low altitude directly above us. Pete started whimpering nervously and tugging at his leash. Since legal shooting time was still a few minutes away, no one fired and the ducks landed safely. But Pete was on edge.
When a second wave of woodies came screaming in, the guns erupted and so did Pete. It’s not that he was gun shy. He just wanted in on the action. And forget “breaking” a little early. Pete wanted to literally snatch the ducks out of the sky.
He began barking and whimpering uncontrollably. (For any non-hunters reading this, that’s not generally considered helpful behavior on a duck hunt.) At this point, he was trying his best to leap out of the blind. I couldn’t shoot because I had to use one hand to hold his collar to keep him from actually pulling the auger out of the ground.
It got worse from there.
Several more flights of various types of ducks were coming in well within range. But I was trapped in the blind with 95 pounds of hyper-excited dog attached to one hand and a shotgun in the other. I felt like a pro bull rider with his arm caught in the ropes.
The combination of my left hand, his leash and the auger were just enough to control Pete’s front end, but his hind legs and tail were a different matter. With all his thrashing about, he was able to jump-kick in a full circle and totally destroy my blind during the struggle. I had no choice now, but to put my gun down and use both arms and my body weight to subdue him. Meanwhile, some of the ducks were flying close enough for me to feel the water coming off their wings.
* * *
Picture this, if you will: It’s dawn on a small farm pond with eight or nine hunters carefully hidden around the edges. Ducks are coming in like it’s the Atlanta airport and the gunshots make it sound like the Fourth of July. On the west side, exposed to God and all the world, is a guy losing a spirited wrestling match with a big yellow dog. A dog, by the way, who sounds like he’s being neutered without anesthesia.
I really didn’t want to screw up everyone else’s hunt – or, worse and more likely, get shot by “accident” – so I did the only thing I could. I grabbed Pete’s leash and hustled him off a couple hundred yards out in the woods, where he continued to howl and bark like he had been kidnapped.
He and I sat underneath the pines for the next two hours listening to what turned out to be a fantastic duck hunt — for everyone else.
I would like to tell you that I spent that time reassuring Pete that he was a good dog and that I understood his youthful enthusiasm. In truth, I sat there considering how long it would take me to drive to North Georgia and drop him back off with his trainer.
I even went so far as to compose a threatening note in my mind. I can’t remember all of it, but I do remember the gist: “Give me my money back or I’m leaving this dog with you.”
* * *
Last night, I took Pete on an easy two-mile walk. When we got back home, he plopped down on the cool tile of the kitchen floor, exhausted from his “workout.” I petted him, watered him and gave him a snack while he lay there.
I also wiped my feet on him just for good measure. He wagged his tail as if to say, “See, I’m useful!”