As regular readers of “Hunting Dogs” know, each year in this issue I field questions that have come up over the past twelve months. Some of the queries come from NAHC members, others from nonmembers who have seen the magazine and a few from folks I bumped into at various locations. Most of these questions, though reasonable, by themselves do not require an answer long enough to justify a full column.
The main problem with a column of this sort is not that there’s too few questions, it’s too many. If you posed a question and it isn’t included here, don’t take that to mean that it isn’t relevant. For organizational reasons, a subject may not fit the magazine or I may combine several queries that can be handled by the same answer. All that said, here is my best shot at dealing with some of your most interesting questions.
Q: I plan to buy a well-started pointer from a professional breeder/trainer. In all likelihood, the dog will be about 18 months old when I pick him up. The kennel where I intend to purchase the pointer comes highly recommended, produces good gun dogs from repeat breedings and has a solid puppy socialization program. My concern is not whether I will get a nice, mentally balanced animal, but will a year-and-a-half-old dog readily bond with me and accept me as the boss?
A: Congratulations on your decision to buy a started dog, often a wise choice for a sportsman with limited time and training experience. The key period for a pup to develop the skills with which to form strong attachments to humans occurs during a brief socialization “window” in the first 12 to 14 weeks of its life. (I dealt with this subject in depth in my April/May 2008 “Hunting Dogs” column.) However, this does not mean that a pup must be adopted by its owner during that early developmental period. As long as a dog has had sufficient socialization contacts at key points, he’ll form an attachment to you when take him home at 18 months. Remember, you’re the guy that delivers his chow, lets him out of his kennel, shoots his birds, scratches his ears and tells him he’s a great fellow—he’ll think you’re superman.
In terms of the last part of your question, a pup bred and started in a top kennel such as you’ve described will certainly be accustomed to viewing humans as pack leaders. If you maintain that dominant role, you’ll have no trouble establishing your position as top dog.
Q: I read your November 2008 column about the use of predator decoy dogs with great interest. I’ve been an avid coyote hunter and dog lover for years and, as you pointed out, a decoy dog is a way to combine both of my passions. My question revolves around a possible legal issue: Does a decoy dog constitute the use of a live animal or bait to toll in a wild animal? If so, that would make the use of dogs illegal in most, if not all, states.
A: You’ve posed an excellent question, but one that seems to have no definitive answer. Technically, a pure decoy dog could be construed as live bait when it’s in the field specifically to draw coyotes, but I couldn’t get a clear answer about whether or not it is illegal. As far as I could determine, there are no specific laws that condemn the use of dogs as baiting, at least not in the sense of salting a pond or field with corn to concentrate ducks. In roughly the same vein, I seriously doubt—though I wasn’t able to verify my gut feeling—that decoy/tolling dogs fall into the long-illegal category of “live animal” as let’s say domestic mallards used to bring in migratory waterfowl. If that was the case, Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers could not legally perform their original duty of tolling ducks within gun range. (See next question and answer.) If this issue concerns you, I suggest you contact your state wildlife law enforcement agency for resolution. That said, I suspect you’ll end up frustrated, without an answer and, possibly, wishing you hadn’t opened a can of worms.
Q: I’ve owned and hunted golden retrievers for years, and though I still love the breed I would like to downsize to a smaller dog that is similar in appearance. Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers seem tailor-made for my needs; a golden retriever look-alike that’s a small working gun dog. What’s your opinion of the breed?
A: Although Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers, or “tollers,” superficially resemble goldens, especially at a distance, they are actually different in appearance. Typically, tollers have reddish-golden coats of thick fur with dense undercoats that enables them to cope with retrieving duties in cold weather and icy waters. They average about 35 to 50 pounds, though I have seen two that were cocker spaniel sized and weighed perhaps 25 pounds.
As their name indicates, tollers were originally developed in Nova Scotia and bred to mimic the rough look and shoreline antics of red fox that lured curious waterfowl into ambush range. These days most of their tolling work has gone by the wayside in favor of straight retrieving—and tollers bred for the field are capable, enthusiastic waterfowl retrievers that can also double as upland bird flushers when trained to do so. Along with sporting talents, the breed is noted as a fine companion dog that fits readily into a home environment.
My personal experience with tollers has been positive; I’ve known six or seven and they have been nice dogs, a good choice for sportsman seeking an active but smaller retriever, though for versatility, I’d stay away from diminutive lines. Breed specifics and photos are available at the breed club’s Web site, or you can Google the breed name for an array of informational Web sites.
Q: I’ve trained my own pointing dogs for years—nothing fancy, just as meat dogs that hunt the way I want them to. But I’ve never included water work in my training program; not one of my dogs would go near water except to drink. And because of this, I’ve lost grouse and woodcock that happened to fall in water. I’m getting a pointer puppy this coming spring and would like to train him for water retrieves. This may sound silly, but is that possible?
A: Your question isn’t at all silly. You’d be surprised how many otherwise savvy hunters believe that many of the pointing breeds, particularly pointers, will not retrieve in water. Reality is that pointing dogs can be readily trained for water work, and often should be depending on their hunting locales. Remember, as well, that swimming, even on short retrieves, is excellent and safe hot-weather exercise.
I covered puppy introductions to water in the September 2000 issue of this column, so I won’t rehash the details here. (I hope to visit the subject again in a future column.) Suffice it to say that pointing dog pups are introduced to water in the same fashion as a retriever; during warm weather using very shallow, clear, warm water, and always with a large ration of common sense. Some trainers advocate waiting until a pup is four or five months old before introducing it to water, while others—likely a majority—believe it can be done at eight to 12 weeks as long as the first experiences with water are fun, positive and free of pressure.
Any book on retriever training will have sections on water introductions and making transitions from retrieving on land to pick-ups in the water. Probably half of what you read in a retriever training book will not be applicable to your pointer, unless you intend to work on multiple, blind and long retrieves. Although some versatile-dog trainers go to that extreme, most pointing dog people do not. Whatever level of training you determine is best for your new pointer, I’m confident you’ll soon decide that the little extra effort was worth it.