Man’s Best Friend Better When Wet

Special to the Valley News
Saturday, September 24, 2016

 Jamie Whyte, of Canaan, is a waterfowl hunter. He rises before daybreak to take a position in a blind, waiting for ducks or geese to fly into an area dotted with decoys. Beside him is his faithful black lab, Josie, a working dog trained to retrieve harvested game.

Ducks and geese are not easy to hit on the wing. They fly at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. They come in low at various angles, forcing the hunter to aim at a single bird within range. If the hunter takes a “flock shot,” that is, firing blindly into a group of birds, chances are he or she won't hit anything.

After White connects with his quarry, Josie goes into action, dives into the water using her enhanced sense of smell to locate the fallen bird. Cradling it gently in her mouth, she swims back to her master, dropping the game at his feet.

So why does a water fowl hunter need a retriever? Can't a hunter go get his or her own ducks?

Most waterfowl hunting takes place around water, of course. Waterfowl hunters must be focused and diligent, but leaving the blind and wading out into cold water would take all the fun out of the sport.

Birds may also end up in hidden areas like weeds or trees, which can make them impossible to find.

No matter where the duck lands, the retriever will be able to sniff it out.

“It's important for the dog to get to the bird as soon as possible,” Whyte says. “Sometimes a duck or a goose will be wounded so you don't want to leave it in the water. The same goes for hunting on land. If a bird falls into a thick patch of brush, a hunter might have to search for hours.

“To spend all day looking for one bird takes away valuable time in the field.”

When Whyte brought Josie home, she was still a puppy. She quickly bonded with the family, but Whyte knew he was going to turn her into a working dog, a process that is neither quick nor inexpensive.

“A dog doesn't reach its maximum potential right away,” Whyte explains. “I'm not even going to tell you how much it costs to train one.”

The actual task for a retriever might seem simple, but it can take as long as three years to develop the dog into a top-notch hunter. With a career and a family, Whyte didn't have time to properly work with Josie himself, so he put her in the care of a professional who trains retrievers for a living.

Twenty years ago, Buck Shope left a previous career to pursue his passion for dog training. He founded Swift River Retrievers, located in the Berkshire Mountain region of north central Massachusetts. Hunters come from all over the world to engage his services.

The Swift River facility is dedicated to transforming retrievers into the best possible field dogs. While the dog is being trained, Shope provides a safe, comfortable environment, where the dog can prosper. He limits the number of “students” so that each dog in his program receives the special attention required to produce a first -class retriever companion.

In addition to preparing retrievers for hunting, Shope also trains dogs for the field trial circuit sponsored by the American Kennel Club. These trials are a competition designed for rating the competency to perform various tasks. Many of the canines that participate in the field trials may no longer hunt.

So what is the purpose of training a dog year round if it's not going to hunt?

“Breeding,” Whyte says. “A champion retriever can command $2,000-$3,000 for a single stud fee.”

Last season, Whyte took Josie into the field for the first time, and the results of her training were immediately apparent. She performed admirably but her training will be ongoing as she continues to develop.

Whyte travels all over North America to pursue waterfowl and Josie will accompanies him on these trips. When they return home, she slides right back into the role of family dog.

Whyte hopes to breed Josie one day so he can have a litter of little retrievers.

Until then, she will continue to work.

Autumn Means Hunting in Granite State: Hunting season has kicked off in New Hampshire.

Bow hunters have been in the woods since September 15 pursuing whitetail bucks and does from tree stands.

Proctor's General Store in Enfield has already registered more than 20 deer, including a seven-point buck weighing 189 pounds! Hunters are reporting that the current hotspot is Etna.

Turkeys of either sex are also in season for archers. Hunting regulations may vary depending on the wildlife management area, so make sure to check the local rules before hitting the woods.

Coleman Stokes can be reached at stokescoles@gmail.com.