Why I Hunt My Performance Goldens
By John Robinson
Published in the November-December 2011 issue of the Golden Retriever News
Every once in a while I’ll come across an article or post on a retriever training site that expresses the opinion that field trial retrievers are too hyper, headstrong and high maintenance to be suitable hunting partners or even house pets. On the flip side are those hard-core field trialers who believe that hunting their highly trained, finely tuned field trial machines will ruin them as a field trial dog. I feel the need to pierce both myths. For twenty years I have taken every hunting season off to hunt my field trial and hunting test Goldens. Well-bred, well-trained field Goldens are absolutely fantastic in the hunting blind or at home sleeping at the foot of the bed. They seem to quickly distinguish the difference between an actual hunting blind and field trial-training environment.
As long as a field bred Golden is given a job to do, exercised hard in mind and body, they make wonderful house pets. While out in the marsh there is no greater thrill than putting my well trained field trial or hunting test dog through his paces. It’s fun to see other hunters marvel at the abilities of my dog and me. A common field trial-hunting test, poison bird scenario is trained for a reason:
“My buddy and I stand up to shoot at a bunch of decoying birds. After a short barrage of shots, two splash down dead in the decoys. My dog sees both birds, but in the confusion he misses the crippled duck that sailed 200 yards down the pond to land and swim out of sight into the rushes. I need to give the crippled duck priority, so I pull him off the dead birds and send him on a long blind retrieve, through the decoys, past the two close in ducks and all the way across the pond to a point where he is on his own to search out and retrieve a very live duck.”
Let me give you a little background on my dogs and myself and how I became this obsessed hunter-field trialer. Growing up, one of the things I most looked forward to was the day when I would have my own canine hunting companion. I started duck hunting as a kid with my dad and our neighbors, the Fink boys, and their dad. The Fink brothers and I were the retrievers for whatever birds either our dads or we shot. We learned to handle pretty well, even if we didn’t have to sit on a whistle. We also learned how easy it was to lose a bird in the marsh if you took your eyes off the fall for an instant. While assisting our dads we couldn’t help but notice that there were guys out there who were using dogs to perform this work. The dogs were very enthusiastic, and with their powerful noses, found birds we most certainly would have lost. That was a great wonder to me and a seed was planted in my mind that germinated over several decades until I was in a position to own my own dog.
Twenty years ago when we moved to Montana, everything lined up for my wife Cheryl and me to finally get that retriever for which I had been pining. I wish I could tell you a story about us doing a lot of research, deliberating and discussing about which breed and breeding is best, different pedigrees and field lines. The truth is, Cheryl and I were sitting around reading the Sunday paper one sunny spring morning, and we noticed a litter of Golden Retriever puppies for sale out in the country near us. We thought a drive out to Kila on such a fine spring day to look at puppies wouldn’t hurt. We, of course, were oblivious to the irresistible charm of seven-week-old Golden puppies; and to the fact that a pup chooses you, not the other way around. We brought “Kimo” home that very morning, stopping off at a bookstore to buy Richard Wolter’s Water Dog to get us moving on our training. This was very exciting!
Looking back, we have often reflected on how lucky we were to have dodged so many bullets in our naïveté. We knew nothing about health clearances nor did the backyard breeders from whom we bought Kimo. We were also unaware of the great variability between working lines, show lines and just plain backyard breedings. Mostly we just assumed you could buy any old retriever and make a good hunting dog out of him. We lucked out on multiple counts: 1) Kimo lived a long healthy life without any soundness issues, 2) Kimo was exceedingly birdy with incredible drive and hunt built in, and 3) though the breeders had never bothered to get a pedigree for their dogs, and we certainly didn’t know to ask about it, Kimo’s pedigree was actually pretty good with tracking dog, obedience and show titles on both sides. Most importantly Kimo possessed that prototypical Golden temperament that won us over to the breed to the point where we wouldn’t consider anything else.
In the beginning all I wanted was a hunting dog. What I ended up with was a well-trained retriever that my old hunting buddy still believes walks on water. A dog that earned his NAHRA Started and Working Retriever titles as well as AKC Junior, Senior and Master hunting test titles. A dog that won over every person he ever met with his personality. A dog that got me hooked on this crazy sport with his first ribbon that long ago weekend in the rain at Spokane. Kimo led us to field trials and a whole line of successful Golden Retriever field trial dogs.
Back to my original argument and point about why it’s good to hunt your field trial or hunting test dog. For many people field trial dogs, field trial training and field trial competition becomes an end in itself. It takes unbelievable commitment and sacrifice to succeed in this game. Your view of the world becomes smaller and smaller until all you can see or look forward to is next week’s field trial. Work becomes just a necessary thing to pay for the game. Normal vacations are a thing of the past. All time off work is dedicated to training. Forget about the fishing or golf you used to love. Sorry you have to miss your favorite nephew’s graduation or wedding, but it coincides with this year’s National. Sounds like the true definition of an obsession. In that light, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to hear of folks who won’t hunt their field trial retriever, To them the dog is no longer a multi-purpose dog, but rather a dedicated specialist with one goal in mind, win field trials and get that FCAFC title. For many dedicated field trialers anything that may or might distract from that goal isn’t tolerated.
That’s where I draw the line! I still remember why I got into the sport in the first place with old Kimo. Fortunately, it has been my experience that the mutual goals of succeeding in field trial competition and enjoying good dog work in the field or marsh are compatible. I also believe that taking hunting season off to relax a bit and do the work for which these dogs were originally intended has therapeutic benefit for both dog and handler.
Just talk to my hunting partner, Neil Deerinng, about field trained Goldens being good hunters. Neil and I have hunted together every fall for the last two decades. He notes that although Kimo walked on water in his mind, he grudgingly admits that my dogs and my training have progressively gotten better with each succeeding generation. Back in 2006, I received a hunting journal for Christmas. In it I began to record details of every hunt. For the next three years my hunting partners and I shot 268 ducks over Yoda. He did not fail to retrieve one bird. Now 268 birds is not a lot compared to some lucky dogs that get to retrieve guided hunts all season long, but it is a lot for two working guys, weekend hunters. What makes Yoda’s record so special is that many birds were crippled or fell out of sight way back in the cattails. There were many very long blind retrieves in icy rivers and marshes. Often I was only able to cast him to the last spot we saw a bird swim out of sight; at that point Yoda was on his own. Yoda is flat out the best bird finding machine I have ever seen. I believe his greatness is due to a combination of great breeding (his intense birdiness, great marking and water skills), with a lifetime of advanced field trial training.
One final point, Roger Fangsrud is a long-time field trialer in northwest Montana, who goes back to the seventies with his field trial and hunting dogs. Roger remembers back in the day seeing a majority of truly unruly, untrained horrible retrievers out in the field. Guys shouting at their dogs, throwing dirt clods out in the water to show the dog where to go and other more abusive methods of getting a dog to simply swim out and pick up a duck. Roger, who is a very dedicated field trailer, has noticed much improvement in the average guy’s dog. This improvement seemed to coincide with the hunting test programs that were gaining ground through the nineties. Now it is common to see workman-like retrievers in the marsh or field that have at least a JH title, while those few Master Hunters and field trial trained dogs are truly exceptional.
For anyone considering a Golden Retriever as a hunting companion, please don’t rule out high-powered field trial lines. Personally I wouldn’t consider anything else. These dogs really can do it all; from running long distance marks in the Open on Friday, to digging out that hard cripple in the hunting marsh in November, and after that cold hard hunt, sleeping at your feet in front of the fire at home. I receive just as big a kick out of watching my dog dig out that difficult cripple while hunting as I do watching him punch through and getting that long retired bird on a near impossible fourth series field trial. I hunt my performance Goldens because that was my original motivation in devoting so much time and effort to training. I hunt them because it is a joy and pleasure to witness their joy and pleasure in doing this work at such a high level.
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I first met John and Cheryl when John was just beginning in field trials. I never knew Kimo (although I may have seen him at John’s feet at a trial) but I have certainly known all the rest of his crew and have cheered them and John on in the field trial game.
John is one of those people who always volunteers to work when needed; is a very good, honest and solid judge; and loves his Goldens. He is friendly to all and is quick to help newcomers to the field games. His hunting (and field trial) Goldens are listed below:
WR Kimo El Oso Dorado MH (Kimo) 1992-2004
Topbrass Wildfire Cody MH*** (Cody) 1994-2008
Topbrass New Millennium*** (Yoda) Whelped: 8-16-1998/10-8-2013
Things That Are Red For 500*** (Alex) Whelped: 5-30-2006
Topbrass Montana Lonesome Dove*** (Gus) Whelped: 9-27-2006
– Glenda Brown