An early November snow dusted the landscape, and we pointed at the bright red apples topped in white still hanging on the old tree near the shore. I followed my husband down the confined trail with my over zealous companion on lead. The dog and I stopped at the apple tree, while man and gun continued on. The light snow muffled his steps as he moved away, and I laid a calming hand on the cocker.
Dutch watches over his golden eye.
Photo by: Author
We didn’t have long to wait; a single shot soon echoed across the cove. I released the dog, then heard, "Dead bird; get back." By the time I clambered through the snow-covered spruce, the dog was swimming back toward us, a large black duck in his grip. He didn’t put it down as he pulled himself over the rock weed and up the bank. He came to us in his typical style: no shake, and prancing slowly before the delivery, unlike our liver and white who has a more expeditious delivery, followed by a leap into the air for one more up close and personal, a common cocker trait.
Snow coated my husband’s legs and arms, evidence he crawled the last yards toward the water’s edge and the crafty blacks. That’s nothing new; sometimes we even slither on our bellies and like it. When duck hunting, we’ll use whatever method the situation calls for - a few somewhat unconventional.
For example, on very cold days my husband sometimes goes to the edge of the river without me or a dog and waits until a sea duck comes close enough for a decent shot. If he drops the bird, he reaches in his pocket and calls me on the cell phone or walkie-talkie. I open the door and a spaniel streaks to his side within seconds. Within minutes, the dripping dog and duck are back in the warm house, sometimes accompanied by the handler, sometimes not.
We never trained for this particular scenario, but the dogs know where he is and they will retrieve to either of us. That started accidentally in the house when I’d see a cocker with my husband’s sock or vice versa. Sending the dogs to each other became a habit and they do it nicely. The commands we use aren’t particularly dignified, and I’ve never seen them in a training manual, but they have come in handy for us.
We’re not totally bizarre in our duck hunting approach, however; most of the time we’re remarkably ordinary. We use a canoe, put out decoys along the edge of a narrow dead end cove, then pull back into the cover of trees to wait. When the ducks come in, we get a bonus - two chances for shots: once as the birds fly in, another when they fly out. With Buffleheads, you need all the opportunities you can get. The dogs are used to the canoe and, if necessary, we use both dogs to make the retrieves.
The summer we purchased the canoe, we made sure the cockers got accustomed to riding in it and retrieving from it IF SENT. These dogs are light enough to pluck out of the water, but we haven’t figured how to keep ourselves dry during the process. Not so bad in July, but December is another story.
Tracking ducks is another summer skill the dogs can practice on the water. We use a resident clip wing mallard, turn it loose in the weeds of a local pond, then wait a while before sending the dog. The duck swims and dives to escape, but the dog persists and eventually brings it in none the worse for wear. We use the same mallard over and over year ’round for a variety of training activities on land and water that pay off during the regular season and in competition. The training provides another more significant reward - safety. We can call a tenacious dog off a diving cripple that’s heading into a sea full of ice.
In all seasons, these rough-shooting little dogs accommodate our demands plus demonstrate an astounding ability to think for themselves. Because of them, our hunting and competitive interests have broadened and the laughter in our home has multiplied. Our larder is full, and the pleasure they bring us in and out of the home more than makes up for soiled socks, pot holders, napkins,........whatever.