Prior to my being given the opportunity to meet and develop a relationship with Puck, it had been many years since I had a dog, but most importantly I have never owned a hunting dog. My chosen career path of many years did not lend itself to having a dog as I was transferred often and traveled much.
Over the years I would often read stories about hunters and their dogs as well as see the different levels of field trials and such. I would envy the handlers and their obvious relationship with the dogs and I was equally fascinated with the eagerness, devotion and joy exhibited by these amazing creatures. The skill and intensity with which they performed their tasks was a thrill to see and I could only admire them from a distance. My lifestyle would not be fair to a dog as I did not have the time to devote that he would deserve.
Having grown up back East where bird hunting is not a major pastime I had never even had the opportunity to shoot over a dog of any kind. It would be fair to say that only in the last four years have I become a devotee of wing shooting and all the true pleasures it offers, especially the opportunity to shoot over great dogs of all kinds.
The focus of this story is a very special black lab named Puck. He belongs to a good friend and colleague named Mark who has owned many special labs and hunted over many fine dogs for years. I say this only to point out that I had no part in the training or the development of Puck. In fact, the reverse is true in that he, by his very nature and ability, has taught me much about hunting and working with a dog. It is almost as if Puck acknowledges my inexperience and has allowed me to be his friend in a special bond that a teacher might have with a student.
Puck is a pretty large boy weighing in at roughly 95 pounds and is quite tall. He is regal with a beautiful lab head and intense eyes that when in the field are all business, but when at home are very soft and gentle. As an athlete he could be compared to any superstar whose body is ideal for his chosen sport. As a runner he has a gait like a finely trained horse and as a swimmer his large paws serve him well. His large jaws allow him to grasp multiple birds either on a swim or field retrieve.
On the many occasions he has trapped a bird before it could flush, his soft mouth brings the bird to you unharmed. This gentleness is in direct conflict with his intensity, but his breeding, temperament and training have produced this uncanny combination. He can be, and often is, a bit goofy in that he suffers from separation anxiety. It doesn’t seem to matter where he is or who he is with, he must be close by one of us.
On the occasions that Mark is required to travel on business, Puck will stay with me. He will follow me from room to room and be by my side no matter what I am doing. He truly does not let me out of his sight. The same quirky behavior manifests itself even when at home or in the office with Mark. When at my home he is very comfortable and content to playfully roll around on the floor or sit very quietly at my feet, often lifting his head to check on my whereabouts, or to encourage me to reach down and rub his ears.
Puck is very well-trained for verbal commands as well as hand signals so he is a joy to have around and not a problem of any kind. We do have to Puck proof the house prior to his visit as his non-stop wagging tail has been known to clear a coffee table of its contents. I am sure much of this sounds very familiar to anyone who owns a nice dog and everyone has many stories of their best friend.
Here is where I, a new devotee to the world of hunting dogs, am so amazed at how one dog can have two distinct personalities. I guess since some humans do, why not a dog, especially one with the lineage of Puck. Speaking of lineage, his grandfather, Chug, was the black dog on the label of Black Dog Ale. If I tell you more of his lineage it would sound like I am bragging and that’s not what this story is about. Let us just say he has exceptional breeding which by itself is not the world. There are plenty of mutts everywhere who are also very special and equally important to their masters.
When I pick up the keys to the truck his ears cock forward with excitement, his eyes sparkle, the tail moves life a bullwhip and his feet start dancing. Puck absolutely loves to ride and of course he expects we are heading out to the field or pond to find some birds.
One of the many words he truly recognizes is “birds” and a metamorphosis takes place. Once in the blind or in the field he is all business. Gone is his desire to have his ears rubbed or his demand to be close. His only concern: where are the birds? His constant vigilance to the flights in the sky keep him so focused that until the shot is fired he is in locked position.
My first hunt with Puck was in Montana where I was to discover that this dog can see in multiple directions at once, or so it would seem. His ability to mark down birds in different directions, by different hunters, is uncanny. He never misses a mark and has on more than one occasion retrieved more than one bird at a time. Now I know that much of this is not new to many dog owners and I am sure you appreciate your dog’s abilities as much as I appreciate Puck’s.
I would guess that anyone who owns a lab knows what amazing swimmers they are and how much they love to retrieve, but until you experience a lab launching himself from a blind into the water, until you see him swim fifty yards to bring back the duck, you just never really appreciate their dedication, their desire to please and fulfill there heritage. I am amazed every time out with Puck’s intensity for his job. On a recent waterfowl trip into Canada for a three-day period Puck had at least 75 retrieves. Needless to say at the end of each day he was a pretty tired boy, but he still managed to be ready each morning with equal enthusiasm.
On the last day of our hunt we were hunting on a small pond and had many geese coming in. The pond was about 150 yards across and one of us shot a goose that was only wounded and managed to fly across the pond and deep into the woods. When the time came to pack up and leave, Mark and I took Puck around the pond hoping to put him on the trail of the wounded goose.
I took Puck in the direction I thought was correct and Mark went around the other side. We gave Puck a dead bird command and off he went. I continued behind him at some distance and just as I was about to give up, I could see Puck picking his way through the heavy underbrush and swampy area. Much to my absolute surprise he was carrying a goose which seemed almost as large as he and his legend in my mind was continuing to grow. Now you may say that any good retriever would do the same and that is probably true, but for me it was a new experience to see it happen and to admire a great dog doing what he loves to do.
Last winter Mark and I were hunting pheasant in eastern Washington late in the season. During the night we were gifted with a snowfall of about eight to 10 inches of fresh snow. The morning was cold, but the next day it was bright as we headed south to the preserve we were to hunt. Puck was in the back of my truck lying patiently.
There was no doubt that he recognized the gear we had loaded and knew we were on our way to find him the action he seeks. We got to the preserve strapped, on our gear and followed our guide out to the fields. We had a pretty successful day with six birds taken, our last trail taking us back to the barn was a trolley track from many years ago. The land sloped down hill a bit to the right and the left offered only cliffs straight up about 30 feet to a heavily brushed plateau overlooking the trolley bed.
Mark decided to take Puck up top and I would continue down the trolley tracks. Soon after we separated I heard a shot from above. I stopped and listened for Mark’s whistle commands for Puck. In a split second a pheasant sailed over my head into the brush below, and, to my astonishment, Puck, not being able to see the precipice in front of him, sailed off into midair 30 feet straight down, and landed a few feet in front of me, flat on his back. My heart and stomach lurched as I was sure he had to be hurt very badly. The fresh snow apparently acted as a sufficient cushion, for when Puck landed he rolled over shook himself off and went into the brush to retrieve the pheasant. Within moments he came back to me, bird in mouth and apparently no worse for the experience.
There is no doubt in my mind his incredible conditioning and muscle tone were the reasons he was uninjured. Nevertheless, I was still shaken and could not believe what I had just seen. My son-in-law, Steven, who was walking behind me, witnessed this scary moment. In my mind’s eye I can still see him tumbling through the air and hear the thud when he landed. Fortunately Mark did not see what happened and at first when we relayed the story I think he thought we were making it up.
Last summer Mark was very kind in allowing me to run Puck in a couple of National Duck Dog Challenge (NDDC) events, not necessarily to get him bird-ready, but more to help me improve my dog-handling skills.
Now if I were to tell you that I learned how to handle Puck from Puck you might say I am nuts. Well, that’s exactly what happened. On more than one occasion, in spite of my giving less- than-perfect commands, he knew what to do.
In the team event when I forgot we had another bumper on the water and I started to move to the next phase, he had his mark and went to retrieve it anyway. This was the day he began building his reputation in the NDDC by retrieving two bumpers on one retrieve and cutting our time in half. Incidentally we took a first, a second and a fourth. If I had shot better on the other occasions we could have won all firsts. The good news is Puck didn’t seem to mind we didn’t win all the events. He got to retrieve and swim and that’s just fine with him.
In the back of my mind I have a desire to own my own dog, but I also harbor the fear that I have been spoiled. Puck is now five years old and in his prime. On more than one occasion we have seen him run himself so hard we have had to restrain him and make him rest.
I am sure that all dog owners believe their pups to be the best, as well as they should. I understand that everyone’s dog is special to them and they each have their quirks that make them unique. I tell this story simply to pay honor to a big handsome black lab that has allowed me to be a small part of his life and to say thanks to a friend who doesn’t mind sharing his wonderful big, goofy dog.
You see, whenever I get to have Puck as a house guest we get to throw bumpers, chase birds and share the fireplace hearth. I guess this story is mostly to remind all dog owners how lucky they are to have a best friend that accepts them no matter what, and that one day I hope to join you, but for now I enjoy Puck when I can. After all, at the end of the day, he only cares that he gets fed, gets to retrieve bumpers and find birds and has a warm place to sleep close to his chosen friends and every once in a while, ask for and receive attention.
Al Hague is an avid outdoorsman and published author as well as outdoor photographer. Al resides and hunts mostly in the western half of the US and Canada. His photos can also be seen on http://www.shutterpoint.com and http://www.theartshop.com.