It is a thought, universally acknowledged in the gundog world, that the most brilliant retrieves and work your dog does is for your eyes only. They prefer a gallery of viewers if they’re really going to mess up a retrieve, run in at the wrong time or run over a bird in plain view!!
Most of the work which our dogs undertake during the winter months consists of good ol’ solid, ploughing through muck and brambles in pursuit of birds type of work. Once in a while, however, your dog does an amazing piece of work; it may not be the most stylish or polished performance ever seen but it is brilliant purely because it involves either gritty determination or ingenious gamefinding on the part of the dog and we, the handlers, can stand back and exclaim aloud to each other,’ Wow! How did they do that?’ It’s what makes working our dogs such a pleasure.
Last sunday was one such moment. I had taken Winnie and Mossy to our spot along the river bank, behind the prison at Shelton Abbey. It was the final drive of the day, river duck. We had a good view of birds falling and dogs working up river as we watched the water flow on beneath us keeping an eye for any duck that had dropped past the dogs further up. It was a great oppurtunity to practice steadiness with Mossy.
Plenty fell but nothing came our way except one drake mallard. I saw him drop down behind the gravel bank just where the river sweeps round in an ‘S’ and gathers itself to a slower,deeper flow. He drifted in under some deadwood on the far bank and stayed put. I sent Winnie across, it’s about fifty metres wide here and although the current is strong the deeper water makes for a slightly easier swim than further up river where it rushes over the granite bed. She was able to take a straight line across without being dragged down stream. Just as she came in on the drake he found enough momentum in his wings and lifted off and up towards the pond at the tailings. I always feel disappointment for my dog when this happens, after putting in such an effort on the swim only to have a duck dive, or fly and the retrieve is lost. Winnie returned to her spot on the rocks beside myself and Mossy and we watched and waited but nothing else came our way.
The drive ended and, as I usually do , I worked the dogs along the bank back up towards the gun line searching for birds that may have fallen in the cover or drifted in under the bank while all the time watching for birds in the water. We found nothing.
Then we arrived out onto the gravel island where a group of my fellow picker’s up were standing. Across the river, tucked in under an overhanging bank was a drake mallard. It was an easy mark for the handlers but a blind for the dogs. Four dogs had tried and failed to swim the river at this point. It’s at it’s widest here, about seventy metres across, and although the water looks very manageable it is deceptively difficult. Most of the way the dogs had to deal with a fairly manageable current, then about fifty metres out there was a channel of deeper faster water caused by the shifting gravel bed, a deep fast channel that was grabbing the dogs and no matter how hard they tried they were being swept sideways and carried down river. Young and inexperienced dogs will lose confidence easily if repeatedly pushed through water like this, particularly if they have not seen the bird fall.
I cast Winnie back, she took a good line initially then the further she swam out the stronger current took hold of her. I coaxed her on with my voice, letting her know that she was doing fine, giving her the confidence to take on the cold, hard, fast water. The current was carrying her further and further left but still she swam on, pumping those powerful front shoulders through the water. She reached the far bank and looked to me for direction. I cast her right. The current had pulled her about one hundred metres down river of where the drake lay tucked well under the bank overhang. All the way along the top of the bank she ran, using her nose for any clues as she went. She reached the point above where the drake was hidden from her view. I stopped her and asked her to hunt. She worked the area well. Covering the ground around the area above where the duck lay. I steadied her at the edge of the bank, not wanting her to make the error of re-entering the water and missing the bird after all that effort. If she jumped the bank here she would have been carried back down river to where she’d started from. Thankfully that wonderful nose of hers, that’s found many a difficult duck, caught his scent. She leaned over, reached down and pulled him into her hold.
I think we often underestimate the difference a bird in a dog’s mouth can make to their balance. Winnie was about to re-enter the water where she had initially banked without any problems. The fast flow, however, left her uncertain and she changed her mind a couple of times and tried different points. None were suitable and she knew it. All this time she held that bird firmly in her grasp. I coaxed and called, she entered once and was pulled under. Duck in mouth, she resurfaced and returned to the bank to try again. I moved down river then, towards the end of the gravel island, calling her as I walked. This gave her the confidence she needed as she knew that the current would carry her down towards me.
So with one final leap of faith she launched herself from the bank and entered the water, disappeared under then bobbed with the current until she found leverage and reached the edge of the gravel island.
It took my breath away as I watched her long swim back. What a brave little brown dog. She trusted me to send her across the water and would not give up until the bird was brought back.
As a footnote, this type of retrieve is not one I would have expected a young dog to accomplish. Winnie knows this river well enough, having worked it for four years. Even so, I would not have thought less of her if she too had decided that the current was just too much. I have to trust my dog’s judgement just as much as she trusted mine. I had intended to allow her one attempt then quit. Her success was due as much to experience as it was to gritty determination.
That was one retrieve to be cherished, a day when a gallery of lab men watched one brown strong-willed dog succeed where their black dogs failed.