As many of you know, each year in this issue I take a shot at answering questions that have been posed during the past 12 months, or those that for various reasons I’ve held for a longer time. Typically, I try to choose questions on subjects of interest to a broad array of gun-dog owners. However, from time to time issues come up that might not apply to a wide-ranging readership but are important to a specific group of sportsmen. Both types of questions are included in this year’s Canine Q&A.
Q: I’ve owned flushing dogs—mainly English springer spaniels—for many years, but age and injuries have slowed me down to where I can no longer keep up with faster-working dogs. I’m considering a Welsh springer spaniel or a Clumber spaniel as an alternative to the hard-charging springers of my earlier years. What’s your opinion of these breeds?
A: Contrary to what some sportsmen believe, the Welsh springer spaniel is a distinct breed, not a variety of English springer, though it has long suffered comparisons like, “Nothing but a pokey, red and white (their color is a breed trademark) English springer.” This is unfair because “Welshies,” as they’re commonly called, are different dogs with a slower, more deliberate hunting style that might be well-suited to hunters like yourself who, for various reasons, find English springers too hot to handle.
Welshies are roughly the size and build of their English cousins, though I see them as being a bit more compact and squared off. Although you won’t run into many of them in the field, the dogs I’ve been around were versatile hunters and sound retrievers on land and water. These spaniels are sometimes referred to as “Velcro” dogs because of their slower pace and inclination to stay close to their owners in and out of the field. This trait is considered a negative by those who disdain Welshies as lacking drive and style. On the other hand, as in your case, not everyone wants a fast hotshot dog. Check out the breed website at www.wssca.com.
The Clumber spaniel is even more unusual in the field than a Welsh springer. At one time, the Clumber was a working hunter—mainly in the British Isles—but is now a large-boned, cumbersome breed that has declined as a field dog. A few years ago, a British sporting journal described the Clumber as “… a dog fit only for elderly gentlemen with severe gout.” It’s not as bad as that tongue-in-cheek description would have you believe, but today’s Clumbers are indeed heavy (55-80 pounds), slow, purposeful dogs whose hunting speed is a trot, though they tend to come alive when they hit bird scent.
There are a few lines of Clumbers that are being reconstituted as working dogs, though they remain, as they traditionally were, among the slowest, most measured of spaniels. That said, I’ve heard about groups of older hunters who use Clumbers exclusively and prize them for the very traits that younger, more demanding sportsmen criticize. The breed website is www.clumbers.org.
Q: I have an 11-month-old golden retriever that’s coming along nicely on obedience and basic retrieving. I’ve introduced it to gunfire and birds and have started shooting pigeons over it. I intend to work it mainly as a duck retriever with upland hunting as a sideline. My question is: Since my home state has an excellent mourning dove population, could I use dove shooting as a means of providing my golden with retrieving experience and a real-hunt tune-ups for duck season?
A: Given that doves are America’s most widespread and abundant game bird, whose season is usually the first to open, many sportsmen use their nonslip or flushing retrievers to pick up doves. And a surprising number of versatile dogs—German shorthairs, wirehairs and the like—pull duty as dove retrievers.
As long as your young golden is started as you describe, there’s no reason not to use it in the dove fields. But common sense should prevail in all that you do. First, I suggest you keep your youngster away from areas that have a lot of hunters and high-volume shooting. Don’t chance spooking the pup: For at least its first season—both dove and duck—expose it only to light gunfire. Focus on providing your dog with retrieving opportunities that ensure success rather than emphasizing numbers of doves on the ground. In terms of maximizing your golden’s experience, three or four good retrieves always trump a limit of birds. In a nutshell, consider your pup’s first dove season as a training period in which birds are a tool not an end in themselves.
A second issue of importance is heat. Dove season temperatures can approach those of midsummer, and a young, gung-ho retriever revved up over birds can quickly overheat. Make sure your dog is conditioned, and have plenty of water available to keep it refreshed and cool. Along with the threat of heat stroke, an overly hot or dehydrated dog won’t perform well, learn readily or fully retain what it’s taught, which negates the point of being in the field. As I said, common sense is the key.
Q: I just read your November 2009, column concerning “antler dogs.” I have a Labrador-mix pup I hope to develop into an antler dog and, as you pointed out, most of the training seems fairly straight forward. However, I recently read about someone who uses what he calls a “radio-controlled antler trap” to decrease training time and create a more focused dog. Do you know anything about this approach?
A: I, too, have heard of a so-called “antler trap” that’s promoted as a training aid. I didn’t mention it in my column because I felt it wasn’t relevant for most readers; I’ll tell you why in a moment. Also, antler traps commonly refer to a variety of simple, usually homemade, structures that are baited to attract bucks at the time of year when they shed their racks. In theory, the traps ensnare antlers and cause them to be yanked or knocked off where they can be easily picked up. Given that usage, antler traps as a dog-training aid is a misnomer.
Unless I’ve completely missed the boat, the “traps,” as I’ve seen them described, appear to be—or be similar to—remote-controlled electronic bird launchers used mainly by gun-dog trainers to instill steadiness to wing and shot and as a retrieving aid. I don’t know what else a gadget would be that can be loaded with an antler and triggered remotely to catapult the antler into air. The idea is that an antler “leaping” 6-8 feet in front of an approaching pup will increase excitement and trigger its prey drive to pursue and capture the object. And that probably will occur, though not to the degree of a live bird launched to fly off or be shot. Nonetheless, if the device creates a more enthusiastic and focused dog, who can fault its use.
If I remember correctly, one proponent of launchers recommended planting a half dozen in a field, with three or four loaded with antlers (presumably, to key the dog on the antlers and not the launchers). The problem here, and the reason I didn’t discuss “antler traps” in my column, is cost. A typical remote bird launcher includes the apparatus itself, an attached receiver and a hand-held transmitter, often the same one that keys an electronic collar. Name-brand devices run several hundred dollars each. If you expand that into salting a field with a half dozen, well, the math is simple and amounts to a lot of dollars in training aids for a shed-hunting dog. If you already have a launcher, give it a try. But the value gained from investing money in one is, at best, doubtful.
Suggested captions for four chromes supporting “You Asked for It …”
NAH-1,2 Welsh springers spaniels, with their trademark red and white coat, are typically slow workers compared to their English cousins. But that more measured pace may be perfectly suited to some sportsmen.
NAH-3 Today’s Clumber spaniel is a large, heavy-bodied breed whose hunting style is deliberate and slow-moving. Clumbers are not flashy dogs; they typically hunt at a trot, though when conditioned they can maintain that pace for long periods. They are often fancied by older hunters who do not want fast, hard-charging dogs.
NAH-4 A few shed-antler-dog trainers use what appear to be remote-controlled bird launchers to increase excitement and enthusiasm in developing youngsters. The launchers are loaded with an antler instead of a bird; when a free-running pup is close to the launcher, it is triggered and catapults the antler into the air.