When "Doing It All" Means . . .
. . . Doing It All Well
Year after year, the Labrador retriever is ranked as America's favorite dog. The American Kennel Club (AKC) registered 154,897 Labs in 1999 -over twice the number of golden retrievers, ranked second. Of course, the people who registered dogs with the AKC represent a cross-section of mainstream America.
Not all Labradors registered are used for hunting. But even in casting such stats aside, one doesn't have to look very far to see that Labradors are the number one sporting breed among hunters. Here are a few reasons why:
More To Chose From
When it comes to Labs -- blacks, yellows, and chocolates - it's hard to make an argument for a more versatile breed. Detractors often dismiss the breed as over bred, that there are too many of them around, which makes it hard to find a good one for hunting. Not true. Of course if an un-papered dog -of questionable breeding- is what you're looking for, plenty of backyard breeders exist. But we're talking about established kennels and top-notch gun dogs.
Labs are popular because they are so good at learning and executing most any task we dream up for them. A long established trend of trainability, birdiness, and desire is what put the Labrador at the top. Thereby, competition has never been keener among Labrador breeders. More breeders translate into more choices. Think of it in terms of buying a specific kind automobile. More than one dealer on Main Street allows you shop around. Unlike more rare breeds where a buyer is limited to a handful of recognized breeders, when it comes to Labradors the field is wide open, limited only by what you're willing to spend.
The Learning Time
Regardless of what you think of high-stake retriever trials, the fact remains that winning them -as Labradors do every year - takes intelligence. Trials are not about a handler's control. If you think so, then you've never seen a retriever trial. Running an insanely long blind retrieve - maintaining a line through ponds, over obstacles, amidst the distractions of retired guns, the smell of poison birds, and everything else judges throw at dogs competing at the national level these days - comes as a result of training. But it takes desire and intelligence to approach the caliber of dogs competing in, for instance, the National Open.
The demands of high-stake trials have upped the ante when it comes to the kind of Labradors folks are breeding these days. Though competent breeders of title-less hunting dogs exist, titles and hunt tests are still regarded as the benchmark of a lines quality. The trend to breed better Labradors has resulted in dogs that are, on average, easier to train -provided you do your homework in picking the puppy to suit your desires and dreams. What famed Labrador man Richard Wolters found in the late 1960s is true: training a Labrador to be a competent hunter can be accomplished in little less than a year, given a consistent regimen of little 10-minute lessons taught everyday.
Labs are so easy to train they are the best choice for first time trainers who are likely to make a lot of mistakes translating information gleaned from training books and videos into lessons in the yard and field.
In some ways it's lamentable, but gone are the days when hunters pursued only those furry and feathered critters that could be walked up on the "back forty." Specialized hunting dogs made sense simply because most hunters pursued only a single species of game bird. But today, hunters must travel to do their hunting and with the miles come a greater opportunity to expand hunting horizons. Hunters nowadays are generalists, pursuing in a single hunting season - maybe in the same day - both upland birds and waterfowl. From the pheasant fields to the duck marsh, a Lab fits the rigors of any situation. Their job description is simple, because for a Labrador it's all about finding and flushing birds and bringing to hand any birds wounded or killed by the hunter.
A Good Citizen
Richard Wolters also likes a dog that is a "good citizen"; that is, a friendly and amiable companion outside of hunting. Frankly, some sporting breeds are not. This reminds me of a recent survey taken among readers of The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal - two magazines for hardcore dog-men - that revealed the average subscriber hunted around 30 days a year. That leaves 335 days not hunting. Eleven months spent homeward bound, entertaining friends and family -living life. It's no surprise that over 75% of their subscribers owned Labrador retrievers, and in many instances more than one.
Before turning to freelancing fulltime, Bob Butz was the managing editor for The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal. He writes lifestyle, interview, and sporting articles for numerous publications. Just recently, his by-line has appeared in such publications as Sports Afield, GQ, New York Times, BOOK Magazine, and Land Rover Journal. He teamed up with photographer Lee Kjos to complete the book -- Season's Belle: A Labrador Retriever's First Year -- due out in May 2002 from Silver Quill Press.
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