One day during Elle's first waterfowl season, when she was just over a year old I doubled on mallards just before the end of legal light. Both birds landed in a stand of cattails so thick that I felt a retrieve would be impossible. To complicate the matter further I could tell that one of the birds was only wounded. I was discouraged at the prospect of loosing birds and I halfheartedly sent my young dog into this thick, seven foot high mass of vegetation not expecting a positive outcome. I knew she had no experience with anything like what I was asking her to do. However, what she lacked in experience she made up for with heart. She would fight her way into the vegetation and hunt around as best she could then she would come out to get her bearings and then in she would go again. This process was repeated over the course of ten minutes or so and eventually to my delight both birds were retrieved, including one very lively cripple.
I have reflected on this experience numerous times over the years since it happened. The entire scenario was way over the head of this young inexperienced retriever, yet she was successful. Why?
My experience over the years of dealing with retrievers is that it is not uncommon to observe these gifted animals accomplishing things that reflect almost human cognitive ability or at the very least, exceed what can be described as trained behaviors. One can theorize about the traits that these dogs possess to enable them to perform beyond expectation but a discussion of that nature ultimately ends in pure conjecture and explains nothing.
A line penned by Tom Davis the Gun Dog columnist for Sporting Classics I think holds the key. He wrote: "Champions are motivated by the desire to please, not by their fear of the consequences of failure". I believe that 'desire to please' is the key to understanding these extraordinary performances. That leads to the question of how is that desire to please created or honed?
Obviously, it begins with how the pup is socialized. The whole purpose of the socialization process is to create the notion in the pups head that you are eight feet tall and that everything that is good in a puppy's life comes from you. This is accomplished in only one way - TIME!
I remember visiting with my friend Gunther Rahnefeld about how he and his wife Pat had raised the only litter they got out of their great female NFC FC AFC FTCH AFTCH Yankee Independence (Ginger). After Ginger won the 1987 National Open in the U.S. Gunther decided to breed her to CNFTCH AFTCH FC AFC Aces High III (Willie) who was not titled yet but had just won the U.S. Derby Championship. This breeding produced CNFTCH AFTCH Call Me Mister Independence (Spook) and FTCH CNAFTCH FC Free Trade (Pasco) and one other QAA female. Gunther told me that Pat spent almost every waking hour caring for the pups and socializing them.
Years later I was visiting Gunther at his home and after supper he asked if I would like a bowl of ice cream. Never one to turn down dessert I said sure. He took three bowls out of the cupboard and began to scoop ice cream into all of them. I was puzzled since there were only two of us in the house. Who was that third bowl for? You guessed it! Spook. Spook definitely thought that Gunther was eight feet tall.
I have a pup in the kennel right now who stares so hard at me that I feel she's looking right through me. She cocks her head from side to side, studying my gestures as if she is trying to figure out what I am thinking. I just can't keep my hands off her and she seems to thrive on that. She wants to be around me and tries very hard at everything I ask her to do. That is the foundation that a good team is built on.
I had a boss one time when I worked as a Wildlife Biologist who told me that my job included baffling those who I worked for with information and data, but just to be careful I did not believe my own hype. It is appropriate that I mention that advice here because while it is alright for your pup to think you are eight feet tall and possess super powers, don't believe it yourself or something will come along to remind you it just ain't true.