Stout heart of a quality hunting dog

Ken Kieser
Bailey and Rocketman take a break after playing for more than an hour.

Marshland sunrises create a stage where magnificence is shown through desire and challenging retrieves. Most humans will never understand why braving cold water for a morning swim would offer any kind of appeal while using precious body heat to chase down a wounded duck or goose for a simple reward of praise. 

Bailey, owned by Dave Velky, is a 3-year-old female chocolate Labrador retriever with a mother’s instinct and a stout hunter’s heart. She still has some puppy enthusiasm shown while playing with her best buddy, Rocketman, a chocolate Lab that weighs well over 100 pounds and is not yet 2 years old. They run and wrestle while chasing a Kong ball, then when all energy is expended, just hang out together. 

Kenneth Kieser

Recently an aggressive dog attacked Rocketman. Bailey jumped between the two dogs to ward off this attack, showing a protective instinct for Rocketman. The unfriendly dog decided to back off and Bailey walked over to make sure her buddy was alright. 

Bailey is spayed and will never have her own brood, but still feels that protective instinct. Her other favorite human, Lela, Velky’s fiancé, throws the ball for Bailey and the two share a strong love.

Velky hunts the Loess Bluff area in northwest Missouri. This is when Bailey puts on her game face and goes to work – playtime is over. 

The strong lady retrieves ducks or geese, starting with September’s teal season and ending with the spring snow goose hunts. She sits in an almost hypnotic state while waiting for the command to spring from their blind to find the fowl that blundered into shooting range. She brings the goose or duck back to Velky’s hand and goes back out for a second or third retrieve. 

During the 2020-2021 season she made over 130 retrieves for numerous hunters in this ancient region of waterfowl migration. This is the type of action that makes legendary hunting dogs.

Waterfowl hunters remember their dog’s moments of excellence in memorable retrieves. The sad truth of steel shot is the wounding of numerous ducks or geese. The best retrievers occasionally have to make long retrieves in cold water to chase down a wounded goose or duck. Watching a good dog work is a big part of what makes hunting special. 

Water dogs are born with the desire to hunt. Their natural instincts make retriever training easier and dogs such as Labs respond to what they were born to do.

Studies claim that Labrador retrievers have a high-pack drive, making them social and happiest around other Labs. Dogs with this strong pack drive desire to be with their family, constantly following their owners around and begging for attention. They love play time and seeking out affection, the reason they are desirable family or excellent hunting dogs.

But a downside of some dogs with a strong pack drive is separation anxiety, often resulting in the dog relentlessly barking and whining when left alone and sometimes leading to obsessive and destructive behaviors like chewing things they shouldn’t. Good training and patience will help get them through what is often described as a destructive puppy stage

Playtime serves many purposes for a high-energy dog like a Lab. They burn a lot of energy and maintain good health and physical stature. Labs love to eat and will quickly gain weight if they are not allowed to exercise. 

Retrieving in the yard is a good start to developing a good hunting dog. Water retrieves are the next step, but make sure the water is not too cold for puppies, especially if they have any kind of health problems. A puppy can actually catch hypothermia in the coldest conditions. 

However, during the warm months water training is a good way to condition your dog. All dogs swim and love the water. Repeated water retrieves build the dog’s strength and endurance while maintaining a comfortable body temperature. Running along the beach and lunging through shallow water is another excellent exercise and great fun for the dog. 

Eventually, you can paddle a row boat while the dog swims behind. Make sure you watch for signs of fatigue and wear old clothing. Many years ago, Sam, my over-zealous Labrador retriever, decided that he wanted in the boat. The 90-pound retriever swam alongside and slipped his paws over the gunwale. I felt the 12-foot lightweight aluminum boat tip and leaned to see what was happening – over we went. The Jon boat bottomed up and I took an unexpected bath. We both enjoyed a good swim. 

Stamina is developed by running around fields and other areas. Some hunters jog with their dogs. However, this can cause problems. Jogging is a good way for hunters to get in shape, but this may push an out of shape dog physically too far. Constantly watch the dog to ensure it is remaining alert. Loss of concentration is a sure sign of dangerous exhaustion. Remember to check foot pads. Running several miles on concrete or asphalt may cause painful wear on pads. Dogs are better off running in grass when possible.

Firearms training is another important step. Dogs are naturally shy of loud noises. When their dog is 5 months old, many owners shoot a smaller caliber firearm while the dog is eating or doing something enjoyable. This is just the start; the process eventually progresses to bigger guns and larger booms. Check the internet for tips on firearms training for dogs.  

Bailey will spend the next several years adding to her skills as a great retriever. Someday she will be gone but her legend will live on in the memories and stories of hunters who knew her. She will be remembered with reverence like great dogs before her that, too, had a stout hunter’s heart.

Ken Kieser is an outdoors writer for the Leavenworth Times.