Hondo’s First Year: Hits, Misses, Surprises - Todd Helms
Duck season closed this week and along with it most of Hondo’s first year of hunting. There will still be some late-season honkers to fetch and probably some bird farm roosters to flush but the fat lady is clearing her throat and awaiting her introduction. Overall I was very happy with Hondo’s first year in the field but like any young dog he made mistakes and there is lots to work on in the off-season. That’s the joy of owning a gun dog though, there’s always fun to be had working toward your goals.
Hits. . .
Hondo is the most willing to please dog I’ve ever worked with. It’s as though his sole purpose in life is to do what I want from him and he does so with an enormous supply of enthusiasm. This trait has made him easy to work with and tempers his enormous drive and motor nicely. It also makes him more obedient than Mackinaw has ever been. That’s not to say he’s a robot with no brain to guide him, he’s intelligent as well and I’ve worked to propagate that trait by letting him use his powerful nose instead of my hand signals to find downed and crippled birds once he got close. Afterall, that’s the point of having a dog that can sniff out birds, let them do the work you cannot.
Steadiness is something Mackinaw has never possessed, thanks in large part to starting him on upland birds instead of waterfowl. He will sit and stay all day long, until a gun goes off and then he’s off to the races searching for birds. I hammered steadiness into Hondo from the beginning because I wanted more control over him in hunting scenarios than I have over Mackinaw, primarily for safety reasons. Overall, Hondo was very staunch for a year and half old Labrador with enormous drive. Sure he broke once in a while, especially when Mackinaw was present but I expected that.
Fetching to hand was something that, early in the season, Hondo struggled with. His first instinct upon exiting the water was to drop the bird and shake. I did my best to reinforce the “Hold” command but it took several alive birds scurrying off and him having to catch them again before he simply held onto them, delivered to hand and then did his shaking. I was pleased with how quickly he figured that out, especially since he’s only picked up fewer than 150 birds so far this year.
Another big win for Hondo was how quickly he learned that “Back” means “keep going until you hear the whistle.” Several times Hondo had to swim our fast river and complete blind retrieves on the opposite bank in heavy brush and thick grass. Thankfully, the first time he attempted a big blind I was able to set him for success. I lined him up dead across from where the bird was knowing the swift current would carry him downwind of the bird and place him in the scent cone as soon as his feet found solid footing on the other bank. This worked perfectly and I never had to use my whistle or give him any direction. He swam the river in a straight line, climbed out on the bank and his nose was immediately pulling him to the bird thanks to a steady breeze. He disappeared in the cover and emerged moments later with a stone dead drake mallard. Hondo excitedly careened back into the frigid water and delivered the bird to heal without dropping it. I was very proud.
Misses. . .
Hondo and I need to continue to improve upon his searching or hunt dead abilities. He has a tendency to give up on birds if he cannot see them on the water. I know from experience that mixing some pheasant hunting into his training will improve this tremendously.
We also need to continue to shore up steadiness as by the end of season he was getting a little ahead of himself, especially on the first few birds. A thought on this; having an over-eager dog is better than having a dog that lacks drive in my opinion. I’d rather Hondo break once a while, especially on our fast rivers, than have to coerce him into making retrieves.
Hondo has an extremely soft mouth and while that’s great for thin skinned upland birds it can be a problem when tackling crippled honkers in the barley stubble. He’s more than strong enough to scoop up big geese swiftly but he’s still learning how to grab and hold them. I’ve saved a goose for training this off-season and have little doubt that by next year he will have the technique mastered.
Surprises. . .
I was pleasantly surprised how focused Hondo was while hunting. Several times I hunted him with strange, new dogs and he was never distracted while on place and working. After the hunt, different story, as he wanted to romp and play endlessly. His good nature is infectious and he charmed everyone around him.
Hondo learned many nuances of hunting that are impossible to train for and picked each one up very quickly. For example, fetching in river current means a bird will not be waiting for him where he marked its fall and Hondo quickly figured out to adjust his search downstream.
He and Mackinaw hunted together very well, in spite of Mack’s propensity for stealing Hondo’s birds and breaking at the shot. I held Hondo back for the first few birds when Mackinaw was along and let the old man get the first several before turning the “youngblood” loose. This worked well and kept Mack from getting over-sore as well.
Hondo’s first fall was a wonderful mix of success, failure and improvement. I’m looking forward to helping him develop his full potential in the coming months and cannot wait for next duck season.