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Douglas Spale | 8.1.2022

Building a Retriever

A remarkable devotion exists with each of my Labradors, curated around the ideal of the perfect retrieve. When I reminisce on my past, each pup has bestowed me with a great balance, all while I endeavor to provide them with the best life possible. Their feats have created a beautiful tapestry across my memory and carved a special place in my heart. Throughout the long, hot summer, we have begun the next phase of our journey, to build Nʉ̠a Kohtopʉ̠ into a lab worthy of her predecessors’ admiration. Although the cityscape is our primary training ground, her triumphs will take place afield. While the future appears promising, it is vital that we first master the concepts and address our setbacks following our first season together.

My passion for Labradors began as a boy in Nebraska, but time spent living in Chicago tested my commitment. Amid a backdrop of skyscrapers, elevated trains, and a bustling city, I spent most mornings training my Labrador, Sunka O’ War. Her name, commemorating the famed Lakota warriors that roamed the Great Plains, sunka being the Lakota word for dog. Sunka, the manifestation of a promise to my father to build a gun dog as he endured the difficulties of cancer, was a crucial balancing factor in my life. Our summer training days consisted of setups for an audience of glass buildings, watermarks against the mighty waves of Lake Michigan, and handling drills on vacant lots scattered throughout the city. Although I toiled as a young attorney in the limelight of a city with worldly pleasures, we remained dedicated throughout each summer – constant practice, but we lived life to the fullest.

As our lives became intertwined, we delivered on our promise to my father. Although our regimen was unconventional, I remain thankful for the opportunity and experiences we had in Chicago. Unfortunately, tragedy took Sunka before she was able to live through her prime. However, her life remains measured by the moments we spent together, and her value is ever enduring in the relationships that were built around her presence.

Now, I continue to build the next in line, Nʉ̠a Kohtopʉ̠ (Kohtop), translating to “my fire” in the beautiful Comanche language. Her first season was a series of milestones in various environments across the country. Each experience brought new light to her life, but also obstacles to overcome. The summer months have given us a chance to build upon her successes and to correct her failures. As such, there is a distinct beauty in the opportunity to build a young Lab, their enthusiasm continually propels their desire to please.

While our hunts on the Front Range of Colorado offered impressive views of the stunning mountain ranges, the style of hunting from pit blinds limited Kohtop’s ability to accurately mark the fall of birds. In response, we have been working to build her momentum and confidence when completing blind retrieves at various distances and across differing terrain. A true standard of a well-trained retriever is the mastery of the blind retrieve. Throughout each milestone, there is an ecstatic beauty building in her eyes while the fire in my heart feeds off her excitement for life.

Although a water-loving dog by nature, Kohtop had difficulties crossing various bodies of water to retrieve fallen fowl, marshes, streams, and big water. The rivers of Nebraska and Kansas provided bountiful opportunities to pursue waterfowl, but the sandbars tended to make navigating long retrieves somewhat of a challenge. In part, her struggles were due to her size, the first year placing many limitations on a growing pup. When working in water, I have exposed Kohtop to the series casting commands overlaid with a whistle, a vital tool on those windy days and when vision is limited. In addition, our hope has been to extend her distance on marks, as attrition and increasing complexity serve as a metric for our progress.

Finally, it is vital to our method that we continue to work with experienced trainers, their grounds offer us the opportunity to expose Kohtop to live gunfire and quarry, a limitation in our cityscape. While we forego the testing circuit due to our hunting lifestyle, practicing with test marks and setups teaches Kohtop how to count and think. In addition, Kohtop has worked from boat blinds, on land, and various dog stands similar to those that we will utilize throughout the season - exposure to the elements produces a more confident retriever. The benefit of the test setups comes from conditioning Kohtop to look out and analyze the field, a skill that is important for future successes in any environment.

Kohtop’s age and maturity dictated our pace this summer. With optimistic ambitions, we will continue to develop her prowess. While progress is the objective, it is also important for Kohtop to occasionally review her foundational commands; the hunting season lends itself to a more lenient standard. Ultimately, the mistakes and setbacks are inevitable, but overcoming each obstacle brings us closer together.

In the end, it comes down to mastering the basics, introducing the intermediate skills, and then adding joy to our dedicated regimen – these are the ingredients that have prepared us for the promises of the fall.