By STEVEN HAUSLER
The first few weeks of the regular duck season tumbled right on by, as my aging Labrador learned some new tricks and came into her own.
Leather, my 9-year-old chocolate Lab, has followed me through many hunting seasons together, but I must admit, she never really has been a typical water dog.
In our younger years, Leather and I spent more time together learning how to hunt pheasants and quail. We rarely put much effort into duck hunting, partly because she just didn't enjoy swimming that much. She loves water, particularly during the hot summer months, jumping around in the stock tank at home and sprinting up and down the shallow water on the Saline River, where most of her training took place. However, when it came to hunting over water, she always got a little bit freaked out when her feet lost touch with the bottom. It didn't really matter to me, because, when it came right down to it, I probably enjoyed hunting upland game over land just as much.
Leather is a special dog, but far from a typical Labrador. She loves upland bird hunting and points quail and pheasants better than most spaniels. She hunts dead birds on command and will not give it up until she finds them. She will occasionally practice a short retrieve on a dove or quail because they are bite-sized morsels that she can quickly try to eat when I am not looking. She would prefer not to have to swim and is absolutely annoyed with the game of fetch. All together, these are not qualities of your typical water dog.
But, all things aside, she showed me something on our first few duck hunts of the season, that with a little bit of effort, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
This summer, my daughter, Danielle, and I, took Leather to the lake for a day of swimming. My goal was to try to teach her to enjoy the water and try to help her lose her fear of deep water. In one warm, summer afternoon, in the 80-degree water, she completely lost her fear of swimming. It was not without suffering. Danielle and I both endured a few scratches in the process as Leather tried to transition from dog paddling to climbing on us as if we were human islands in the middle of the lake. I was thrilled with the effort, but not entirely certain this lesson would stick. I discovered last week that it did.
On our first morning duck hunt, I learned a hunting lab will follow you anywhere. As I trekked in the dark to the back of my favorite cove at Cedar Bluff, my feet got tangled in the heavy vegetation and I tumbled down a small hill with my decoy bag on my back.
Before I could get up, Leather began to lick my face, making sure I was OK.
I made a journey back to the truck to lighten the load and took only a couple of decoys and a different route to the shoreline. The tiny spread attracted a flock of redhead ducks. I was thrilled as Leather swam halfway across the cove to retrieve our first duck of the season. In four hunts, she now has a total of eight spectacular water retrieves. She probably would have had nine if I hadn't called her off a wounded shoveler she swam after for more than a quarter mile.
You can teach an old dog new tricks, and I am proud to say that I now have a true water dog.