'Ruff' duty: Good hunting dogs are hard to come by

Posted: Friday, September 24, 2004

ERSKINE, Minn. The two Labradors were poetry in motion as they scoured the stand of native prairie in a dogged effort to roust the half-dozen pheasants Stuart Bensen had released into the grass.

Even though the quarry was pen-raised birds, the dogs' excitement was obvious; it was their first hunt of the fall, and they reveled in being out in the field.

Working in tight loops, seldom straying more than 30 yards from Bensen and hunting companion Chris Boerger of Crookston, Minn., ''Sequoia,'' a 6 1/2-year-old chocolate Lab, and ''Maggie,'' a 3-year-old black Lab, hadn't gone far when they hit the scent of one of the pheasants.

The two dogs began acting ''birdy,'' going on partial point and providing Boerger with a clear cue that a pheasant soon would explode from the waist-high grass. It happened moments later, and when Boerger dropped the rooster on the first shot, Sequoia was right there to retrieve the bird.

The ultimate moment in the relationship between a hunter and a gun dog had just come to pass.

Scenes such as this will play out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times over the next couple of months as fall hunting seasons hit full swing across Minnesota and North Dakota. But according to Boerger, owner of Windsor Kennels in Crookston and an expert in training, getting dogs to perform in the field doesn't happen by accident and it doesn't happen overnight.

That, too, is something many hunters will discover the hard way. That's when Boerger and trainers like him hear from desperate callers looking for a quick fix.

''It's a tough one,'' Boerger said. ''People want it all right now. They're going hunting in two weeks, and there's not a lot you can do.''

Training aside, some dogs just don't have it, as Bensen and his wife, Connie, learned the hard way. In the spring of 2003, they invested hundreds of dollars in a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, which didn't live up to expectations, from another breeder. When the dog wouldn't even retrieve a fetching dummy, they brought the Lab to Boerger in hopes of fixing the problem. After 10 weeks, he called and told them to take the dog home.

That left them with an expensive pet.

''Chris called and said the dog was untrainable,'' Bensen said. ''All I've got is a dog that likes to eat and be petted. If I would have wanted a pet, I could have gone to the pound and spent $10.''

The Bensens still wanted a hunting companion, though, and so they invested another $1,500 into Maggie, a then-2-year-old black Lab that Boerger had spent several months training. The Lab was ''started,'' or obedience- and gun dog-trained to the point where she was ready for the field.

This time, the results were better.

''I knew she was a nice dog,'' Stuart Bensen said. ''She was a big-time retrieving dog, and the temperament was there, too.''

A natural hunter with a penchant for retrieving, Maggie fits the mold of a well-adjusted dog. In the way that Labs are, she brims with enthusiasm and is an instant friend to anyone who takes the time to pet her. Get her in the field, though, and she's all business, as she showed during the recent pheasant hunt, a warm-up for tackling true wild birds.

''She is so totally focused on her work,'' Connie Bensen said. ''That's all she can think of.''

Boerger, who raises Labs but trains a variety of breeds, says a dog that's trained won't lose the skills it has learned, whether they're simple obedience commands such as ''sit,'' ''stay'' and ''heel,'' or more advanced hunting skills such as fetching and retrieving on command. But it's obedience, he says, that forms the foundation for everything else. Boerger says he usually begins obedience training when a dog is 6 months old, and he won't move into hunting commands until after the first year.

''I have to get a rapport with the dog and have trust before I can let her out and go,'' Boerger said.

For the Bensens, working with Maggie has developed into a family commitment, and their daughter, Rachel, 15, also shares in the responsibility.

''It's an investment,'' Connie Bensen said. ''I didn't want a dog that would only listen to Stuart, and I don't hunt. All three of us have taken an active role in working with her and feeling confident. I think it's worked out really well for the three of us. We enjoy it.''

Watching Maggie perform in the field confirms they made the right choice in buying the dog. And since she already has the hunting skills, the Bensens say they can spend more time enjoying their companion instead of going through the rigors and frustration of training.

Boerger says he's had dogs come in as late as age 5 for obedience training, though the window of opportunity is narrower for gun dogs typically from 6 months through about 3 years old. For do-it-yourself trainers, Boerger says the best advice he can give is to let the dog grow up.

''Most people try to do too much, too fast, too young, and the dog just doesn't have the maturity yet,'' he said.

That also could explain, Boerger says, why only about 30 percent of the hunters who try to train their own dogs his estimate have a successful outcome. After their yellow Lab turned out to be a lemon, the Bensens say they didn't want to risk those kinds of odds.

''You see a hunter out when they can't control a dog, right at that instant, they'll pay anything,'' Stuart Bensen said.

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