Pretty Good But Not Totally Trained…

Pretty Good But Not Totally Trained

“RD, you look like a goddam idiot! “

I suppose it was my own damn fault!  I mean, what did I expect would happen if I went duck hunting with a guy who doesn’t really hunt very much.  After all, he did tell me straight up that he normally only hunts ducks one or two days each season. Warning flag…

There are several things you can expect when you agree to hunt with some random guy that you met through a friend, especially when you know for a fact that the guy couldn’t tell the difference between a “blue-winged mallard” and a “red-headed wood duck,” or whatever the hell it was that he said.

A real classic is when the guy shows up on the morning of the hunt wearing a Toronto Blue Jays jacket and running shoes.  And, the best part is when he explains to you that “ducks and geese are colour blind” and that a blue jacket is “just fine” for waterfowl hunting.  I guess that’s why camo clothing is now a multi-billion dollar industry.

Another goodie is when “Mr. Know-It-All Duck Hunter” shows up with a single shot .410 made in the year 1788 BC that has more rust on it than a six inch spike stuck in an old dock at the bottom of a lake.  And, then you get your second lesson of the day when he explains to you that you’re only “supposed to hit them in the head.”  Okaaaaaaaaaaaay…

The worst possible scenario is when the guy insists that he bring his dog along.  Naturally, at this point you sense trouble, so you nervously ask, “Is he trained?”  And, then you get the typical response.  “Well, he’s pretty good, but not totally trained.”  That’s like when you ask someone if they do any fly fishing and they say, “Well, Ihave fly fished.”  Translation – “I know nothing about fly fishing.”  With my experience as a hard-core, gung-ho duck hunter, I’ll offer this piece of sound advice at this time.  Forget it!  Don’t even think about it!  Stay in bed!  Go fishing!  Cut the grass!  Split some firewood!  Sit around all day and scratch your belly.  Do anything but go duck hunting with a guy who has a dog that’s “pretty good but not totally trained.”

Okay, so maybe thirty some years ago I didn’t think quite the same way as I do now.  I was also in a different situation than I am in today.  Having just finished high school, I had moved to Toronto and found a small apartment in which to rot.  (The cockroaches didn’t even help out with the rent!)  The problem was that living in a small bachelor pad didn’t provide any room to store a boat, motor, oars or even decoys.  To sum it all up, living at the corner of Don Mills Road and the 401 made things a little tough for a duck hunter, especially one who didn’t even have a vehicle.

So when I met this self-proclaimed duck hunter (I’ll call him Paul because that was his name) at a friend’s place and he offered to take me duck hunting, I jumped at the chance.  After all, he had a truck, a boat, some decoys and… a dog.  I figured the part about “pretty good but not totally trained” wouldn’t be a big deal.  After all, it’s better than having no dog at all, isn’t it?  Paul’s biggest problem as he told me was that he didn’t know very many good places to hunt for ducks in the Toronto area.  But I did.  There were plenty of great spots within an hour or two of the city.  So we set our plans for the following Saturday.  Our destination was the famous Luther Marsh, not far from Orangeville.  I had hunted there many times before and I knew the area well.

I was totally pumped as I waited in the darkness outside the lobby of my high-rise apartment building.  Camo clothing, waders, shotgun, ammo, lunch and rest of my ultra-rugged duck huntin’ gear, ready to blast off.  One young couple walked out of the building, obviously non-hunters.  When they saw all my rugged huntin’ gear, especially my gun case, they looked a little nervous… almost like they were on a jungle safari and suddenly came upon a group of gung-ho Nicaraguan guerillas.  “Excellent!” I thought to myself as Paul pulled in – and he was right on time!  What I saw next is something that I’ll never, ever forget.  As Paul came around and unlocked the passenger door of his truck, I saw the biggest, fattest and ugliest yellow lab in the history of dogs.  This great big goof must have weighed at least 130 pounds and had a huge set of floppy jowls that hung so low, I feared one of them might get caught up in the brake pedal.  His head was bigger than the steering wheel and he had these super-duper, extra-long, extra-slimy, bungee cord-like drool things hanging from each side of his enormous snout.  They kept on going down, then up… down, then up again.  And, they’d swing to the sides and stick to his head.  Gross.

The really sad part is that I had to sit with this big slob on top of me all the way to Luther Marsh.  It wasn’t cold out, so he really should have been in a transport crate or kennel in the back of the truck.  I should have brought a six pack of Sham Wows along to wipe the slobber off my shoulder.  As I climbed in beside this beast, I asked as politely as I could, “Uh, like… what the hell do you feed him?” Paul then returned with a real perky voice that for some reason, kind of pissed me off.  “Whatever he wants, but his favourite meal is double pepperoni pizza.”  So at this point, I was presented with an opportunity to deliver some classic, super-sonic, Rugged Dude calibre sarcasm, an opportunity that I never let slide by, unscathed. “Okay, sooooo… can he swim or does he just sink?”  When he sat there on the seat looking slightly upward, it appeared as though someone had glued a large package of really hairy Italian sausages to the back of his neck.  That should provide you with a clear mental image.  You’re welcome.   And, if double peperoni pizza was his favourite meal, donuts must be his second, because there was icing sugar and jam all over his face, adding “accent and appeal” to the drool.  The crumpled up Tim Horton’s bag on the floor was a dead giveaway.  Jesus Christ…

After a couple of hours we finally arrived at the Luther Marsh boat launch.  Good thing too.  I wouldn’t have lasted much longer with that big oaf drooling all over me.  I gathered he likely had a pizza the night before because he was constantly letting these incredibly raunchy doggie farts sneak out.  You know the ones that you never actually hear, but you really don’t need to hear anything to know that there’s a fart lofting beside you?  And, his horribly rotten shitty-ass, dog breath almost made me puke on at least three occasions.  I kept on having to roll down my window.

“Okay, everyone out,” Paul announced.  Well, the first thing ol’ Champ did (Champ will have to do because I honestly forget what Paul called this poor excuse for a dog) was run over to the first dog he saw and start up the brand new UFC Canine Division.  Now, I could be wrong, but I got the feeling that the owner of the other dog was not impressed with ol’ Champ kicking the living crap out of his sixty pound Golden Retriever.  After we got both contestants separated and Champ tied to a tree, we began to wipe the blood off the Golden and assess the damage.  After many apologies, exchanging of phone numbers and a promise from Paul to pay for any vet bills, it was time to get this show on the road.  I was getting very anxious.

Pictures this: A lightweight, twelve foot Jon Boat, two guys, two dozen decoys, two paddles, enough ammo to take on the North Korean Army, lunch boxes, no flashlight and a big, fat goofy dog that was about as dumb as a stump.  Every five or six seconds, Paul would scream at Champ, “SIT DOWN!”  I swear there were at least three times when that dog nearly rolled us.  I was beginning to think that rather than being on a duck hunting trip, I was actually going to early morning swimming classes.  I can recall some other guys laughing at us as we puttered passed their blind.  Remember, “pretty good, but not totally trained?”  I made damn sure my floatation vest was adjusted properly.  I honestly and truly thought I was going for a swim.

Somehow, without a flashlight and without drowning (and without me punching Champ right in the face) we finally made it to the spot where we would set up our blind.  So now the task of decoy placement was about to begin.  Just as fast as we could toss the blocks into the water, “Champ, the Wonder Dog” would swim through the lines and get all tangled up.  “Pretty good, but not totally trained,” I kept thinking to myself.  By this time, I was already fantasizing about how much fun it would be to kick that dog in the balls.  After a twenty minute monkey-farce, we finally had the decoys out and the blind ready.  Speaking of the word, “ready,” I think I was just about ready to shoot myself in the face.

“Oh, I’d love some hot coffee,” I said with a huge sigh of relief.  (What I really needed was some coffee andabout twenty five Advil, but I didn’t have any.)  So, out came my coffee thermos and a granola bar. Well, my plans for a quick snack were over in a flash.  Champ nabbed the granola bar right out of my hand and inhaled it in one swift, well-rehearsed motion, wrapper and all.  I figured I might as well leave the coffee for another time.  Ya, like the next day perhaps?

There we were.  Duck hunters.  Rugged individuals.  Men of the wilderness.  Providers of food for our families.  We were ready.  Paul at the stern, Champ in the middle and me at the bow.  Ten minutes after legal shooting time, a pair of blue-winged teal came scorching in low and on my side.  One of them was a “full-plume” drake that I really wanted for my wall.  “I got ‘em,” I whispered.  BANG!  I fired and exactly one second later, three things happened all at exactly the same time.  The drake fell, Champ dove out of the boat and I landed on the floor.  “That’s my boy!”  Paul stated proudly.  “Did you see that?  He was out of the boat before that duck even hit the water!”  Well, at this point, I knew what Bruce Bell of the St. Louis Blues must have felt like when Wendel Clark almost killed him with what has been considered one of the best body checks in the history of the NHL.  I guess Paul wasn’t familiar with the term “steady dog.”  Either was Champ.  “Pretty good, but not totally trained.”

So, there went Champ, swimming diligently toward my downed bird, with a large package of very hairy Italian sausages glued to his neck.  Before he was even half way to the dead duck, he was coughing, snortin’ and panting so badly, I thought I was going to witness my very first dog heart attack.  As he arrived at the bird, Paul rose with great authority and gave the big command.  “Champ, COME!”  Well, I guess ol’ “Champster” had other ideas, because he started swimming in the exact opposite direction.  When he got to a small island, he made it quite clear that this duck would never see the inside of a taxidermy studio.  One… two… three bites and… and… and… it’s GONE!  The bird was totally gone! “JESUS CHRIST!” I yelled out in total disbelief!  Champ inhaled the entire bird, legs, head, wings, feet, guts and all.  Gone in three massive and incredibly powerful thrusts from his giant throat.  It was almost like the Ford Motor Company had installed a piston from a large diesel engine in the back of his neck.  I swear to this day… he didn’t chew a thing.

After listening to Paul scream his face off and threaten to shoot poor Champ, the rogue retriever finally returned.  The tangled mess of decoys ended up in the boat with us, finally coming to rest in the bushes behind us.  After a couple of minutes of very awkward silence, Paul spoke with a tone of voice that almost seemed to defend his useless dog.  “Okay, a little mistake there, no big deal.  It’s still early, right Champster?”

A few minutes later, Champ decided to take a little stroll down the shoreline.  Ya know, “just to see how the other guys were doing.”  About fifteen minutes later, a canoe appeared and it looked like it was heading our way.  “I wonder what he wants?”  Paul mumbled with an inflection in his voice that told me he figured that Champ was somehow involved in this.  Within a few minutes, there stood this massive, burly, saskwatch (I think that’s how you spell it) of a man, only ten feet from us.  And, he was holding what looked like a 10 gauge shotgun.

Now, you must understand, this was no ordinary man.  First, he stood about eight foot, eighteen or so, he must have weighed 550 pounds and he had this… this… this head… that was even bigger than Champ’s.  He also had this one, great big, huge, ultra-thick uni-brow that ran the entire width of his humungous forehead.  I got the feeling, especially after smelling his rotten ‘morning after’ whiskey breath, that this man found great pleasure in going into a bar and beating up everyone in the place.  I truly believe that if he had wanted to, he could have easily killed both Paul and I in less than five seconds with only his bare hands.  I was shaking like a leaf.  In fact, I was so scared that if I remember correctly, a little bit of pee actually did come out…

Glaring straight at me, he announced with great authority, “Your dog just pissed on my lunch box and I normally prefer to eat food that doesn’t have dog piss on it.”  With barely a pause, he went on, “Unless you want your arms, legs and all of your ribs broken, I suggest you keep your useless piece of shit of a mutt away from me for the rest of my life.”  I replied immediately and with the same level of respect a young private would give a drill instructor in the U.S. Marines.  “SIR, YES SIR!”  There was no time to explain that I wasn’t the owner of the dog, the idiot standing beside me was.  He then gave us a few final words of encouragement, along with a few internationally understood hand and finger gestures, horked up a loogy bigger than a baseball and then paddled away.  Paul looked toward me apprehensively and very quietly dribbled out, “Um… sorry about that.  I’ll go get ‘em.”  Great.  “Pretty good, but not totally trained.”  Prick.

When Paul returned with his dog a few minutes later, Champ was all “Mr. Happy Smiley” and was wagging his tail and drooling everywhere.  Suddenly, without any warning, Paul hollered out, “BAD DOG!” And, then he wound up and nailed poor Champ right square on the side of his huge melon with a solid left hook.  Now, I ain’t talkin’ about a regular left hook.  I’m referring to the quality of left hook that Joe Frazier floored Ali with back on March 8, 1971 in Madison Square Garden.  But, don’t worry about ol’ Champ.  He didn’t feel a thing.  He continued to jump around, wag his tail and drool while Paul screamed out in pain after smashing his hand.  So, what did Champ do at this point you ask?  He decided to go chasing squirrels in the bushes behind us.  Once again, I thought to myself, “pretty good, but not totally trained.”  Holy shee-it!

Twenty minutes later, Paul arrived back at the boat.  His face was all red and he was huffin’ and puffin’ and sweating like a pig.  He was holding Champ by the scruff of his neck.  “Get the hell in that goddam boat!” he screamed.  Champ’s breath was worse than ever now and to be honest, I think he must have eaten some dog crap or something.  Probably his own.

Okay, finally… Champ is calm and actually in the boat with us, Paul has stopped screaming and beating up his dog and on the approach was a half dozen mallards.  To tell you the truth, I nearly forgot that we were hunting.  BANG!  Down goes the duck and there goes Champ again.  (I was smart enough to get out of the way this time.)  Paul was a little tense as he stood to watch his dog’s second retrieve of the morning.  Don’t forget, he’s “pretty good, but not totally trained.”  With some obvious relief, Paul yelled, “He’s got it and… uh oh.”  As soon as Champ grabbed the duck, he swam away from us, down to see “Mountain Man Dean” again.  You know… the guy with the huge uni-brow and rotten whiskey breath.  A couple minutes later, we heard a voice yell with an immeasurable level of sarcasm, “Thanks for the duck you stupid assholes!”  I vaguely remember some laughter coming from another blind just a little ways down the marsh.

About five minutes later, Champ arrived once again, still wagging his tail like he was a good boy for making such a great retrieve or something.  And, while I kept a look-out for “Andre the Giant” to appear in his canoe again, I was halfway through planning my escape route.  I had decided that if I saw the same canoe coming toward us again, I was going to simply jump out of the boat, scramble to the bushes and run like a son of a bitch all the way to Toronto.  And, I wouldn’t stop running until I was in the elevator of my apartment, with the door closed.  I then noticed Paul staring straight out into the marsh.  It was almost like he was caught in some bizarre, futuristic force field that you’d see on Star Trek or something.  He wasn’t even blinking.  He was completely motionless, barely able to speak.  “D-d-d-d-d-d-do you think I should go and p-p-p-p-p-put Champ in the truck?”  My response was controlled and reasonable considering the fact that I was in the midst of a hunting trip from hell and just minutes away from having to run all the way back to Toronto.  “Well, I guess that might not be a bad idea.”

Yes, this dog was a big, fat and ugly jerk that drooled all over me and nearly vaporized me with his pizza farts.  Yes, he nearly killed another man’s dog.  Yes, he nearly drowned us.  Yes, he stole my granola bar. Yes, he ate my teal.  Yes, he nearly got me killed by the largest human being to ever walk on the planet.  Yes, he delivered my second duck to that very same man who threatened to mangle various parts of my body.  However, not one single act of disobedience was the fault of poor Champ.

Training dogs is precisely like raising kids.  Every aspect of their training and development is the responsibility of you, the dog’s handler and owner.  For example, if you don’t want your five year old son to pick his nose at the table, you must teach him not to do so.  And, if you don’t want your five year old daughter screaming and rolling around on the floor in WAL MART because she wants a toy or candy, you must teach her not to do so.  So, guess what, Albert Einstein?  If you don’t want your dog to jump up on people, especially when they have a loaded firearm in their hands, it is your job to teach your “child” not to.  And, if you don’t want your dog to swim through the decoy lines and tangle them all up while you’re tossing them out, you must train him not to.  And, and, and, and.  Paul was clearly an idiot, the kind of guy that would give any halfway serious duck hunter a nightmare and in fact, make some of us want to never hunt at a public marsh again.

Ask yourself this question – who runs your household, you or your dog?  (Or, you could ask yourself, who runs your household, you or your kids?)  Funnily enough, there is one constant thing I’ve noticed over the years and that is, the more someone brags about their dog, the more useless it is.  Trust me, this is always true.

There are countless books and DVDs on the subject of retriever training.  However, the best way is to learn first-hand from a veteran dog handler.  See if there is one in your area, or join the local retriever club if there is one close by.  If you are thinking about getting a dog, especially your first dog, please do us all a huge favour… if you’re going to have a dog that’s “pretty good, but not totally trained,” please don’t.

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