Bad Dogs Make Good Friends

The trials and tribulations of Labrador Retriever ownership

Story and photos by John McClendon

Retrieving birds is easy for Coco…when the dog decides to behave.

Retrieving birds is easy for Coco…when the dog decides to behave.

 

I am a black lab guy. Duck hunters all have their own breed. Some swear by yellow labs, others like chocolates—and a few like the endurance of a Chesapeake or the sunny disposition of a golden retriever. But I love black labs, the good ones as well as the bad. Even the ones that really test your patience. 

Labs, particularly smart ones, have sublime expressions like no other variety of canine. When scolded, my dog, CoCo, will squint her eyes and turn her head as if she can avoid what’s being said; at the same time, she wags her tail slowly and lets the tip of her tongue appear just barely past her lips. She blinks and winces at every word as if each one were a puff of sand blown in her face by some terrible, hot wind. 

It is a cute and comical sight that makes it very hard to stay mad for long—even after the most egregious of offenses. It has become a self-preservation technique she employs in orderto offset the criminal frustrations she initiates. 

Leave her loose and alone in the yard, and in a single afternoon she can dig up more azaleas than a contractor with a back-hoe. She once ate an entire bag of raw garlic (garlic, bag and all) and the zipper off of a sleeping bag in the same afternoon. She has removed and eaten all of the vertical netting encompassing our child’s trampoline, and she has an uncontrollable fetish for any object left out on the patio table: Tervis tumblers and Ray Bans left unattended require a forensic examination in order to determine an original purpose. 

Coco, author and hunter John McClendon’s black lab, sits proudly by the results of a day’s hunt.

Coco, author and hunter John McClendon’s black lab, sits proudly by the results of a day’s hunt.

For the rest of the afternoon she ignored my commands to heel, spending much of that time chasing butterflies and attempting to befriend a wandering armadillo. 

And shoes! Shoes are irresistible to this animal’s addiction to destruction. Shoes of all kinds end up looking as though they’ve gone through a limb chipper and been blown across the back lawn in multicolored snowfall of foam, rubber and faux leather. The worst incident of them all, however, involved a large bowl of homemade deer jerky that I carelessly left out on the kitchen counter. The aftermath defies description, but let’s just say our living room carpet has never been the same since.

The dog is allegedly a hunting retriever. Her paperwork boasts a bloodline connecting back to Europe and she has undergone an expensive education from a world-class kennel that required a credit check and some long-term financing. But much of that schooling has faded as I worked with her less and less during the off seasons. The desire of a champion is certainly there, but the self-control never really was. 

When she was still fresh from the trainer, I took her on a dove hunt. Positioned on the edge of a field on a scorching September afternoon, I watched her intense focus—despite the absence of birds and the high temperature. Finally, a lone dove succumbed to my 20 gauge, and I lined the dog up for what turned out to be a textbook retrieve. I felt like both a proud father and professional dog handler for most of the next ten minutes. My ego was crushed soon after when she broke at full speed for a dove that landed about 100 yards out. For the rest of the afternoon she ignored my commands to heel, spending much of that time chasing butterflies and attempting to befriend a wandering armadillo. 

Not long ago, I took her to a neighbor’s pond to practice retrieving and get in some exercise. This particular pond—about 4 acres total—is home to a flock of white farm ducks that reside there all year. On about the third throw of the training dummy, a duck swam leisurely into view. The dog made a beeline for the bird and spent the next 40 minutes swimming from one end of the pond to the other while I ran back and forth like a mad man desperately trying to get the dog’s attention by blowing my whistle. She ignored me completely. 

But despite my disappointments, hunting without a dog—even a mediocre one—seems incomplete. 

I love to see a lab’s eyes follow circling ducks as they work the decoys. There is a subtle mixture of happiness, surprise and relief that can only be experienced when your dog finally finds that downed bird lost in a thicket. Best of all, dogs love kids (and vice versa) and there is no better place for either of them to be than outdoors, learning how to be hunters together. There are few images that exhibit more pure than an old retriever sleeping soundly in front of the fireplace on a cold Arkansas night. 

Yeah, I am a black lab guy. I guess I always will be.