Throughout the spring and summer afternoons of 2012, my son Alex, daughter Madi and I spent many hours working with our lab-mix Parker Posey, often with the help and patient advice from our friend Joe Furia. We were encouraged by Posey’s early progress in not breaking when we threw the retrieval bumpers and she was not playing keep-a-way too often with her found prizes. We even figured out how to have her drop the bumpers at our feet without too much coaxing. Maybe this was going to work!
However, the first time we used a blank in Joe’s starter pistol, Posey broke for our car, leaped in the back hatch and buried herself under our gear. She was panting and would not emerge until many minutes had passed. Maybe this was not going to work.
Fortunately, Posey was a beast in her water retrieves, showing no hesitation in leaping in, keeping a bead on her target, and swimming back. Maybe this would work.
When we introduced dead birds from the freezer to replace the rubber bumpers as her retriever targets, Posey suddenly was hesitant, slowing upon her approach to the fallen object and walking around the dead birds on her tip-toes before carefully sniffing the feathered carcass. A look back to us often preceded her racing return to our position without the bird. No interest in the birds and terribly gun-shy – things did not look promising.
Our friend Jeff Mishler suggested that we take Posey to one of the many hunting dog trainers on the Island and ask them to work out Posey and give us an assessment as to her aptitude to achieving our goal to create a duck dog from where there was none. Alex and I finally found a trainer who was willing, for a small fee, to run her through some drills and give us the thumbs up or down.
Our lean sun-tanned, gruff and laconic dog trainer watched Alex and I run a few drills that we had worked up with Posey, and Posey performed well enough in our opinion. We were cautiously optimistic. Taking a dead pigeon from her pocket, the trainer walked off with Posey sniffing in curiosity on her heel. The pigeon was sent into flight and the trainer released Posey who surged into the field to find the bird. The exuberant Posey became Posey the Timid when she located the feathery but lifeless bird. The trainer repeated this exercise, using her shrill voice to raise the excitement level to a near-fever pitch, but which had minimal effect on our duck dog-in-training.
The trainer walked back towards us and sat down in the shade. “Well, she lacks bird excitement and I can tell she is gun-shy. I think she will get excited about birds eventually, but if she does not get used to the shot, it’ll never work.”
We left the trainer that afternoon deflated. The duck season was upon us and steelhead fishing, back-to-school errands, and life-as-we know-it would prevent us from putting in more time working with Posey. She seemed destined to be a City Dog.
The days passed quickly. Alex and I hunted the Youth Duck opener in late September, hunting over Trigger, Joe Furia’s steady Brittany, with good results.
I even took Posey with me on several pheasant hunts on the Island and though she (and I) came to this as pure beginners, she minded well enough to not cause trouble and she flushed a bird that my companions eventually tracked down. Unfortunately, the myriad of drying grasses, seeds and thistles ended up causing her some very uncomfortable eye issues that required very unwelcome daily eye drops for Posey and a quickly lightening checking account for me. As I tell my son regularly as he tries to instigate roughhousing with me, “it is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”
In early October Joe and I put the finishing touches on a new duck blind on the Pond – the second we had built in a year – and our anticipation built as we began to see more and more ducks arriving on the Island.
We also spent a few last times shooting clay targets. Though Posey seemed still very nervous when we shot, I allowed her to be off leash so she could choose her response to the shotgun blasts rather than be forced to one place or another. She casually sidled up to me a few times and barely retreated when Joe or I fired. Perhaps she was getting used to noise or at least associating the blast with something exciting. After Joe left, I moved a chair out in front of the trap machine to simulate a more realistic situation in which the clay targets would suddenly appear in my field of vision. I commanded Posey to “kennel” under the chair and then I launched the clay, pointed, and fired. Posey remained under the chair, ears back, though she did not pant nor strain against the command.
Breakthrough? Too early to tell.
The season began in mid-October and I hunted every chance I could. I was able to hunt with several people including Joe, Roy Elicker, Craig Buley and Rich Hannan – all of whom had seasoned duck dogs – complete with awesome names – Molly, Emma, Nessie, Ranger and Trigger. In the back of my mind, I was waiting for a hunt day where I would be on my own, and I could bring Posey along without fear of her rawness adversely affecting the hunting for anyone else, nor negatively influencing the other dogs.
Finally, in early November, that day came.
It was a mild November morning – gray but not wet. I believe only one other hunter was out that morning. Posey and I walked out in the dark to a blind near the ponds. Ducks and geese rose into the pre-dawn sky as we came near the fields where they had been feeding all night. Shooting hour came but our morning was quiet – very few birds were flying – one reason so few other hunters were out as they wisely knew it would be a slow day. No matter. I had spent many days last season waiting and learning the habits of birds and the weather – often not even firing a shot. Alone with my gun, my thoughts and my binoculars.
Having Posey in the blind with me was a lot different than hunting on my own. She had eyes for things I did not see coming – geese, hawks, mice, song birds and ducks – and she remained calm but alert. Time passed quickly compared to being alone. Even though she did not say a word, which did not prevent me from speaking with her, Posey became my companion in that damp hidden duck blind.
After a few hours, we both needed to stretch our legs so we left the blind and walked the ponds, hoping to find a few ducks hiding in the cattails and tall grass. I had to call her back to me quite often so she did not wander too far out in front – prematurely flushing birds out of range – and she chafed under these frequent commands. We were almost finished our walk when a wigeon lifted off and away. I swung on her and fired and she dropped with a messy splash across a large lead from Posey and I. As soon as the bird hit the water Posey was airborne and then in the pond swimming hard to the still duck. Though I momentarily realized Posey had broken to the bird before getting a command, I was stunned by her immediate reaction to the chain of events that had occurred in just seconds. I was so overcome with excitement that I began shouting encouragement to her “Fetch!” “Get the bird!” “Good girl Posey!” “Get the bird!” “Get the bird!”
Posey reached the duck and took it in her mouth and turned and swam towards me – I was astounded and nearly in tears! Somehow I fumbled for my phone and snapped a picture as she retrieved the duck, scrambled up the grassy bank and dropped the bird and then shook herself of the pond waters. Had this just happened? I laid down my gun and hugged Posey to the point of annoyance as she pulled away from me, sat down and looked up at several flights of ducks that had wheeled over the pond and just then flared away – unsure of what to make of this camo-clad man hugging this black dog – this lab-mix, rescue-shelter city pup-turned-duck dog!
I had not even re-loaded so I was in no position to fire on those birds, or even try to call them back – so I simply savored the moment as Posey impatiently waited for me to compose myself and get on with the business at hand.
Rather than returning to the blind, we took a walk through the fields on Charlton’s northern end. Posey ranged ahead of me – pushing the limits of her verbal leash. As we closed in on some flooded corn, a drake mallard flushed within range and I fired twice, killing the bird on the second shot and it dropped into the marsh waters with a splash. Posey charged into the swamp as soon as the bird hit the water – before I could consider uttering a command – and while I was still slightly surprised by my shot.
The water was not deep but the bottom was muddy – Posey half-swam and half-hopped to the where the bird lay – circling it once and then taking and made her return. Was this really happening? I shouted encouragement – not quite as uncontrollably as I had the first time – and Posey came onto dry land, dropped the bird and began sniffing this gorgeous duck. I told her to sit and she did.
My head was in the clouds as we walked back toward our blind along a strip of dry land between marshy areas and had not gone far when two mallards flushed upon Posey’s curious noodling in the grass and corn. I wheeled and fired on one bird and it fell, crashing into the corn, mortally wounded but not dead. I swung further and fired and missed on the second bird and it flew on. Posey had leaped into deep water between the bird and our position, climbed out of the ditch and into the flooded corn where the duck thrashed about. She came to it and paused, unsure of what to make of this feathery whirling dervish – a large hen mallard. I urged her to take it, but she simply hopped back over the swamp, swam the ditch and returned to me. I bent down, looked at Posey, pointed my arm at the bird, and in a firm tone, commanded her to “Fetch!” Posey leaped back in to the ditch and swam across to the flooded corn beyond, where the duck still fluttered. Posey reached the bird, circled, paused and against my urging, swam back to me. I realized that Posey had not knowingly signed up for this part of the business – retrieving a wounded bird who viewed her as an utterly hostile party.
Once Posey returned to me, we both briskly walked to where we could cross the deep ditch and we slogged back a hundred yards to look for the mallard. It was dead when we reached it and Posey sniffed it and looked up at me – showing me in her eyes that she remembered her earlier encounter in this place with this bird. Her first two retrieves were an unbelievably satisfying result, and yet the third encounter left both Posey and I uneasy.
We returned to the blind where we got re-organized and settled in for some relatively quiet and uneventful hours. Posey seemed tired but was still alert for approaching creatures of all sorts. The crazy coots and non-native nutria were nearly enough to draw her from the blind as they swam by us but she obeyed my hushed commands to remain settled and quiet.
Few ducks flew by that day and I was unsuccessful in luring any to our set of decoys with my rookie duck calling and manually-set dippers and spinning-winged decoys. Posey would poke her face out of her cover to watch the birds cautiously swinging around our marsh – her black head and movement possibly the source of their choice to land elsewhere – though I am fairly certain those ducks had plenty of reasons to find a better landing site.
At the end of the day, I picked up the spread of decoys and loaded up my gear –ready for the walk back to the farm. Once all picked up, Posey and I sat on top of the blind as the ducks began flying in for the night. Dozens of ducks wheeled and called and landed all around us as darkness settled in. Whatever fatigue Posey had felt vanished as ducks of all sorts called out and splashed down. Eventually we snuck off through the flooded corn and made our way to the Charlton farmhouse carrying three ducks – two of which Posey had retrieved on her first foray in her new double-life as a City and a Duck dog.
It seems like this might just work after all.