This spring I met a rambunctious young dog named Mel. She is a shiny, black Labrador who does her best to please Ken Kalil, her owner and trainer.
As I watched Ken work with Mel, I saw the interaction of her playful puppy behavior, her desire to obey, her instinctive reactions and her intelligence.
Ken is a licensed guide who’s been training hunting dogs for more than 20 years.
He speaks with the utmost respect for his trainees, saying, “Whether it’s for sport or hobby, a hunter and his/her retriever must have a special bond that is built on trust and mutual reliance.”
Retrievers are descended from dogs in Newfoundland that helped fishermen pull nets and retrieve fish. Over time they’ve been bred to strengthen traits that make them excellent partners to waterfowl and upland bird hunters.
Mel’s job will be to retrieve a bird that’s been shot and return it to Ken without damaging it. She will learn to sit still and be quiet in a boat or a blind, ignore gunfire and distractions from her surroundings, swim in cold water and keep track of where a downed bird falls.
She will learn the language of Ken’s whistle, his hand signals and his voice to perform a “blind retrieve” if she doesn’t see the bird fall. Once she finds a bird she will need to carry it softly in her mouth without biting it.
Mel has been in the water on her own since she was very young. At 12 or 13 weeks she started water retrieving.
Gradually Ken added an introduction to live birds. As Mel learned, he introduced duck calls and decoys, and then very slowly introduced loud sounds. Ken has introduced the gun as early as 4 months, and had dogs hunting at 5 months, but emphasized that no two dogs are the same and it is never good to be in a rush.