April 28, 2013

Hunter, retriever need to be each other's best friend

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — 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.

The day I watched Mel and Ken train, they worked on easy retrieves and voice commands at Marcy Field in Keene Valley. Strong wind, other dogs and the nearby roadway emphasized how hard it is for a dog to ignore distraction but how willing Labradors are to try.

Ken is a member of the Lake Champlain Retrievers Club and also reads Retriever News, which he refers to as “the dog sports pages.” For nearly 50 years, the Lake Champlain Retrievers Club has run field trials and hunting tests licensed by both the American Kennel Club and the North American Hunting Retriever Association.

Ken is an avid and experienced waterfowl- and upland-game hunter so he relates to dog owners who expect good performance in the field. He’s learned to adapt training to a dog’s personality and to get compliance instead of one-time corrections.

He uses the wilderness around him to train his dogs.

“Being on this side of (Lake Champlain) made it very tough for me to find other people who are into training, so I often train alone. Instead of having private ponds built, I work with all this wonderful state land we have.”

Hunting dogs have remarkable, innate traits that can often explain their behavior in human settings. Mel’s progress as a retriever will depend on Ken’s ability to bring out the inherited skills and instincts of her breed and the trust they develop as partners.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at