Sun, 05 Jan 2014 16:08:06 EST
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By Tom Lounsbury
The Labrador retriever has a pretty strong following in this country, and for good reason. It is a very amiable dog to usually both people and other dogs, which makes it a top choice as an assist dog to physically impaired folks. Its good-natured versatility causes it to cover everything from family pet to rescue/ drug interdiction canine and all around field/hunting dog. Its natural beauty has also led it to the show ring.
Personally I look upon Labrador retrievers as having two types: Field/hunting and show. With my major focus being primarily hunting, this is the type I shop for from a reputable breeder that raises “hunting labs”. This does not mean a show dog won’t hunt or a hunting dog can’t be shown, I just prefer labs that come from long established hunting bloodlines, thus I’m more assured of certain desired traits.
The Labrador’s name is a bit of a misnomer as it hails originally from Newfoundland and not Labrador. Its first ancestors most likely accompanied Basque and Portuguese fishermen as ship’s dogs to Newfoundland more than three centuries ago. These were tough canines that were used to retrieve nets and related tackle, often in cold and rough seas. Newfoundland settlers would later refine this breed into handling the task of retrieving downed waterfowl in a harsh environment.
The Labrador retriever first appeared in England during the early 1800’s, being brought there by cod fishermen, who fished along both the Newfoundland and Labrador banks, and thus is the possible connection to the Labrador name. In England however, it was called the St. John’s dog to distinguish it from the larger Newfoundland dog. Once in England, the St. John’s dog was quickly recognized as being an outstanding sporting breed.
According to an old dog book I have, the St. John’s dog was the basis for developing two new sporting breeds that appeared in England during the mid 1800’s. A cross with the Irish Water Spaniel created the Curly-coated Retriever, and a cross with the Gordon Setter created the Flat-coated Retriever, both of which are outstanding hunting dogs in their own right.
Black is the predominate color of the Labrador retriever, but it also can have a yellow, rusty, or chocolate coat. When I hear folks call a dog a “golden lab”, I’m confused as to whether they are referring to a yellow Labrador retriever, or a golden retriever, which is an entirely different breed. In this country the Labrador retriever is often succinctly and fondly referred to as being a “lab”.
Labs are powerfully built dogs that have thick, otter-like tails, webbed feet, and durable, weatherproof coats. I’ve noticed their coats tend to also shed burrs and other clinging seeds, and in my opinion that is definitely a good factor. They possess a natural fondness for water, and as their full name dictates, they love to retrieve anything from a stick tossed in the yard to waterfowl downed by hunters in open water. Their unique ability to “mark” (visually target) items to retrieve and their acute sense of smell endear them greatly to hunters, in effectively and consistently recovering game. In the upland hunting arena, the lab excels at finding and flushing game (there is even a strain of “pointing labs”), so it remains a highly versatile dog.
When I was a kid, pheasant hunters visiting our farm introduced me to a highly effective method of hunting involving a combination of pointing dogs and flushing dogs. The English pointers found and locked onto the roosters, and the flushers, which were labs, were sent in to put up the birds and retrieve those brought down. Although the hunters were autoworkers from Detroit, they had originally hailed from the South, and were some of the finest gentlemen and dog experts that I have ever shared the field with.
I would later read about this type of point/flush dog system being used for quail hunting on southern plantations. Needless to say it is an effective hunting technique I have continued to employ for wild roosters to this day. My pointing dogs are (French) Brittany spaniels, and of course nothing beats a lab for the other part of the team.
When I was in need of a new lab seven years ago, I didn’t hesitate to contact Nick Anthony of the Rooster Ranch near Ubly, who specializes in raising and training good hunting labs. This ended up with me bringing a little black (7 week old female) ball of fur home that my wife Ginny immediately named “Ebony”.
Watching a small lab puppy transcend into a large dog in a relatively short time span is really an amazing, but enjoyable affair. From the start Ebony has that lab trait of looking directly and boldly into your eyes, something many dogs won’t do. She also is a natural retriever and can’t come into our house without bringing in some sort of token from the outdoors. This is usually in the form of sticks, stones, and pinecones, but on occasion there has been an item or two that had Ginny climbing the walls, because it was still moving, or used to.
Ebony has a very likeable and tractable nature, which is a good thing when you bring home a new “family member” your wife wasn’t expecting. Of course Ebony won Ginny over in record time by automatically squirming in my hands in order to meet the lady of the house.
I have a mustang horse named “Rocky” that all my other dogs give a wide berth and for good reason. Rocky was born in the wild (Nevada) where canines in the form of coyotes are a threat to colts. However while I was doing chores during my pup’s first winter, half-grown Ebony came up missing, and I was stunned when I found her resting calmly between Rocky’s front hooves. When the mustang lowered his nose to nuzzle the pup, Ebony lapped his nostrils, and both pup and horse seem quite content with the relationship, much to my relief. They still remain the best of friends.
Our resident (old) cat also doesn’t care much for dogs in general, but has amazingly become very attached to Ebony. The cat has developed a daily routine where she comes to the back door and yowls until we let Ebony come out and play. There then follows what almost looks like a life and death struggle with the cat receiving a gentle but thoroughly slobbery mauling.
Ebony isn’t much of a watchdog, but she makes a great greeter, and visibly likes everybody. Just the other day she wanted to go for a ride with the UPS man. And when our grandchildren, come to visit, Ebony is in utter heaven with her playmates. She really enjoys swimming in our pond with the kids and has become rather adept at catching frogs for them (and delivered to hand unharmed by a gentle mouth).
With several pheasant hunting seasons under her belt now, Ebony has developed her own unique style. She performs a natural cast out front and remains relatively close with frequent checks for my position, and does this instinctively for me. Her sniffing is normal until she picks up scent and then the olfactory afterburners kick in and her loud snuffling sounds like an inbound helicopter as she seeks out the source. She quickly learned to blend in and work as a team with my French Brittanies and use her flushing style at just the right moment when the other dogs go on point. Ebony also thoroughly enjoys effectively working with my pair of beagles when rabbit hunting.
It was a couple years ago I realized Ebony absolutely hates skunks and will attack and kill them on sight without hesitation, despite being sprayed. I’m not sure what brought this about (per a normally very gentle dog), but skunks obviously turn her crank the wrong way and she apparently, much to my dismay, doesn’t mind the strong odor at all as a result of the encounter. Needless to say I have had to do some serious work at cleaning up a “skunked” pooch that happens to also be a house dog.
Skunk incidents aside, Ebony is a regular part of our family and a very versatile hunting dog, a certain fact the Labrador retriever breed epitomizes.
It truly works for me anyway.
Buddies forever. Ebony and McKenna Lounsbury take a snooze together after
a full day of playing hard together.
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Ebony shows her heritage as a superb water dog and enjoys towing kids like
her pal 10 year old McKenna Lounsbury around the farm pond.
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