When many dog owners think about their pets, things like wagging tails, lolling tongues, slimy tennis balls and being yanked on a leash come to mind. Most people think of dogs as companions, but have you ever thought about what your dog was actually bred for?
Cathy Keeler and Linda Mack are local dog owners who see their dogs not only as companions, but also as assistants — in their case, hunting assistants.
“When my husband and I got Taita, part of our agreement with her breeder was to take her on to show her,” said Keeler. “But we actually went beyond that and titled her. Later, after I retired, I began training her to do what she was bred to do.”
Taita, whose full name includes numerous titles such as multiple Best in Show, and international and national champion, is a 6-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever. She’s a natural hunting dog whose breed was designed to retrieve game — specifically, waterfowl. At least five days out of the week, Keeler spends an hour to an hour and a half teaching Taita to obey hand signals that will send her in the direction of fallen game. She also trains once a week with a trainer out in Lodi. Right now they are training on land using bumpers, but eventually Taita’s movements will be transferred to the water.
“Chesapeake’s are smarter than the average human. When you train, you have to figure out how to outsmart them to get them to do what you want them to do. It’s not a control thing, but more about creating a working mutual relationship with them,” said Keeler.
Keeler has only been training Taita since last October and already she’s achieved her American Kennel Club Junior Hunter Title. Keeler also owns two of Taita’s puppies — 10-month-old sisters named Chase and Luna — who she may train when they get a little older. “Even though I don’t plan to hunt with them, it’s really fun to be able to see what they were bred to do.”
Linda Mack is a resident of Somerset who owns five Plott Hounds. Plott Hounds are scent dogs of German descent who were originally bred for hunting boar. They are naturally loyal and obedient dogs and, in addition to making fabulous guard dogs, they are excellent trackers. Plott Hounds are often used for herding, in search and rescue and, of course, in hunting. “Plott Hounds have a lot of energy. They can go long distances and are gritty on game. They get right into the fray and have a lot of stamina. And they have a very, very cold nose,” said Mack.
Mack has never really spent a lot of time training her dogs. She hasn’t had to. All she has to do is show them the fresh (or even not so fresh) track of the animal she wants them to follow, and the chase is on.
“The dogs don’t get distracted. I’ve seen them run right through herds of deer while on the tail of something else. It was as if the deer weren’t even there,” she said.
Typically Mack hunts raccoons and bear with her dogs, but she’s also competed them, and herself been a judge in field and water trials, too. “In these trials, the dogs are given a scent to follow and have to be the first across a line and to a tree. They can get points and become field champions. It’s really a lot of fun,” Mack said.
Mack and Keeler both recognize that training your dog for hunting isn’t for everyone, but if it’s something you’re interested in, they’d both encourage dog owners to go for it.
“It’s so much fun to be able to see your dog do what it was intended to do,” said Keeler. “When you train your dog, you and your dog become a team. You both learn a lot and also meet a lot of cool people along the way. There’s really nothing like it.”