Hunting Dogs

The Heart and Art of a Comeback

She beat the odds. With the heart of a champion, Chickamauga Choo Choo, an eight-year-old female Labrador Retriever, won the 2004 National Amateur Retriever Championship. In seven demanding days of land and water tests, she not only bested a field of ninety-eight field trial rivals, but also proved she had returned to the top of her game after surgeries that might have forced most dogs to retire.

Owners Lynne and Mac DuBose of Hillsborough, North Carolina, knew they had a high-powered puppy on their hands when Chicka, shy of seven weeks old, made her first venture into the family pond with an explosive leap, “three feet up and three feet out,” Lynne remembers proudly. “When she saw something thrown, she would whirl, twirl and do somersaults trying to get away to retrieve it. From then on, it was clear she needed both Mac and me for training – one of us to throw and the other to hold her down!”

Not surprising for a pup that had always shown intrepid retriever instincts, said her owners. “She was the one who was willing to leave her littermates to go exploring,” Lynne said. “She was lively and alert and always eager to retrieve.” As a show of how gifted she was, Chicka won a Puppy Stake competition at four months. Most of the dogs she competed against were close to a year old.

At seven months, Lynne and Mac sent Chicka to Wisconsin for formal training under the tutelage of Jim van Egan, one of the nation’s best young dog trainers who has started many national field and amateur champions. She was then placed with Andy Attar of Autumn Run Kennel where she began her competitive career, earning thirty-four Derby points and Qualifying stakes wins. She returned home in 1998 and at just over two years of age, became the second-youngest dog in American field trial history to win a “Double Header,” topping both an Amateur and Open stake event. That same year, her winning ways continued with Chicka earning her Amateur Field Champion title and completing eight out of ten series at her first National Open, another milestone seldom accomplished by a dog so young.

As Chicka’s heart willed her to conquer the challenges of the highly competitive field trial world, her body began to wear. “She had no regard for her body,” Lynne said. “She was beating herself up from the time she first began to retrieve as a derby-level dog. Her water entries were always huge, hitting the water from three to four feet up in the air and she jumped ditches the same way.”

In 2001, Chicka showed the first signs of severe back pain and was referred to Dr. John Sherman, a physical rehabilitation and sports medicine expert in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also was a field trial enthusiast and had restored one of his own Labradors, Doc, to a pre-injury performance level.

Dr. Sherman found that Chicka was suffering from back pain, lameness in her right rear leg and pain in her right hip. X-rays showed a normal spine, but also degenerative joint disease. Still not sure of the cause of Chicka’s back pain, Dr. Sherman recommended that Chicka be taken to the Iams Pet Imaging Center in Vienna, Virginia for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is an advanced diagnostic tool that uses magnetic energy and radio waves to create detailed images of soft tissue, giving veterinarians an inside peek without invasive exploratory surgery.

Iams has the most advanced MRI center in the country designed specifically for pets. The Iams Company, known for its high quality pet foods, “recognized a real shortage of MRI machines that were accessible to the pet population,” according to Kurt Iverson, manager of External Relations for Iams, “and we wanted to continue our mission to enhance the well-being of dogs and cats.”

The diagnosis was intervertebral disc disease, a common orthopedic problem that occurs when the discs that help cushion a dog’s spine start to deteriorate. Because Chicka was qualified to compete in the 2002 National Amateur which was less than four months away, her veterinarians were determined to get her well enough to enter.

In April 2002, Dr. Sherman and his team removed two ruptured spinal discs. After surgery, Chicka endured eight weeks of inpatient physical rehabilitation which included therapy to reactivate her unused muscles and improve coordination and balance. During rehab, Dr. Sherman also tried to slow Chicka’s joint disease with shockwave therapy, low frequency sound waves purported to relieve pain and accelerate healing.

When Chicka returned home, Lynne worked to balance Chicka’s exercise and field training so she could regain her muscle strength and coordination. Chicka rebounded like a champ. Only two and one half months after surgery, she competed through six series of the National Amateur competition.

Lynne and Chicka continued their hard work throughout the remainder of the field trial season and were rewarded for their efforts with a Finalist finish in the 2002 National Open. The DuBose family had even more reason to celebrate, as husband Mac’s entry, Cashman’s Fat Lady Zingin, won the event.

After the 2002 season, it became more apparent that the muscles in Chicka’s right hip and leg had become so weak from injury and disease that exercise alone was not enough. Lynne and Mac conferred with their veterinarian and decided to replace Chicka’s hip with a prosthesis.

Once again, Dr. Sherman’s capable team tackled all of Chicka’s post-operative care, initially dealing with her pain. Therapeutic ultrasound and electrostimulation helped the tissue heal faster. Chicka started very low-impact exercises on an underwater treadmill to maintain her fitness and keep her range of motion and was soon able to exercise on land.

At one point, Mac and several others suggested Chicka should retire, but “Lynne wouldn’t hear of it,” he said. The determination of both dog and owner inspired Dr. Sherman to design a neoprene suit that applied tension for a better workout. Chicka had experienced some gait abnormalities after her hip replacement and the suit also helped her move more correctly.

Fourteen weeks post surgery, radiographs of Chicka’s hip revealed that she was sufficiently healed enough to return to the rigors of training. Lynne maintained a careful schedule with Chicka, balancing her prescribed exercises with field training. “At the age of eight, Chicka is pretty knowledgeable – her skills are honed and she thinks she is in charge,” Lynne said. “Standing beside her on the line is very exciting.”

And no one was more excited than Lynne when Chicka’s name was called as the winner of the 2004 National Amateur Retriever Championship just eighteen months after her second surgery.

“I had the determination to see Chicka through this and do whatever was possible to help her,” Lynne said, reflecting back on Chicka’s amazing return to competition. “She has so much heart and desire. Without that, I don’t think she could have recovered.” She added, “Dr. Sherman had the ingenuity and brilliance to design all sorts of exercises and a rehab program for her. Without her heart and his art, it wouldn’t have happened.”

The Heart and Art of a Comeback, just won first place for best inspirational article in this year's Mid-Oklahoma Writers writing competition - Jan 07


© January 2007

Goodbye Old Friend

Our family has recently lost one of our most beloved hunting partners. You could count on this one to always be willing and ready to go on anykind of hunt. And as for a better companion while out in the field, you would not find one. One that was so keen in the field that everyonearound was envious of their success.

I am not speaking of a man that is a sharp shooter, or a woman that can hang with most men, or even a child that always wants to be at mom or dad's side. I am talking about our Belle, an 8-year-old Golden Lab that lived to be with us. As much as we love these animals and hunting partners, I still don't know that we ever really know what we have until it is gone.

For years there has been some debate among Christians about animals going to heaven when they die. Some believe that their souls do not get lifted heavenly and others believe that if God put them on earth for our enjoyment and use, why he wouldn't carry those animals that have brought so much joy and even meaning to a person's life to the glorious destination Christians live for.

Everyday as I pulled in the drive after a long day of work, she was always there to greet me, if I sat down at her level; her nose was immediately in my lap looking for the affection that she so willing gave all of us. If we would take our hand away before she was satisfied, she would continue to place her face under it until we gave in and continued to love on her. We recently moved out to a rural area and live about 200-yards from a trophy fishing river. While working outside we would notice that she and the other dogs would just disappear. Not knowing what they were doing we would panic, looking everywhere for them until we figured it all out. After a couple hours, they would all come back home soaking wet from playing in the river on a hot day and muddy from the walk or run home. She would be leading the way with a smile that only dogs can have.

My husband would go on a Pheasant hunt in the Dakotas every fall with several friends from work including some of his superiors. As a lab, most would not expect her to out hunt and retrieve the pointers and setters that others have paid thousands of dollars for, but Belle would not let her human down. She would bump and retrieve birds that other dogs had run over the top of. She would come out of the corn fields with a bloody nose and face from burrowing to get the bird she knew was still in there. And don't think that you can out smart her when she bumps a hen that needs to be left in the wild. She had been known to catch them flying in mid air if they were low enough! Several times she would bring one to my husband very proud of herself. Of course he would have to let it go and she would bring it back again!

She was papered, but she didn't have any field trials or championships,but clients and friends from across the nation were so impressed with her hunting abilities and many wanted her off spring. My husband's boss even made a comment in my husband's yearly performance appraisal that my husband was not willing to share his bird dog!

Although my husband will tell you that "she took him hunting", she was not just a bird dog. She would hunt anything if she thought it would make us happy. We took her on a lion hunt once just as a buddy, not realizing that she would try to tree a lion right with the hounds. Not because they were doing it, but because she thought that it was what we wanted her to do. It didn't matter if we were sitting in the back yard, shooting ground squirrels, hunting jack rabbits, riding into deer camp, or fishing on the shore or in a boat, she was happy to just be with us. I don't know that many of us really appreciate anything that we have when we have it. We know we love it and know how useful it is, but do we really know? Belle had a heart attack in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, we had to witness the struggling she went through before the end. It was 1:00 a.m. and living at least 30-minutes from the closest vet, we knew there was nothing we could do to help her. As I sat and watched her die, I was troubled that I had not really played with her that day. She followed me to the arena and stayed by my side as I watched my son ride his horse, and she did go to the river that evening with my husband and got to play in it one last time, but had I known that it would be her last night with me, would I have done something differently? I didn't write this story to make everyone sad or to stir up spiritual debate, but to remind everyone to live each day like it is your last and to treat each person and loved one in your life like it will be the last time you have with them.

In the 1946 classic film, It's a Wonderful Life, the characters reference the ringing of a bell as a sign that another angel has gotten their wings. My Belle was ringing even when she was alive; because I am sure God put her in our lives for more then just hunting. She will be long remembered and loved.

It is not always about the trophy you can put on the wall, but about the trophy you keep in your heart.

God Bless
Julie Hughes


© September 2007

1/4 Pound Dog, Final Chapter

Before her first birthday, I knew each day I had with Little Bit was truly a gift from God. I prayed that the time wouldn’t come that I had to let her go, but I also knew what the vet had told me. So I also prayed that God would give me the strength I needed to make the decision to let her go when I had to.

She had been the runt of a litter of 8 English Setters born on Christmas Day, 2005. She was half the size of the other pups at birth and as her brothers and sisters grew strong, she did not. An abscess on the inside of her groin required vet treatment and antibiotics before her eyes were opened. She was all but dead when faith, Pedialite and Karo syrup brought her back at 12 days old. When I took her in to be spayed, they discovered she had kidney deficiencies and the vet told me she wouldn’t live a long life.

She didn’t live a long life, but she lived a full life! She was the most lively dog I’ve ever owned. She embraced life, as if she, too, knew she was only here for a short time. She bounced like a jumping bean; everything she did, she did with all she had! She never got to be a big dog, but at 35 pounds, she was so far from the 4 ounces she’d started out at. She had beautiful feathering in spite of her ill health. She’d been on Science Diet KD all her life and could not have any special treats outside of an occasional prescription treat. She was whiter than snow with one little patch of orange on her ear, just like Charlie, her father. She had the most affectionate, loving eyes, almost hazel in color.

She didn’t come out of her doghouse on November 26th when I went to feed her. This was so out of character for her, I knew something was wrong. She couldn’t stand on her own when I pulled her out of the doghouse. I called the vet, bundled her in the blanket and took her in for her last visit.

She was as still and lifeless on her last trip to the vet as she had been on her first. Dr. Karen looked her over, said little and drew some blood. The test results were conclusive: she was in complete kidney failure and she was suffering. I trust Dr. Sherman (I call her Dr. Karen) completely and rely on her to tell me what’s best for my animals, not what’s best for me. I said, "It’s time?" and she said "Yes."

I stayed with her as Dr. Karen gave her the injection that would end her suffering. I reassured her that I loved her and that she had brought so much to my life. God had given me the gift of her love and friendship for almost 4 years. He had given me the strength to let go when I had to; I knew he would give me the strength to heal from the unbearable hurt I was feeling. When her heart had stopped, Dr. Karen and her assistant left me with her frail, lifeless body for closure.

I had her body cremated. Her ashes were returned to me in a tiny little wooden box. I have put them away in a safe place and will bury with her mother, Lace, when the time comes. Lace is also on borrowed time as she is struggling with a growth that is interfering with her respiratory functions. Lace is on daily medications, including steroids to minimize the impact and discomfort of her malady. I know the time to let her go is coming too soon. Her cough is more frequent, and recently, her appetite has declined. But, she also has good days where she romps and doodles. When the time comes, I will rely on God to give me the strength to do what has to be done and Dr. Karen to tell me when we’re there.

Little Bit was such a blessing to me in her short life. She was born when my son was in his first year of college and helped me emotionally when he left college and moved to Texas. She was so special - all of my animals are, but she was really special. In the sympathy card Dr. Karen sent, she said that Little Bit had lived far longer than she’d ever expected. She said it was amazing how animals and people could survive with love.


© June 2008

Picking the Perfect Puppy

The key to finding the right hunting companion is to hire the best pup for the job.

Many waterfowlers are decoyed into buying premium shotguns and the latest camo patterns.  Madison Avenue isn’t stumping for what might be one of the greatest joys of the hunt, your canine hunting partner.  As in life, the right companion can make or break your hunt.

Top business recruiters know how to identify those job skills and attitudes in the right candidates that can lead to their development as superstars, and you can use the same strategy to choose an eager partner to share your hunting blind.

What’s the Job?

There are four basic job skills that every successful hunting retriever should possess:  (1) the ability to “mark” or perceive and remember the area of a fallen bird; (2) the ability to use the wind to follow scent; (3) the desire to trail a cripple; and (4) a willingness to take direction from the handler.

The inherited trait that enables a dog to be trained to mark, scent and trail is called prey drive – the instinct to chase and subdue game.  While the willingness to take direction from a handler is a predisposition in some dogs, in most, it is a product of training.

Talent Pool = Gene Pool

A pedigree is a pup’s genetic resume.  Working retriever pedigrees are made up of bloodlines and their respective field titles.  Common titles include Field Champion, Master Hunting Retriever and Hunting Retriever Champion.  Dogs holding these titles have shown through competitive testing that they are intelligent, trainable animals and possess high levels of prey drive – in other words, all the right stuff.  The closer the working titles are to the parentage, the better, because the “blood” is less diluted.  On the other hand, conformation or show titles (designated as “CH”) carry much less weight because they have relatively nothing to do with a dog’s working ability.

Candidates of this caliber are closely held within the retriever sport community and not typically advertised through more common venues, such as newspaper classifieds.  Professional retriever trainers are among the best sources for advice on pedigrees and can often refer you to reputable breeders who possess the all-important blood you seek.

The Interview

Once you have found a promising pedigree, make an appointment with the breeder to “interview” the pups.  Testing and subsequent selection of retriever pups is typically done when the pups are 7 weeks old.  Just as we suffer the mid-day doldrums, so can puppies.  Schedule your interview either early or late in the day and before they’ve eaten.  It’s helpful to take a notebook to write down your observations.  All puppies are cute, but selecting a pup that’s going to work for a living requires objectivity, not sentimentality.  Be careful not to cloud your decision-making process with preconceived notions about sex or color.  When looking for a working retriever, gender and color should be secondary to ability and talent.

Cut to the Chase

One of the most important evaluations you can make is how “birdy” the pups are.  This is measured by observing the amount of prey drive they exhibit.  One common test to determine birdiness requires an enclosed area and a live pigeon.  Pigeons are commonly used for this test because they have game bird scent.  A simple 10 x 10 foot pen can be made with a roll of chicken wire and t-posts.  This size will allow adequate room for a puppy to chase the pigeon, and the pen can be set up and taken down quickly.

Prepare the pigeon by clipping its flight feathers along the length of its wings.  You want it to be able to flap its wings in order to attract the pup’s attention, but not fly away.  (This is a common practice and the flight feathers quickly grow back.)  Put one pup at a time in the pen.  Next, hold the pigeon at eye level with the puppy, gently teasing the pup by pulling the bird away.  If necessary, use your voice to try to excite the pup.  Now, step out of the pen and allow the pup to chase the bird.  You’re looking for a bold, aggressive pup that shows no fear of the flapping wings and immediately chases and carries the bird.  The pup that initially shows hesitation, as if he’s trying to figure out how best to grab the bird, but then goes after it, is acceptable, although obviously not as impressive.  Needless to say, the pup that shies away from the bird, tries to hide between your feet, or shows no interest in the bird at all, is to be avoided.

Of equal importance is how “fetchy” the pups are.  Fetchiness is another indicator of the strength of a pup’s prey drive.  Trigger the pup’s prey drive by pulling a squeaky puppy toy away from it.  As he begins to chase, flick the toy a short distance across the ground.  Be careful not to throw the toy up in the air, or toss it too far away, because a puppy’s eyesight is not fully developed at this young age.  What is most important to observe is the pup’s desire to actively chase and carry the toy.  Don’t expect the pup to bring the toy back to you – that is trained behavior.  What you are looking for, just as you did in the birdiness test, is the desire to chase and carry.

Once you have screened the “birdiest” and “fetchiest” pups, you are ready to sort out the more subtle differences between the top candidates.  Make a high-pitched sound and watch for the pup that looks at you with curiosity.  This behavior should not be confused with that of the puppy who tries to solicit your attention by jumping and licking.  The purpose of this test is to find a puppy that shows a natural tendency to pay attention, an important attribute when trying to develop an animal that willingly takes direction from its owner.

Finally, take the pups that have successfully passed the previous tests and move them to a different place.  Usually, pups are raised in a specific area, and that’s all they are familiar with.  Take a group of two or three pups at a time, set them down in a new environment, such as a field, and observe their initial reaction to their new surroundings.  Do they cower fearfully or jump up immediately and start investigating?  A pup that can cope and adapt to changes in its environment has confidence and heart.

At the conclusion of these tests, you should be confident about your pick of the litter.  The pup you’ve selected has shown the all-important instinctual tendencies that will enable it to master the job requirements.

Career Development

Once your pup has been home for a couple of weeks and is responding to its name, it’s time to start developing its potential.  The first step is to create a proper training environment.  Anything a pup picks up on his own can hamper your training goals; therefore, it’s important that you control his surroundings so he doesn’t learn anything you don’t want him to.  It is not advisable to let a pup be around other dogs at this stage in his life.  No dog ever taught another dog anything you needed it to know.

A manipulative approach to training helps the pup mold a pliant temperament, maximize his memory and form a bond with you that will become the foundation for future teamwork.  Use food treats, such as small pieces of hot dog, to manipulate the pup into performing the fundamental actions of retrieving:  going away, coming back and sitting down.  These actions are taught in the form of words – “fetch,” “here” and “sit.”  Retrieving games enhance the pup’s prey drive and eventually, when your pup responds to words because you’ll let it fetch, food rewards can be phased out.

Along with the nuts and bolts of retrieving, the pup should be exposed to all different types of environments – the house, field, and duck blind.  The pup needs to experience all these places and be happy there in order to maintain behavioral balance.

Tools of the Trade

Working retrievers also have to be exposed to the “tools of the trade” under retrieving conditions.  Swimming, acclimation to gunfire and retrieving under all types of field conditions – land and water – must be taught.  During warm weather, swimming should be taught in a pond with a gradual inclined entry.  Start by tossing your fetch toy in an animated way so the pup will charge into the shallow water to retrieve it.  Throw the toy a little farther each time until the pup has to swim a few strokes.  The whole trick is to try to get the pup swimming without even realizing that he did it.  This technique will develop a pup with a strong love of water, which is absolutely essential.

When becoming acclimated to gunfire, it is important that your pup learn to associate the sound with something pleasant, like a falling bird.  This is accomplished by first having a helper stand 20 to 25 yards away and throw a bird into the air so that pup will begin to recognize the mark by seeing the arc of the fall.  After several completed retrieves, when you see the pup develop a high interest in the bird’s flight, have your helper fire a blank pistol as he throws the bird.  As the pup becomes more accustomed to the sound, gradually have your helper move closer to you.  Pups acclimated in this manner will revel at the sound of gunfire.

Now that your pup has learned to swim, can pick up simple marks thrown by your helper and is acclimated to gunfire, it is time to teach him how to mark on land and water.  Teach beginning marks on easily negotiated terrain.  The difficulty of terrain features and distance increase as the pup becomes more proficient.  Marking lessons should be designed to push the pup, but not to discourage him from trying.

By the time your pup has matured into an adult, you’ll have a hunting partner you can trust – one who will ferret out cripples from the cattails and swim across icy currents to retrieve a duck floating belly up from a perfect shot.

Hiring the right pup for the job is as challenging as his job description.  But taking the time to educate yourself and your retriever will reward you both with years of enjoyment… and the satisfaction of a job well done.


© April 2008