What If There Were No Duck Dogs?

By Kyle Wintersteen, Managing Editor

“What’s the point of spending so much time and money on a duck dog?”

You’ve likely been asked a version of that question, and I’ll bet a box of shells your response included the term “conservation tool.” And why not? Certainly the recovery of downed ducks — particularly those that wouldn’t otherwise be found — is a retriever’s primary role in a waterfowl hunt. However, while this succinct answer tends to satisfy curious non-hunters and mothers in-law (at least until we’ve snuck out the back door), we all know it’s not the whole truth.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if man never domesticated wolves, and in turn never refined them into the greatest breeds of all: the retrievers, spaniels and German versatiles — dogs that like to fetch ducks as much as we like to shoot them.

Without dogs, how would I move about my home without a satisfying “click-clack-click-clack” of paws ensuring I don’t get lost? What would I do without my dog’s deep brown gaze conveying a belief in my infallibility, despite so many glaring flaws? When a bad day struck, there’d be no remedying muzzle on my knee or shoulder. I’d miss cold wet noses nudging my hand to start the morning, tails wiggling in anticipation whenever I grab a shotgun, and most of all, the uniquely strong bond that exists between waterfowler and dog.

Now, I’m not suggesting non-hunters don’t love their dogs. Heck, some people even find a way to love cats. Yet each time my dog delivers a mallard to hand, I sense we grow just a bit closer through the shared, mutually rewarding experience. Can such a relationship develop through fetching Frisbees?

Without dogs, I’d suffer the frustration of losing countless ducks to tall grass and swift currents. Equally painful, a certain richness would be gone from the hunt. From the blissful joy of watching my dog nab greenheads to his mere companionship in the blind, I wonder if I’d even bother to hunt ducks without him. And at that point, why own a shotgun? Would I hunt deer instead? Would I be a hunter?

On the other hand, if there were no duck dogs, I’d own stock rather than a secret postal box for my field trial invoices. My truck wouldn’t have a bad starter and a tail light out, and I would’ve bought my wife nicer jewelry for Christmas. There’d be no dog hair on my couch or in my whiskey, and no muddy paw prints in the kitchen.

Every 10 to 15 years, I wouldn’t feel like my heart’s been ripped from my chest when it’s time to say a goodbye. If someone mentioned the names Rocky, Luke, Dude or especially, Freedom, I wouldn’t have to excuse myself to hide the mist in my eyes.

Yet such hardships are easily overlooked as I sit here with two of Freedom’s sons curled at my feet. From the simple pleasures of sharing a home with them, to the memories we continue to make afield, their presence in my life is profoundly rewarding.

So, what’s the point of owning and investing so much in a duck dog? That’s a tough question to narrow down. All I can say is I’ve never attempted living without one. I suspect I’d be lousy at it.