What If There Were No Duck Dogs?

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.



  1. Bobby Boyd March 14, 2017 at 9:23 pm - Reply

    You’d be a lot like many of us… you’d wade, maybe get wet, have a duck retrieval boat, use the wind to pick up your birds, have a handy fishing pole with you, have plenty of long sticks, get plenty more exercise, etc… it’s all part of the experience!! ?

  2. Jack Lamb March 15, 2017 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    The “every 10 to 15 year” event happened to me about 6 years ago. Have a new puppy on the way in about 4 weeks.
    I love a little black dog hair in my whiskey!

  3. Gregg March 15, 2017 at 9:05 pm - Reply

    Couldn’t have said it better!

  4. Frank Congel March 16, 2017 at 7:32 am - Reply

    Of course, Bobby’s comment is correct – no dog; do the fetching yourself. There certainly are advantages, as pointed out – the extra challenges; physical exercise. But for many of us, dogs are an integral part of the experience. I enjoy the interaction starting with the dog’s excitement as I prepare for the hunt, his/her intensity, staring out at the water or field, as we wait in the blind, and the enthusiastic charge into water or cover to fetch the bird. Long ago, because the interactions with my dogs were so enjoyable, I decided only to hunt birds where I could be accompanied by my dog. It just another way, of many, to enjoy the great outdoors!

  5. Al Henley March 16, 2017 at 8:49 am - Reply

    What a wonderful testament to mans best friend I have been there, don that and in my 71 years on this earth I have never been without a guardian,buddy and hunting companion. There has never been such loyalty and dedicated companionship man has ever know.I have always had a retriever ( Chesapeake, black lab or yellow lab ) so I cannot speak for other canines.Yes my heart has been ripped from my chest six times and I carry on , I cannot imagine life without a retriever. Their only mission in life is to bring pleasure to the ones who they love

  6. Robert Milner June 21, 2018 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    A significant and valuable service for duckdogs could be done by Delta Waterfowl. Do a scientific survey to determine the average number of crippled ducks lost by hunters without dogs. Steel shot has produced much higher numbers of crippled ducks today vs. the lead shot days. My guess would be that I cripple 25% of the ducks I hit. Without a dog I would probably lose most of them. Translate that to acres of nesting ground to replace the lost birds.

  7. Gregg Brooks August 16, 2018 at 10:07 pm - Reply

    Why even hunt with out one? I’m over the killing ducks for me. I do it for the dog! I’m so proud of her every retrieve! I’ve been a Lab guy for 30 years. I’ll always have one. Keeps me young!

  8. Gary Custer August 19, 2018 at 11:32 am - Reply

    One of the most rewarding things of my life outside my children and wife. Mans best freind

  9. Ross Schmidt November 5, 2018 at 7:33 am - Reply

    A Goose dog never complains about getting up early to go hunt
    a goose dog never complains its to much effort o set out decoys for only a few birds
    A goose dog never complains its to cold
    a goose dog rarely argues with you
    a goose dog is always happy to see you when you walk in the door, even if you’ve just walked to the curb and back I could go on and on for hours

  10. Adam Newcastle November 5, 2018 at 8:59 am - Reply

    Every time someone insists on bringing their dog it ends up being an excercise in patience as they are constantly handling the dog and trying to get it to sit still and flaring off birds instead of retrieving them. I often get frustrated that my hunts turn into their dog training sessions more so than duck hunting, my real passion. Additionally dog owners tend to care more about what is best for their dog than what is best for the group. Now I’m sure there are perfectly behaved excellent dogs out there, but you still have to worry about them at all times. It is great and cool for people who like dog training, it is frustrating for those who specifically are passionate about waterfowling. That being said, I am sure I will switch to dog training with a side of wing shooting as I get older and start to slow down.

  11. Ed Walsh November 5, 2018 at 9:13 am - Reply

    We all have known hunters that didn’t hunt, at least for a time, after they lost their dog. For almost 40 years that was beyond my realm of understanding. Yes, I am a dog lover, but had never had a hunting dog. Yes, I’d spent many hours petting various wet labs in blinds, often sneaking them bites of some healthy treat from my blind bag.
    Things changed for me on a sunny Monday in late September, 1997, when I met a YLM puppy that happened to be born on my 50th birthday. Walla, I was a lab owner, and my life changed dramatically.
    I’d not been around any puppies for almost 40 years when he entered my house. For the first month or two I was convinced that I’d invited Satan into my home. I was ready to box him up and send him back on numerous occasions. By his 5th month, I couldn’t figure out why I’d never had one before.
    As I type this, there is another Lab pup running laps through the house, banging into walls and furniture. and wanting to chew everything she isn’t supposed to, and aggravating my 10 yr. old. I’m too old for another pup! What was I thinking??? Well, I guess I’ll keep her.

    • Ashley November 5, 2018 at 5:46 pm - Reply

      Love it!

  12. Titus Goare November 5, 2018 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    This season I don’t have a retriever, because he is living and traveling with his field trial trainer full time. Hunting just isn’t quite as fun. I now have to carry a fishing rod in my truck in case the water is too deep to retrieve myself. I’ve also lost more birds than I care to admit. This year I’ve really learned a well trained retriever is a great friend and an awesome conservation tool.

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