It takes months and money to train man’s best friend
Cutter sat on the box waiting, impatiently whining. The black Lab watched as his owner and trainer, John Maroul, launched two decoys. Cutter wagged his tail, scooched his rear and vocalized his sense of urgency, but he didn’t leave the box.
Then Maroul said “Cutter!” and, like a flash, the dog dashed across the tall grass at Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock, first to the decoy he’d seen launched last, returned it to his master, then to the first launched decoy, then back again.
No treats were necessary as a reward on his return — the thrill of the retrieval was all Cutter needed.
Maroul has been training bird-hunting dogs for 30 years. He operates Cutting Edge Sportsman, where he provides basic obedience for weeks-old puppies and formal obedience for hunting dogs.
Maroul also has Breezy with him, a 7-month-old yellow Lab who’s still learning to trust her nose. The dogs have an excellent sense of smell, and the decoys have a scent the dogs pick up. Breezy dashes out after her marks, almost blending in with the grass. It takes her a few moments, but she finds them. Still a puppy, she tries to pick up both decoys in her mouth before she realizes she can’t.
While Maroul believes all canines can be trained to be bird-hunting dogs, some trainers believe it’s easier to train those with natural instincts. Labrador retrievers commonly are used. But springers, pointers, Labradoodles and other types of retrievers, such as Chesapeake Bay and golden retrievers, often are used to hunt fowl.
A well-bred Lab will cost about $1,000, said Mark Strickland, who trains dogs at Hall’s Bayou Ranch Hunting Club, which sprawls between FM 2004 and West Galveston Bay. Training a dog can cost anywhere between $600 to $750 a month, so that means a hunter’s investment in a gun dog runs anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000.
Trainers such as Maroul and Strickland board the dogs they train, often from the time the dogs are about 6 weeks old until they’re about 8 months old. Every day, the trainers work with a dog for about three hours.
“I can’t mess with a dog one day, then skip three days,” Strickland said.
A lot of people worry their dog won’t remember them when they drop them off for training, but they always do, Maroul said.
The dogs are taught from the ground up, beginning with basic obedience lessons. A puppy can start retrieving as young as 7 weeks old, said Strickland, who looks for a dog that’s well socialized and that enjoys what it’s doing.
After the dogs have learned force fetching, retrieving, how to run blinds and hand signals, the rest is all experience, Strickland said.
These dogs, depending on how long they’ve been in training, obey whistles, hand signals and voice commands. Highly trained dogs can follow hand signals from as far away as 250 yards to retrieve a downed bird, Maroul said.
If that dog won’t hunt, as they say, there’s always competition.
Field trials are to gun dogs what pools are to dock dogs. Competitors travel across the country to show off their dogs’ skills. Competitions are organized either by kennel clubs or gun dog organizations, and rules vary, but, depending on the organization, the dogs usually compete with other dogs or against a breed standard. The rules can get complicated.
Cutter, Maroul’s dog, competes in field trials.
While the time and money sowed into the dogs isn’t reaped in riches won at field trials, owners can see some money back through stud fees and puppy sales.
Strickland’s yellow Lab, Whiskey, qualified for the 2015 Master National, a retriever club that tests the dogs annually within American Kennel Club guidelines. Honors such as that make Whiskey a desirable mate for Lab ladies.
But what it’s really, truly all about is the bonding experience between human and beast — best friend at your side.
“I just like dogs,” Strickland said. “I like to turn out a quality dog.”