A Hunting Retriever In Manhattan

They say each person is allowed one great dog in their life. Here is the story of mine. I was single, in my 30’s and living in a Manhattan apartment. My weekends on tghe Beaverkill River had grown hollow and I got the inspiration to buy a dog. I ran across the book Water Dog by the late Richard Wolters in a bookstore and read it in a single sitting the same day. The principles were straightforward.

•Get a puppy from a breeding of proven hunting dogs. How was this proven?
•Their parents and grandparents had won field trials and had the coveted FC AFC acronyms before their names (Field Champion, Amateur Field Champion)
•Hips and eyes should be clear of hip and retinal dysplasia (today elbows are added to this list.)
•Since pups can’t be tested, both parents should have certifications – a good or excellent from the OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals for hips) and CERF for eyes (Canine Eye Research Foundation – eyes are either clear or not clear)
•As soon as the puppy responded to its name, it could start being trained – 3 months old or younger. The previous reigning authority, James Lamb Free, had posited that you had to wait until the dog was a year old to begin tutelage.
•15 minutes a day would serve to produce a polished hunting retriever from this wiggling bundle of love.

I had 15 minutes a day but I did not have the time to paper and obedience train a puppy in my apartment. The book’s dust jacket listed the author’s approximate residence in New York. I called directory assistance and got the number. His wife Olive answered the phone and got him on the line. I explained my predicament. Could he suggest a place where I might find a dog already trained according to his principles but still young? He asked that I meet him in the City that evening.

With no less impact than the Raising of Lazarus, Dick walked into the Union League Club looking like Mark Twain dressed for a driven shoot. His presence was electrifying. We walked around a private art show drinking wine and chatting. He insisted that nothing would serve but a puppy. Since I persisted in my pagan views, we headed off to dinner for further argument. At the Players Club we drank considerable wine over a good dinner and argued until late in the night. Finally Dick conceded my point. He knew of a great, “started” dog as they were called.

A professional trainer in North Carolina had trained a marvelous female Lab for himself and was going through a divorce. If I would come up with $1500 within the week (in 1990), it could be mine. The next day, I flew to Greenville, NC. Where John Weller (still training dogs in New Bern, NC today) picked me up at the airport with Hope. She was sleek and radiant with the soulful eyes of a romantic heroine. I had a cookie with me from the flight and slipped it to her. It was love at first sight and from that moment we became inseparable. I spent 2 days helping at the kennel and learning the ways of Labs and their training. I bought a kennel crate and flew back to New York with Hope in the cargo hold.

John had talked about hunting retriever field trials and decided to enter her in a hunt test in rural New Jersey a few weeks latter. It was cold, windy and muddy. All the participants were dressed in camo and wore tall rubber boots or hip boots (I would soon learn why.) I was dressed for lunch at a country house – tweed jacket, cashmere sweater, a nifty tie with pheasants on it, wide wale cords and brown English suede shoes.

The first test was a single land retrieve. Started dogs were allowed to come up to the line on a leash. Whistles blew, guns fired and someone 100 yards out in a field threw a pheasant in the air and shot it.

“Dog” said the judge, looking at me in my Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit as if I were an escaped murderer.

Hope shot away like a cannon ball, picked up the pheasant with a minimum of hunting around and brought it back. She sat next to me holding the bird in her mouth until I said drop it. We had passed the first part of the test with flying colors and I could take not a shred of credit. John Weller had trained her superbly and she was a descendent of Super Tanker. Wow. I was starting to get it.

Now the water test. The reason for rubber boots became clear as I stepped up to the line at the edge of a lake. The shore was muddy, the bank slippery. A short stroll through a marsh had left my shoes ruined and my feet wet for the rest of the day. Again, whistles blew, duck calls gave a feeding chuckle. A mallard rocketed into the air and splashed down with a single shot. I would latter learn that the “guns” at these hunt tests were extremely good shots. I had yet to have ever fireed a shotgun.

“Dog,” said the judge, eyeing me suspiciously. Hope, with a classic flying water entry, churned across the lake to the duck like a small motor boat, made a U-turn, and came back to me with the mallard. She held it until I said “drop it” and shook off the icy lake water all over my sissy outfit.

Hope received an orange ribbon, having done everything without the slightest help from me. I toweled Hope off and drove back to Gotham a muddier and wiser man, vowing to garb myself cap-a-pie in the most ruthless looking camo with 7 league rubber boots to match. Meanwhile Hope got a bath in my tub, which she accepted with mournful resignation. She did not care for soap.

Hope settled in quickly into urban life. She spent much of the spring sitting with me at sidewalk cafes where patrons would give her treats. She had not yet learned to do blind retrieves and my mentors, fearing that she would be ruined sleeping on the bed, insisted it was time for me to continue her education. Armed with Water Dog I began the process:

At a neck in the Central Park lagoon near a foot bridge, I had Hope sit and watch. I put a white training dummy on the opposite bank. I returned and sent her for an easy water retrieve. Next I had a passerby hold their hands over her eyes. I hid the dummy behind a bush and sent her again.


This non-intuitive command, saying “back” when you mean go forward is a centuries old tradition. An 18th century English bird hunter wrote that when you have left something behind you, send your retriever “back” for it. The command has struck ever since.

Hope wasn’t about to go back. She didn’t believe that I knew where the dummy was and she dug in her heals. Without going into great detail we had a battle of wills and I won. She went, found the dummy and came back happy. By the end of a week I could send her “blind” from one end of the lake to the other, about 300 yards.

We began to practice with live birds. There was a poultry dealer In Harlem. I would take a cab there, buy a few live mallards and take them to the park in a box at 5 o’clock in the morning. I would wrap them in duct tape so they couldn’t fly and Hope would practice land and water marked and blind retrieves. At the end of the training session I would let them go. That year I must have tripled the duck population in Central Park.

Around this time I bought a dummy launcher, a gizmo that fires a training dummy a considerable distance. Since they are powered by .22 blanks they are considered guns in New York City and are illegal. One morning before work I was training Hope in the Park with the dummy launcher. I was wearing a suit since I had very little time. We got out onto the Great Meadow.


Off she went to get the dummy and when she came pack, a police patrol car pulled up.

“Hey – did you hear a shot?” I had hidden the dummy launcher inside my coat.

“Yes, I did hear something. I think from over there. “ I pointed to the other side of the Park and off they went.

One morning, it must have been around 9 AM, we were coming back from water retrieves in the pond and Hope was a soggy mess. We crossed 5th Avenue at 72nd Street and just as we reached the opposite corner, a Lincoln Town Car pulled up. Hope had ridden in these cars many times with me – they are the mainstay of the livery cars in Manhattan. A chauffer got out and opened the rear door for a little boy who was attending the Lycee. Hope shot into the back seat. She thought the car was for her!
The chauffer thought it was an attack and was about to go into a martial retaliation when the other occupant of the car, the Swiss Ambassador, greeted me by name and said good naturedly,
“I do not believe your friend and I have been properly introduced.”
* * * 

from the War Canoe

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