Monday, August 31, 2009

Know Your Dog: Sporting Group

If you are looking for a collection of dogs with great reputations, look no further than the Sporting Group. These dogs are bred to stand frozen--in both meanings of the word--for as long as a hunter requires; not flinch, whine, or run at the sound of a shot, and retrieve game without so much as nibbling at it. They are partners, junior partners, to their humans.

And when the long day of hunting is over, the long haired beauties of the group--the Setters, Spaniels, and Goldens--are expected to stand patiently, without complaint, as they are divested of the dirt and debris of the hunting field before being admitted to the fireside for a well deserved rest.

Some of America's favorite dogs are Sporting Dogs. At one time, Cocker Spaniels--yes, I am THAT old--were the first choice for American households--and frequently champions in the show ring. Other Sporting Breed fanciers ground their teeth as the Little Lord Fauntleroy of Sporting Dogs stood beside the 1 at Best of Group. But all over the country, Cocker lovers cheered.

I grew up in just such a household. Our red-blonde Penny was a city dog. But given outings "in the country", she was so "birdie", my father finally decided to take her hunting. She seemed to know that she was about to fulfill the destiny for which her breed was created, trembling and nosing the air as she and Dad drove through the crisp Autumn morning toward a friend's field where there were plenty of pheasant.

Dad opened the door for her and she was out in a flash! But he did not have time to get his gun out of the trunk before he heard a pathetic wail. Penny had plunged into a pit of sand burrs. Dad's hunting morning was spent removing sand burrs, one, by one, from Penny's silky Cocker coat.

I can't think of a better illustration of the juxtaposition of a dog's city upbringing and its in-bred instinct.

But some of Penny's instincts served her well in a city household. She may never have "frozen" in the hunting field, but she did "stay" at the dining room door while we were having family dinners. No nibbles of "game" for her until the family had eaten.

Cockers have long since fallen out of favor, in many ways, victims of their own popularity.

But another Sporting Dog, the Labrador Retriever, is now Number One Dog--America's most popular dog. And, sadly, many wonderful Labs are paying a steep price for their breed's well-deserved popularity.

Two years ago, my daughter and her family brought a rescued Lab, Georgia, to live with them. Georgia had just passed her first birthday. I fear her story is not unique.

Another family had bought Georgia as a puppy. She lived with them for about a year. Then, one day, she was dropped off at a local animal shelter where she sat alone in a cage for a month, acquiring behavioral and medical issues.

Why did Georgia lose her first home? Was she a Bad Dog? No. She was pretty much an average, normal Lab. She might have been intended as a hunting dog, but failed to perform up to expectations. Some people acquire Sporting Breeds and expect them to be expert gun dogs with little or no training. Some Sporting Dogs never do become accustomed to gunshot, regardless of training.

But Georgia's problem might have been even more elementary than that. Labs and other large Sporting Dogs have very long puppy-hoods. Well after they grow to adult size, their puppy behavior persists. High levels of chewing and high energy are to be expected. Labs are very food motivated, which, incidentally, makes them favorites of some dog trainers. It also makes them Counter Surfers. You forgot to put the birthday cake away? Sorry 'bout that!

Labs' popularity is well deserved because they are great dogs, if they receive the love and training they need during their extended puppy-hood. They'll jog with you. They love to swim--even in icy water. They're Happy Campers. They are the dogs who get along with everyone at Dog Beach or the neighborhood Off-Leash Park.

It's not uncommon to see them as a Companion Dog, assisting a child or adult with physical challenges.

Sporting Dogs have the potential to be loyal and obedient family pets. But as always, it is up to humans to help them achieve their potential. If you have the patience to see one of these dogs through puppy-hood, they will reward you every day of their life.

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