Large hunting dogs are rare. But you don’t have to be a great hunting dog to be a good buddy.

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“Hello Rigby, I’ll get yours right away,” said the cafe bartender to the 110-pound chocolate Labrador retriever sitting in my lap with his big bear head sticking out the window. Christine and I looked at each other, still delighted with the joy the baby hippo-like puppy seemed to bring wherever he went.

For most of my life, myself and the people I grew up with measured dogs by how well they performed in the feathered foul-hunting arena to which their ancestors led them. The dog stories revolved around the hunting prowess of these beloved partners and the friendly, amusing banter that involves awe-inspiring accomplishments told with irony.

About a year before moving to Alaska, we inherited a female Chesapeake Bay retriever from a deceased neighbor whose family did not want the dog. She had been christened “Peggy” as a puppy and by the time she came to live with us she looked more like “Piggy”.

A huge dog whose girth suggested she couldn’t get out of her own way, let alone find and retrieve a bird. My earliest memory of how judging the book by the cover will backfire on you. She was hanging around the house, basically a piece, until a shotgun appeared. She was jumping, the tail spinning in circles, and running towards the truck where who knows how, she jumped directly into bed.

The first time I got to hunt with Peggy, we had gone to a dirt bank field for ring-necked pheasant. As we prepared our guns and gear for the hunt, Dad dropped the tailgate for Peggy. He turned to me and said, “Hold on, this is going to take a few minutes.

I didn’t know what he was talking about but I patiently waited for what “it” was. I could see Peggy’s tail just above the low brush as she worked about 50 yards into the field. She stopped for a moment, her head bowed, then turned to where we were standing and trotted back. She slipped out of the brush and ran to Dad, placing in his outstretched hand a still-living pheasant hen she was holding in her mouth.

Dad held the bird for a minute, then tossed it in the air. As the bird flew away, he told me that was how Peggy showed everyone that she knew what she was doing and didn’t really need a shotgun. hunting but that she would go on and play with us if that was what we wanted. She was gorgeous.

She was also a surly female dog who only cared about the birds and daddy. The house crow I had, whose name was Bill and who could say a few words, would sit on a clothesline post and bicker with Peggy. The crow suddenly dove towards her and reared up just as Peggy’s jaws snapped on her tail feathers.

Crows are one of nature’s most intelligent creatures. But Bill got too arrogant and didn’t realize Peggy was plotting to kill him until it was too late. She looked at him and understood his timing, and one sunny afternoon nailed him to a ball of black feathers, silencing Bill forever. A forgivable offense for a great hunting dog.

When I talk about “once in a lifetime” hunting dogs, it’s usually when I’m bragging about Winchester, the English setter who burst into our lives. It was born from a compilation of magnificent hunting dogs, centuries in the making, took us places we would never have gone, got us into the arena for the greatest show on Earth and kept us young people as we trailed in its wake. He remains in our eyes, the GOAT – the greatest of all time.

Having one in your life is a blessing, having two is a utopia that only happens when everything converges at precisely the right time. Cheyenne, who left early, came into our lives and, much like Winchester in her world of upland expertise, embarked on her line of water dog hunting in a remarkable way.

People asked, when they hunted with us, who had trained him? We were smiling and saying, “Well, they trained us pretty well.” It took a while to realize that no one can train a dog to be a hunter, not really. You can teach them to do what you ask, but that’s another thing. The greats are just doing what they do while you help line up the fine line details between wild and domestic that all the greats have.

No guarantees exist in the world of hunting dogs. One can research the lines, talk to other people with experience in a particular line and select a puppy. That done, most will achieve at least the minimum, and in truth, that’s about all most people need in a hunting dog. But a big one happens by sheer luck.

Winchester and Cheyenne came in as natural hunters and made us appear great dog trainers. Our major contribution to them has been to let them rise to their own level.

Rigby didn’t burst into our lives when we brought him home, he just stomped his huge dog paws through the house and took over. The British-born chocolate roly-poly Labrador came to live with us when he was five weeks old. Early, but we could be with him all the time, and were thrilled to find that the bond between him and his people is rock solid.

Our expectations were high on the opening day of the 2021 waterfowl season. The sheer looks alone suggested he would be great, but you never know. At the edge of an inland lake, Rigby waited patiently at our side with his comic air. During the shot and subsequent fall of the first duck, Rigby hit the water and brought the duck back, meeting the bare minimum.

After a season with him, we know he will never be a Cheyenne or a Winchester. But, and maybe it’s due to the advancing years and my dwindling prey hunt, it doesn’t matter because Rigby’s best quality is being our buddy.

He has no filters as he walks around the house, drools over everything and throws away his toys. A toy, a big piece of wood he threw away a few days ago, broke my toe. Her character, her facial expressions and her pure joy of being alive are daily therapy.

When the barista came to the window with Rigby’s “pup cup” – a paper cup with whipped cream and a dog biscuit – he stuck his big head out, grabbed the whole cup in his mouth and snuggled up. is back in the back seat. He did not offer to share.

The antics and company of this big old Labrador makes me think there should be another class of champion in the canine world. The champion buddy, because in the end, it’s not really having them?

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