Eric Atherton: First birds are too tasty for young Lab

I have a confession to make. Eighteen years ago, while living in central Missouri, I shot a dove out of season.

Roxie wasn't eager to give back her first pheasants on a glorious spring day in eastern Iowa.

I have a confession to make. Eighteen years ago, while living in central Missouri, I shot a dove out of season.

My motives were good. I had a 10-week old Lab puppy in my house, and someone told me that I needed to get some feathers in her mouth as quickly as possible. No game farms had any birds in mid-July, and I didn't think it would be a good idea to go quail hunting then, so I went to a farm where I had permission to hunt and came home with a dove — not realizing that doves are among the least-palatable birds you can put in front of a young dog. Penny couldn't spit those feathers out of her mouth fast enough, and I'm lucky she ever picked up a bird again.

This time around, I was determined to make sure that my dog's first taste of a bird was a positive experience — and a legal one, too.

We took Roxie with us last weekend when we visited my in-laws in eastern Iowa. Their farm is just a couple miles from a game farm that happened to be clearing out its inventory of pheasants. For just $20 I got three hens and a rooster, and I couldn't wait to see Roxie's reaction.

A cautious approach


My son, Parker, served as my chief bird wrangler while I handled Roxie, the shotgun and the camera. We'd already broken Roxie to the gun, so I wasn't worried about her being gun-shy.

The setting was a giant alfalfa field where there was endless visibility. Don't ask me why, but we started with the rooster. Parker held it for Roxie to see and sniff up close, then set it on the ground and turned it loose. As I expected, it ran, and Roxie gave chase, albeit rather tentatively. When it was 30 yards away and widening the gap, I stopped the bird with a single shot from my 20-gauge, and it lay flapping in the inch-tall alfalfa.

I'd like to say that Roxie charged in, gathered up the bird and delivered it proudly to me. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. She got within about 10 feet of the flopping pheasant, then stopped and stared. When the flopping finally ended, she crept closer, then stopped again.

"Fetch, Roxie! Fetch!" I hollered. She looked back at me, then looked at the bird. Finally, she tentatively sniffed at its tail, looked at me again, and then tried to pick up the bird. It fell, leaving her with a mouthful of feathers.

She tried again, succeeded, and suddenly seemed to realize that the bird was indeed dead and tasted very good. For five minutes, she alternated between carrying it and pouncing on it. Feathers were everywhere, and when she started chewing on the breast meat, I knew it was time to intervene.

Next, Parker pulled a hen out of the box, held it in front of Roxie's nose and then threw it into the air. The hen flew nicely, and I knocked it down at about 25 yards.

"Fetch!" I hollered, and although this time Roxie was less tentative, she still approached the bird deliberately. When she reached it, she immediately flopped down on top of it and started eating it.

"Looks like we have some work to do," Parker said.


Eventually, I coaxed Roxie into picking up the bird and carrying it toward me, but she stopped about five yards away and started chewing again.

"Well, at least we know she likes 'em," I said as I pulled the bird from her.

Into the tall grass

With the other two birds, we tried a different strategy. After walking a quarter-mile to some switchgrass-covered terraces, Parker rocked a hen to sleep and planted it in some dense cover. I waited a minute, then took Roxie downwind of the bird, hoping she'd catch its scent and charge in.

It didn't happen. She wandered around the area, eventually spotted the now-awake bird and bounded toward it, prompting the hen to flush. Roxie heard me shoot but didn't see the bird fall, and when she finally spotted it in the alfalfa, she again treated it like a mid-afternoon snack.

"She doesn't want to give them back at all," Parker said, and I couldn't help but agree.

We planted the last bird in a deep depression in the grass, then basically put Roxie on top of it, where she couldn't help but smell it. She pounced like a cat, grabbed the bird by one wing, then let go as it flushed. This time she saw it fall, and when she again refused to bring it to me, I tried a new plan.

"Let's leave," I said to Parker. "I think she'll pick it up if we start to walk away."


We were more than 50 yards away before I was proven right. Roxie grabbed the slightly mangled bird and, carrying it high and proud, raced up a steep hill to join us. Much to my delight, she carried that bird for 300 yards, walking right next to me, before she finally grew tired and sat down, still with the bird in her mouth.

"Give," I said as I took it from her. This time, there was no resistance, and I praised her as if she had just made the greatest retrieve in history.

This game-farm rooster is the first fresh bird ever retrieved by Roxie, a 12-week-old Labrador retriever.

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