Solo sat at my feet, his eyes glued to the small pond 60 yards away. Several Guns opened fire as a large flight of mallard erupted from the reedbed. Duck hit the ground like fallen meteorites. Another flock rose; more gunfire. A runner waddled down the line of retrievers, but only as far as Solo, who leaned forward and caught it in his mouth.
?You can put your lead on now, number seven,? said the judge, marking the end of another field trial for Solo and me. Solo was an easy dog to train: smart, stylish and strong in the water, but his over-enthusiasm was simply too much for the iron discipline required of a competitive trial dog. After much agonising, I finally agreed to sell him to an Arkansas farmer who wanted an English Lab.
It?s a decision an increasing number of British owners face. Many worry about the fate of their dog once it arrives in North America, but they need not. Travelling the US gives me ample opportunity to follow up on imported dogs and you?d be amazed how easily they settle.
I hadn?t seen Solo for almost a year when I visited Little Rock and stopped by to say hello. ?They?re out at the flooded timber,? a farmhand informed me. I found the shooting party easily enough: four guys blasting away with 3in shells are not difficult to locate, even in full camo. They gave me a real Southern welcome ? but not Solo. He stuck to his new owner as if I were a catcher from the local pound.
?Hi, Solo,? I called. Nothing. Considering this dog spent the best years of his life with me I thought he?d have the decency to wag his tail. There was a sudden flurry of gunfire, a wood duck hit the water and Solo was gone. ?He?s not supposed to do that,? I explained apologetically. ?Maybe not in your country, but round here we just git ?em soon as we can. Solo ain?t missed a bird all season. That boy is one hot pistol.? For the next few hours Solo splashed through the flooded timber, collecting duck after duck. ?Back home we would never allow a dog to run-in like that,? I added. ?Well y?all ain?t back home now,? came the good-natured response.
At lunch we used the truck tailgate as a table. I expected to see Solo locked away in a dog box, but not in Arkansas. Solo was hanging out with the good ol? boys, eating chicken off the bone and sharing cold pizza. No-one seemed to mind the company of an exuberant wet dog. The Guns travelled back for supper squashed together in the truck bed. Solo rode up front. ?Me and Solo are sure glad you stopped by, ain?t we boy?? his new owner said as we shook hands at the farm gate. Solo turned and showed me his rear. ?Y?all come back now.?
My next trip took me to eastern Montana, to deliver Max, a large yellow Labrador disqualified several times from field trials for hunting at heel. He was bold, reliable, stopped to the whistle and handled like a dream, but he loved to hunt. Max could sniff out a pheasant at 50 yards and once he hit scent there was no way to stop him. I had him doing heelwork for a month and all the way across the Atlantic prayed his nose wouldn?t let me down.
After a brief recuperation at the ranch of his prospective new owner, I put Max through his paces. I fired a shot and sent him across a deep ravine for a blind retrieve, which he executed perfectly. He sat rock steady as I hurled dead birds and never made a sound. He was on best behaviour, but our host seemed unimpressed.
We were walking to the truck when, to my horror, Max?s nose gave a characteristic twitch and he was off. I tried to cover for this loss of discipline, but our host waved me aside. ?Hand me that 12-gauge from the truck,? was all he said, before following Max into the grain field, leaving me lamenting the waste of four weeks? heelwork. Suddenly a cock pheasant broke cover. It was clearly winged as it glided halfway to Wyoming.
?Go fetch it up, Max,? shouted our host. ?He doesn?t do that, he has to sit steady to shot,? I protested ? but too late. I was adding up the cost of failure when Max returned with the bird held triumphantly aloft. On at least three counts this dog would have been eliminated from any UK field trial, but to our Montana rancher, Max was a hero. ?That?s one fine dog,? he said, writing out a cheque. Max wagged his tail. Someone finally appreciated his innate abilities.
US and them
Over the years I have come to learn why so many British Labs fit in so well in the US. It?s tough being a trial dog in Britain, where one forward shuffle, dropped bird or whimper means instant dismissal. It?s a hard, demanding life, but when Uncle Sam files for adoption, life changes dramatically. Most dogs I?ve visited look as though they?ve died and gone to gundog heaven.
A retriever constantly chided in Britain for its over-enthusiasm will often be praised for its ?drive? in the US. Small UK duckponds are replaced by vast waterways, rice fields and flooded timber, where Brit Dog can really express himself.
But the lottery win for any British retriever is to become a US upland hunter, free to pursue all those untouched pheasants he?s been forced to ignore throughout his life. Robotic heelwork is a thing of the past; in fact, he?s positively encouraged to hunt, flush and pursue game, the precise qualities he?s been forced to suppress at home. This does not mean US owners will buy wild, out-of-control gundogs. Buyers expect an impressive display of handling and steadiness before; the US has enough untamed retrievers. It?s just that the terrain and style of hunting permits a freedom not available on UK shoots.
Once in the custody of Uncle Sam, Brit Dog?s status undergoes an immediate change. Not only is he invited to share the victuals and ride in the cab, but also often sleeps in air-conditioned comfort. It?s a way of life he seems to embrace and who can blame him?Politicians, tourist agencies and spin-doctors may be able to sell the historic attractions of Great Britain to an eager US public, but once Brit Dog has his green card nothing will tear him away from Uncle Sam.
If you?ve spent sleepless nights fretting about the welfare of your expat gundog then fret no more. Were you able to see the life he now leads you may wish you?d gone with him.