The Old Man and the boy crept quietly up the back side of a ridge overlooking a small mountain stream in Yellowstone Park. As they cautiously peeked over the top they could see fifty yards below the burbling stream shining in the late morning sun. It was a small stream 3 to 5 ft across and looked ankle deep in most parts. The old man whispered to the boy, “My old friend George is chief ranger here. He told me about a coyote bitch that frequently fishes here in the stream to feed a litter of cubs that she has about a quarter mile north of here.” He settled back to wait for the coyote. 15 minutes later, the old man nudged the boy and whispered, “look off to the left there about a hundred yards. Here she comes.”
The boy watched as the coyote approached the stream. She came at a purposeful, but not fast walk, regularly scanning her surroundings as she shortened the distance to the creek. She occasionally stopped to study something that caught her attention, then resumed her walk to the creek.
“Look at her,” whispered the old man. “She is the epitome of energy conservation. She never breaks out of a fast walk. She is steadily scanning her surroundings, but doesn’t give a physical reaction other than to stop and study a perception for a couple of seconds before going on. She doesn’t waste energy with unnecessary muscle movement.” The old man paused for a moment to watch as the coyote caught a fish. Then he continued, “Look at the way she the way she caught that fish. While she was walking across the stream, scanning the water, she took one quick step with a quick duck of the head and snap of the jaws and came up with an 18 inch trout. She wasted no motion or energy.”
The coyote bitch proceeded with eating the fish. Then she turned back to the stream. She walked into the water, and took a couple of short bouncing steps to stir the fish. There followed a quick pounce, and she snapped up a second fish. She took it up on the bank to eat. After she finished the fish she went back to the stream and with what gave every appearance of a casual dip of her head into the water, snapped up the third fish. This one she held in her mouth as she set off at a purposeful walk toward her den.
As the coyote ambled off along the hillside below, the old man continued his nature lecture, “That bitch is taking the third fish back to the den. When she gets there, she will regurgitate the first two fish onto the ground for the pups to eat. That’s mother nature’s solution for tenderizing and ease of transport.”
The old man slowly arose and stretched his stiff joints. “Let’s go back to the cabin and get some lunch and I will tell you how to fit this coyote saga into the retriever gundog picture,” he said as he started back down the ridge.
Back at the cabin, the old man fed the Labrador, Jake, and fixed lunch. He and the boy sat down to eat. The old man tasted his sandwich and nodded approvingly. Then he said, “Boy, there is a major gundog lesson in what we watched this morning.” He removed his glasses and pointed toward them toward the dog for emphasis. “A good gundog should move like that coyote. He should be as energy efficient as a predator, and he should make finding and retrieving game look effortless and easy, just like that coyote made catching fish look effortless and easy. The measure of gamefinding initiative in a gundog is the number of birds in your hand with apparent ease of effort.” He slid his chair back and turned toward the boy for emphasis as he stated, “A good gundog hunts efficiently and hunts for a long time.”
The old man stopped, picked up his pipe and packed tobacco into it. The boy was familiar with this ritual which usually preceded a major pronouncement. After lighting his pipe, the old man said, “Here in America, unfortunately, the retriever field trial game has made it popular for dogs to be flashy, run fast, bounce high, and waste a lot of energy. That is a faulty model. The American field trial Labrador gene pool has just about lost the self-pacing behavior that Mother Nature provided dogs in their natural state. The dogs of the American field trial gene pool are very highly visually reactive. The sight of moving objects sets off muscle movement that wastes energy and creates heat which leads to early fatigue.”
He paused to pet Jake on the head and gather his thoughts. Then he continued, “The guys that run the Iditarod in Alaska have learned the effects of dog size, dog effort and dog heat production. The Iditarod is the annual dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome. It is just over a 1000 miles in length and is run in March when temperatures frequently are subzero with wind chill pushing the effective temperature down as low as −100 °F. The race takes 8 to 9 days to run. It is an extreme test and has served as an excellent laboratory for studying factors affecting stamina in dogs. One of the major factors is size. Early on, some mushers tried larger dogs with the logic that a larger dog with a longer stride would cover more ground faster. What they discovered was that larger dogs fatigue more quickly from overheating. They found that dogs larger than 50 to 60 pounds have a body volume and muscle mass that generates too much heat for the dog’s skin surface area to lose efficiently. In short a big dog generates more heat than he can lose, and he fatigues more rapidly. The ideal size for stamina appears to be 50 to 60 lbs.”
The old man paused and relit his pipe, a sometimes lengthy process. Then he continued, “A classic example of visual reactivity being confused with hunting initiative you see in the world of explosive detection dogs. Labradors are being used a good bit in Afghanistan for IED detection and the scent detection trainers are out trying to buy dogs for that job. Their almost universal analytic test is ‘how vigorously does the dog chase a tennis ball?”
The old man shook his head and informed the boy, “Tennis ball chasing in a dog is mostly a measure of visual reactivity. The more visually reactive a dog is, the more aggressively he will go after a tennis ball. Generally the very visually reactive dog is also very energy inefficient because he continuously reacts with muscle movement in response to visual triggers. The ball reactive dog is frequently a dog with short hunting persistence because of early fatigue from all the muscular acitivity. The problem is not in the dog. The problem is in the breeding selection and in the dog evaluation method. To get a dog with more persistent hunting behavior breeders need to breed back toward the self-pacing behavior that Mother Nature originally gave to the dog’s ancestors.”
The old man stood up and motioned for the boy to clear the dishes from the table. Then he continued, “The upshot of all this is that you need to remember what I have said when you get ready to buy a retriever gundog. When you look for the litter’s parents, look for those that are closer to Mother Nature’s model of a predator. Look for parents that move smoothly and efficiently and make finding and retrieving game look effortless. If they are in the 50 to 60 lb size range that is a plus on heat tolerance and stamina. A bigger plus on heat tolerance and stamina is a calm behavior as opposed to the visually reactive dog. The dog that moves efficiently and hunts persistently will, in the hunting field outperform the flashy, fast moving, bouncing bundle of barely contained energy. You don’t measure gamefinding initiative by a dog’s energy wasteful behavior. You measure gamefinding initiative by how many birds he brings to hand and by how effortless he makes the process appear.”
Here is a video clip of a fishing coyote: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjCd09VyQbE