CHESAPEAKE BEACH -- For a couple of hours the other day we had traipsed across a large tract of land in Calvert County that once, story has it, had been the site of an exotic game farm.
Run by an oil baron who hired a caretaker, he stocked the rolling land overlooking the Chesapeake Bay with zebras, gazelles and giraffes and the ponds with toothy fish of some sort that were 4 feet long.
These days the manor is burnt out, and one large pond that remains held a half-dozen mallards that had been drawn to a set of decoys left in the shallow, murky water.
On a recent Friday, an 8-year-old Labrador named Coach was working closely ahead of us, traversing the thick wood and bramble, back and forth along the hillsides. Our quarry was quail.
Every so often, a woodcock flushed, free to fly away until the season opens again next fall. But we did not see a quail -- although it was no fault of Coach, who worked hard.
Afterward, Karen Christina, a dog trainer and president of the Lab Rescue Section of the Labrador Retriever Club, talked of hunting dogs, how to prepare them for the next season -- and, in part, how to teach an old dog new tricks.
Through the Lab Rescue Section, Christina, 33, is involved with finding homes for Labradors that are unwanted by their owners or impounded by animal control officers.
The owners Christina finds may be families looking for pets or hunters looking for good dogs.
But what about taking a retriever, usually thought of as a waterfowl dog, and putting it in an upland situation, where first it must find and flush the bird and then retrieve it?
"It is not that unusual, really," Christina said. "Labs usually have a good nose. They can find them before you shoot them as well as after."
What about the business of taking a dog of uncertain background and training it to be a bird dog?
"Even dogs that are bred for show will still retrieve," Christina said. "The thing that you have to do is bring out that a dog will pick up a bird. That is sometimes harder than just the retrieving instinct."
Teaching a dog to pick up a bird is best done when the animal is young because "everything is new and exciting then, and they haven't had a chance to discover something out there that they might not want to pick up," she said.
A bird or waterfowl dog should hold what it retrieves, cradling it in his mouth until he has turned it over to his handler.
"Holding, I teach it with pieces of a broomstick," Christina said. "I put it in their mouth and simply don't let them gnaw it. I teach it with the word 'hold' so that when I say 'hold' she knows that she is supposed to keep her mouth still.
"But if you get a dog that insists on munching a bird, there is not much you can do."
Another matter to consider is a dog's performance under fire, which can be a spooky experience if the animal is introduced to it incorrectly.
"I had a friend of mine take her young Labrador to a Revolutionary War re-enactment, in which her husband was part of the battle," Christina said. "When they got the dog there and the shooting started, well, you can imagine that was not the kind of place to take a dog that has not been exposed to gunfire."
A better procedure is to take the dog to a field, where a person can shoot off a cap pistol well in the distance at first and then shorten the range as the dog becomes acclimated. Later, the shooter moves up to a blank pistol while simulating a retrieve.
"That way," Christina said, "the dog finds out that when the gun goes off it is exciting and I am going to go get something."
Eventually, the process is built up to include the use of a shotgun.
The training process is not limited to younger dogs.
"Coach was an older dog to be doing this," Christina said, "although I have a friends with a golden retriever that was 12 1/2 years old when she started doing the juniors test -- and she passed."
In the junior hunter test, dogs have to pass four tests -- two single upland retrieves and two single water retrieves. In the senior hunter test, they must perform doubles and blinds. The master hunter test is more complex.
Trials usually are held in the spring and fall, to avoid stressing the animals during the heat of summer, and six months of conditioning are needed to have the dogs in good shape, Christina said.
Jogging your dogs is a good way to start out, and for Labradors and goldens, swimming also is a good way to build stamina. For swimming exercise, incorporate the use of a dummy for the dog to retrieve.
While working your dogs, Christina said, there are certain warning signals that should be noted, especially in the case of older dogs, which easily can be overworked.
"Dogs will start pacing [both legs on the same side of the body moving at the same time] if they get tired," Christina said. "A dog that is in good shape will trot all day, and that will be the gait they will work a field with. If they are doing a retrieve, they will normally run."
So it is important to know the normal gait of your dog. This is best done by watching the dog as it trains, and it may take as long as a month of workouts before its gait stabilizes.
If you are interested in training or testing your dog, the American Kennel Club has the names of clubs in the area, as well as those that run hunting and field trials and obedience tests.