Although I’ve been blessed with a fair amount of hunting success in the whitetail and turkey woods, in full disclosure, I’m an extremely mediocre bird hunter. I have experienced the uplands more often with a camera—not a shotgun—in my hands, photographing hundreds of bird hunts over my professional years. Honestly, I’m about as qualified to train a bird dog as I am to change the spark plugs in a space shuttle. This issue is not for lack of wanting, but rather my shortage of time in the fall when I’m juggling photo assignments, racing to and from airports, and maximizing precious few days afield. When your passion becomes your paycheck, it’s a balancing act of enjoying outdoor pursuits versus documenting them for my clients.
I have, however, become fairly adept at photographing sporting dogs, but credit must be given where credit is due. I’ve been fortunate to work with top-notch trainers and some incredible canines. Without their good looks, athleticism, and discipline, my images would fall considerably short. If I was forced to pick one subject to photograph for the rest of my days, it would no doubt be dogs. I’ve pointed big lenses at big animals around the globe, and while I love the adventure of wildlife photography, there’s something intrinsically and aesthetically beautiful about documenting a great bird dog. They are art, poetry in motion, good medicine, and I love them.
I have always wanted to document my own dog in the field—to find a birdy model that could work birds and give hugs and “high-fives” with equal enthusiasm. But it just wasn’t in the cards for me…until a couple years ago when heartache turned into healing, and a rambunctious little pup stormed into my life and shook things up in a big way.
On June 26, 2017, my family experienced the day that we had dreaded for some time—the day that all dog owners are forced to live through and never forget. After helping our beloved golden retriever through a gut-wrenching battle with cancer, we lost her—Shiley, our faithful friend of nearly 14 years. She was anything but birdy, and I was fine with that.
Life without her seemed unimaginable.
As the months rolled on in a silent house, I began to sense that we’d eventually get another golden retriever—to begin again, to fill our nostrils with the sweet smell of puppy breath, and to fill our home with love and laughter.
After a thorough search, we landed on Council House Goldens, an Idaho breeder of English cream golden retrievers—known for exceptional bloodlines, expert nutrition, and strict principles of care, as well as a commitment to helping veterans by pairing them with suitable puppies. They’re good people with great dogs and a commendable mission for blessing others.
We talked at length with the breeder, pored over puppy pictures, and picked out a female. We even chose a name. Our minds were set, and our plans were made. I went to Council House when the pups were about 4 weeks old—eyes wide open, personalities taking shape, and bodies big enough to pose and photograph, yet small enough to tire easily and, generally, not stress out the photographer.
Excited and anxious, my goal was to spend extra time interacting with our new girl. Little did I know, that a chunky little boy was about to force me to call an audible. Over the course of the next two days, our girl showed little interest in me or the photoshoot. She was a beautiful, mild-mannered pup—just not the one we were destined to take home. However, a curious, spunky pup that I nicknamed “Tank” and “Chubs” followed me around, chewing my lens caps, untying my boots, and licking my lenses. He was a self-confident little dog who shadowed me with a plan and a purpose. He studied my every move. He watched intently as I photographed his littermates, occasionally pushing them out of the way and staring into my lens. He did all he could to take center stage.
He was a natural model. Based on his dad’s good looks, I knew this boy would develop striking features and an athletic frame. I envisioned cover photos of him gracefully retrieving ringnecks and sprinting across postcard-perfect fields at sunrise, bathed in golden light. I was supposed to photograph the entire litter, yet somehow, my memory cards quickly filled with pictures of Tank.
When it was time to head home, I asked the pups, “Who wants to move to Montana and be my next photo model?” Tank was snoozing at the bottom of the puppy pile. He heard my voice, shook off his littermates, hopped a small plastic fence, and landed in my lap. He stretched his neck as high as it would go, licked my chin, curled up, and fell asleep. The deal was sealed. He chose me.
Tank quickly made himself at home. On his first day in Montana, I found him napping in a Filson field bag, playing with an antler, and posing for my camera. As the first few weeks passed, we were outside every day, playing, and exploring. He studied the neighbors’ horses and mules, watched eagles, hawks, and magpies fly overhead, and occasionally, caught fleeting glimpses of whitetails as they ran across the field adjacent to our backyard. Montana is a terrific place to be a boy—whether two- or four-legged. I could tell Tank was keenly aware of that. He loved to be outside, and his drive and enthusiasm were matched only by his curiosity for all birds, big and small. I owed it to him to get expert advice and training.
I learned a long time ago that you can’t hunt and shoot photographs at the same time. You’ll no doubt end up with mediocre pictures and will also likely eat tag soup. Likewise, you can’t properly work a bird dog and photograph the action. It’s best to stay in your lane, do what you do best, and find an expert to pick up your slack.
This is where Nick Schiele of Canton Retrievers enters the story. He is a well-established Chesapeake Bay retriever breeder and trainer based in Western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. I heard of him through a mutual friend, and we met up when Tank was about 10 months old to see if he had the chops to become more than a lap dog.
Nick’s Montana roots run deep. A seventh-generation Montanan, his family homesteaded there in the early 1850s. Generations of Schieles have remained in Big Sky Country ever since. Nick has always had a fondness for retrievers. He grew up shooting birds over several great Chessies, and they soon became his favorite breed. He started Canton Retrievers in 2012 with the goal of training all types of sporting dogs and breeding champion Chessies.
On a cold December morning, we met Nick at a nearby snow-covered soccer field. With big, inquisitive eyes, Tank watched intently as Nick put a pigeon wing on a fishing line and made a few casts. In the frigid, 5-degree Montana air, Tank continued to chase that wing long after I was done shooting photographs and ready to retreat indoors to warm my frozen fingers.
“No doubt he’s birdy,” Nick said with a big grin as he watched Tank spit out a few pigeon feathers. “I think he’s got something special. He has a drive I don’t often see in goldens that young. Let’s see what he can do.”
Eighteen months had passed since that first informal field test. In that time, Nick had invested considerable effort into Tank, and for that, I was very grateful. I was proud of my boy’s progress. He was quickly becoming a solid hunter and a great photo model. As we met up with Nick for a hunt and photoshoot, Tank greeted him with a huge hug, then promptly hit the fields in search of pheasants.
We walked along the first field edge, and I asked Nick to characterize Tank’s progress. “Tank never stops. He’s always willing to work. He has exceptional drive and a great nose,” he said. “He’s a ‘we’ dog in the sense that he hunts as a team player. He’s an intelligent, good-natured boy that picks up and understands new concepts quickly. His attitude really sets him apart from other goldens I’ve trained.” Nick was excited to see Tank hunting more objectively. He was figuring out where the birds tend to hide, and he started hunting those areas more efficiently. Rather than blindly running around hoping to catch scent, Tank was hunting with a purpose. He was learning to hunt smarter—not just harder.
There’s still much work to do, Nick reminded us, but Tank and I are committed. “He’s still young,” Nick said. “He’s a teenager now, and he just needs time to mature. He’s well on his way, and I’m proud of him.” We laughed about Tank’s first stay at Nick’s kennel. There on his first night, he escaped, walked around to the back of Nick’s house, somehow opened a sliding glass door, found Nick’s two young sons in their basement, and joined them as they watched cartoons. Nick found all three boys passed out on the couch with a classic Scooby Doo episode running in the background. Boys will be boys—even the four-legged ones.
As a golden, Tank is a knucklehead by birthright. When he turned two, he was akin to a 14-year-old boy: awkward, impulsive, and goofy with minimal self-awareness and even less self-control. But when he started to get it right, which honestly was more often than not, he made me proud. My passion is photography, and I brought Tank home, first and foremost, as a photo model—to shoot pictures of him while he flushes birds for my friends. Just being with him in the field, documenting his growth and success, is all I need.
Is he the perfect hunting dog? Not a chance. I don’t need or expect him to be. I don’t require a mantel full of trophies or a wall decorated with ribbons. Besides, I’m several steps shy of perfection myself. We are in this together: learning, growing, and hopefully, getting a little better each time we go afield. Most days, I’m not sure who’s training who.
Tank chose me. He chose his name. He chose his bird-hunting hobby. He has been our heart healer and our goofy sidekick. He’s also the reason why we vacuum all the time, our new hardwood floors are scratched, and our house sports a strange mix of new smells. We take the good with the bad, knowing that the good is a blessing.
It’s hard to believe that our boy is two already—that Shiley has been gone that long, but such is life, I suppose. Dogs are placed in our lives at the right time. They find us. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is our job to be even half the humans our dogs think we are. Judging by Tank’s constant smile and zest for life, I think we’re on the right track.