John Costello brings his dogs

Saanich dogs hunt for fun, farmland preservation

Beaver Lake area provides training ground for retrievers

John Costello throws a decoy duck and blows his whistle, signs that tell his springer spaniel, Hunter, it’s time to go fetch.

The exercise helps the dog learn about tracking and hunting, but it’s also a pastime Costello enjoys.

The 62-year-old Saanich resident can be found daily at the Island and Pacific Labrador Retriever Club’s training area at Beaver Lake ponds with Hunter and his yellow lab, Bella.

“Labs are pretty easy to train and they are big robust dogs and can retrieve big birds up to 12 pounds,” says Costello, the club’s training co-ordinator. “Springer spaniels specialize in upland hunting of pheasants and grouse.”

The Labrador retriever club shares the acres of training space with the Island Retriever Club on the western edge of Beaver Lake, an idyllic area with wide ponds, ditches, brush and forest. Not all retriever club members are hunters, but all enjoy seeing their dogs become more proficient retrievers. Some train their dogs to meet Canadian Kennel Club standards.

“Beaver Lake is for field work. It simulates what happens if someone went hunting,” says Anne Morrison, president of the Island and Pacific Labrador Retriever Club (IPLRC). “Not everyone likes to hunt, but the dog likes doing what it’s bred for. Retrieving is so wonderful for them. Like border collies for herding, retrievers live to retrieve.”

The club, formed in 1992, remains small with about 20 members – “We’re not big but we are keen,” Morrison remarks. “We’re just interested in labs and how labs can be good citizens.”

Labs are trained to follow their owner’s voice commands and hand signals to locate a decoy duck tossed in a pond or the forest, either using a mechanical launcher or another person. A starter pistol is often used to replicate the hunting experience.

“We change it up all the time, the obstacles, where the prey is hidden,” Morrison said. “You don’t want to make them fail if the dog doesn’t know where to go. You have to help him or her find it.”

Costello uses his dogs for hunting geese, ducks, pheasants and grouse in the Cowichan Valley, but they’re also used to rid Canadian geese from farmer’s fields in Greater Victoria. Local geese typically eat crops and no longer migrate.

Canada geese are so accustomed to humans that dogs are far more effective in scaring them away, Costello said. “The dogs flush the birds into the air. You have to up the ante to scare them now. If you have a lot of pressure in one field they’ll often just fly right over it the next time because they remember.”

Metchosin farmer Tom Henry has found great success in opening up his wheat fields to Costello and the dogs under a permit issued by  the Canadian Wildlife Service. This year the farmer lost less than one acre of his 35-acre wheat crop to geese, and credits Costello’s services.

“A lot of what we grow we couldn’t do without John and the dogs,” said Henry. “The geese like the wheat as much as I like barbecued hogs.”

editor@saanichnews.com