Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 05-06-2008

Cocoa has a no-kill, bring-them-back alive sensibility as she hunts for ticks in the woods in our neighborhood. I remove a tick by grabbing it and slowly pulling it away from Cocoa’s skin. Sometimes the tick lets go, sometimes its abdomen pops off, leaving the rest to die and fall out days or weeks later. The bump over Cocoa’s eye is what’s left of a tick that didn’t let go.

My dog, Cocoa, is a hunting dog. She is a Chocolate Labrador Retriever, bred to float easily, and to withstand cold water in cold weather. As a lab, she is good-natured and very patient; the patience is a hunting instinct that would let a Labrador Retriever sneak up on prey while standing in plain sight. Perhaps you’ve seen a dog with this instinct at work:

The intended prey may be chewing grass or nibbling nuts on the ground. When the dog spots the prey—let’s say the prey is a rabbit eating dandelions—the dog freezes, gauging whether the rabbit has noticed. If the rabbit is calm, the dog keeps its gaze locked and gingerly moves forward. When the rabbit moves, the dog freezes. When the rabbit looks unconcerned, the dog moves.

As the lab gets closer to the rabbit, the dog may start to drool. The intensity of its expression and its steadfast deliberation can make the dog look deranged; if you didn’t see the rabbit, you’d consider calling a veterinarian or a humane officer.

Rabbits (and squirrels in the same situation) can be surprisingly oblivious: I’ve seen a squirrel look directly at a stalking dog just five feet away, and then go back to gnawing whatever it had in its hands.

So, the lab continues to inch forward until the rabbit is actually inside the dog’s mouth (in the case of a dim, inexperienced rabbit), or until the rabbit bolts. In the second scenario, the dog also bolts, and a foot race ensues until the rabbit is safely beyond the reach of the dog… or the rabbit is inside the dog’s mouth.

Cocoa’s Special Hunting Skill

Cocoa has demonstrated an uncanny hunting ability that I doubt dog breeders anticipated when they were mixing up Labrador Retriever genes. Rabbits and squirrels are safe in my neighborhood; Cocoa the purebred Chocolate Lab hunts for ticks. Amazingly, she doesn’t need to stalk or sneak or employ any stealth technology. She simply crashes about in the undergrowth and invariably captures several small pets each year.

I’ve pulled ticks off of her in spring, summer, fall, and even winter—it seems that a few warm days in winter can rouse those nasty arachnids and turn them into easy targets… easy targets for my amazing hunting dog to score. I never pulled a tick off a dog in the city; Cocoa’s special ability would be wasted there.

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