PRIOR LAKE, Minn. (MCT) - A rooster pheasant winged high overhead in the cobalt sky, several blasts from a shotgun interrupted its flight and the bird somersaulted into thick grass.
"Back," Libbe Erickson told her hunting dog, Rider, and he rocketed into the brush.
Moments later Rider returned, pheasant in mouth.
"Good dog," she said, taking the bird.
Nothing unusual here on a glorious fall day in Minnesota - except Erickson's dog is a poodle. A cream-colored, fluffy poodle.
And nearby, friend Lin Gelbmann's silver poodle, Cache, with an even fluffier hairdo, also retrieved downed birds dropped by a bevy of shooters.
Yes, poodles. Those prissy, pampered, coiffed canines usually associated more with fur coats, diamonds and penthouses than blaze-orange hunting garb, shotguns and muddy fields.
But don't smirk. These dogs can hunt.
"They can do anything a Lab can do," said Erickson, 52, of Stillwater, who also owns two Labradors and a Jack Russell terrier (all of which hunt). Said Gelbmann, 60, of St. Paul, Minn., who has trained dogs for 40 years and also owns a second hunting poodle and a young Lab, "They hunt hard and determined."
Both poodles get way more action than average hunting dogs. Erickson and Gelbmann, both avid bird hunters, travel with family and friends to North and South Dakota for pheasants and to Canada for waterfowl. And they regularly volunteer to handle retrieving duties for shooters at the Minnesota Horse and Hunt Club in Prior Lake. There, the poodles might retrieve dozens of birds in an afternoon.
Their highly trained dogs also compete in AKC hunt tests, as well as agility and obedience competitions.
Wherever they go, Erickson and Gelbmann and their poodles get plenty of quizzical looks. The most common question: "Does that dog actually hunt?"
"We always get a lot of attention," Erickson said. "A game warden in South Dakota stopped and checked our licenses and asked if he could take a picture."
They like being in the spotlight.
"It's way fun, especially when the dogs work as well as these guys do," Gelbmann said.
That poodles can hunt shouldn't be a surprise. Poodles have a long hunting history in Europe. They were originally bred to be water retrievers. The name "poodle" comes from the German word Pudelhund - "pudeln" means "to splash" and "hund" means "dog." It was shortened to Pudel - or poodle, in English.
And those odd haircuts? Hunters long ago shaved their poodles in certain areas for added mobility and left other areas for warmth.
Poodles were introduced to the United States in the late 1800s and at one time were the most popular breed in America. But their hunting genetics were bred out of them as they became primarily show dogs and pets.
Poodles come in three sizes: standard, miniature and toy. Erickson's and Gelbmann's poodles, both males, are standard. Gelbmann's 8-year-old dog weighs 50 pounds; Erickson's, age 4, weighs about 62 pounds.
Today, the problem is finding poodles bred to hunt, they said. A few breeders are doing just that.
"You can't just go get a poodle and hope," Erickson said.
Though she has hunted with Labs her entire life, Gelbmann acquired a poodle years ago, was impressed, and when it died got another and decided to try to teach it to hunt. Erickson encountered them at a dog show and decided she, too, wanted to try hunting with a poodle.
"This dog has absolutely no hunting genetics - none," Gelbmann said as Cache calmly sat by her side the other day, waiting for the shooting to start. "It was bred out of him. I have encouraged him and taught him. It's not like a Lab; anyone can train a Lab."
But the dogs still have the instincts to hunt. "My 8-month-old puppy has so much bird drive, he's going to be phenomenal," Gelbmann said.
Both women say the dogs are a joy.
"I just love poodles," Gelbmann said. "They are calm, very people-oriented, smart and easy to train. And they have great noses and are hypoallergenic because they don't shed. They're very affectionate, have great temperament and are great family dogs."
Said Erickson, "It's just a pleasure to work with them."
But what about all that fluffy fur? One reason Labs are such popular hunting dogs is their self-cleaning, short fur needs little, if any, attention.
Not so with hunting poodles.
The biggest drawback: "Burrs," Erickson said. She combed out 30 to 40 burrs from Rider's coat during a break in the action.
How bad is it?
"It depends on how long your dog's fur is and how bad the burrs are that you get into," Erickson said.
She and Gelbmann use a silicone spray on their poodles to reduce burr adhesion. "It also prevents snow from balling in their fur," Gelbmann said.
"They're no more difficult to care for than a golden (retriever) or spaniels," Erickson said.
The other drawback, and there's no getting around this one: "Their looks," Gelbmann said. They're poodles, after all.
At the Horse and Hunt Club, hunters often do double-takes when they spot them. Many are skeptical - until they see the dogs in action.
"That dog is really good," one hunter said to Erickson as Rider retrieved yet another downed bird.
"Thanks," she replied with a smile.
© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.