The old, gray beard belies Muffy's age as the 9-year-old Labrador strains to sit under the excitement of retrieving a downed duck for her handler, Pam Bryant of Medford.
Three helpers in the Denman Wildlife Area field 300 yards away take turns firing starters' pistols and tossing the frozen carcasses of pen-raised mallards into the air.
It's a strange imitation of a hunting situation, but it's as real to Muffy as any great day afield.
"Muff!" yells Bryant, and the black bomber bursts through the brush, returning three times with a mallard in her mouth.
The last run produces a limp from a bad shoulder that has dogged her field training the past six years. "She'll be limping around for a while, but she loves it," says Bryant, who has trained retrievers for more than 50 years. "That was a struggle," Bryant says. "She needed help from Mother."
Had that frozen mallard been alive — like those routinely used in other field-training exercises — Muffy and Bryant would be breaking Oregon wildlife laws. But after years of bird-dogs inadvertently running afoul of wildlife laws at times during training, some of these long-standing training practices are about to go legit.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has proposed a new set of dog and falconry training rules that will allow trainers to use live, pen-raised birds for field training in spring and early summer.
A draft of the new revisions are now out for public comment and will be presented during a public meeting at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 2, at the ODFW's office on the Denman Wildlife Area, 1495 E. Gregory Road, Central Point.
The draft includes a provision that does not require birds used in training to be eaten, and it would allow dogs in training to run free on private lands or on suitable public lands year round, including April through July, when there's a statewide moratorium on any dogs running free in suitable bird-nesting habitat.
The changes do not apply to nonhunting dogs or to inanimate objects used in training, such as bumpers or bird wings. Also, wild birds would remain illegal in training.
Under the proposed revisions, dog trainers would be required, for the first time, to have a permit. But it would be free, good all year anywhere they train, and available by downloading it off ODFW's website.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is set to adopt some version of the proposed changes at its Feb. 4 meeting in Salem.
If adopted, trainers could buy pen-raised mallards to train their dogs in simulated hunting situations year-round to get them ready for waterfowl hunts or organized trials.
"We always shot birds year-round," says Bob Allison, a Central Point man who is president of the Rogue Valley Retriever Club. "We didn't realize we were doing anything wrong.
" 'We're the government and we're here to help you' doesn't thrill me much," Allison says. "But it seems like they're trying to clarify things so no one gets in trouble."
That's precisely the motive behind the current draft, says Brandon Reishus, an ODFW assistant game-bird biologist who worked on the draft.
Wild birds can be shot only with legal licenses during legal seasons. But dogs are trained year-round, so many trainers buy pen-raised birds they release and shoot for their dogs to retrieve during the off-season.
Many dog-training hobbyists never realized that pen-raised ducks, chukar, quail and other birds are classified as wildlife and cannot be released without an ODFW permit, even on private land, Reishus says.
Because that rule is actually a state statute, ODFW has no authority to waive that permit requirement, Reishus says. But it doesn't ban them from ensuring that getting a permit is free and easy.
"The kick-back we've been getting is that folks are having trouble coming to grips with the understanding that what they were doing was illegal," Reishus says. "We did this with an understanding that there are people out there doing these activities unlawfully, but unknowingly unlawful."
By adding the free training permit, ODFW will for the first time have a good handle on how many people take part in this field sport, Reishus says.
At first, some trainers have been skeptical of getting caught in the cross-hairs of government regulation. But many, like Paul Foster of Phoenix, see the actual language as less than onerous.
"It strikes me as pragmatic," Foster says. "It's getting the right verbiage in to make things legal."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.