In a field across the road from Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, Ill., thousands of geese make themselves at home. But should one of the birds dare to venture onto the club’s turf or into its airspace, it won’t be there long. A black Lab named Tug and his young pal, a yellow Lab called Buster, are standing by, just itching for a goose chase.
Black Sheep hasn’t always been goose-free. Tug’s owner, head golf pro Kevin Healy, remembers a day early in the 285-acre club’s history when so many geese flew overhead that they blocked the sun. Geese are drawn to turf-rich areas like parks and golf courses, and are voracious nibblers, capable of turning vast areas of grassy land into bare ground peppered with cat-scat-sized droppings. But what appeared to be a huge problem for the club looked like sport to Tug, who took it upon himself to permanently relocate the big birds.
While Healy worked with the construction crew building the course, Tug went to work chasing geese. In his early days, Tug logged about 10 miles of running a day, says Healy. “It’s amazing the endurance he had.” Still, Tug’s efforts often seemed futile. There were thousands of them and only one of him, and with their wings and webbed feet, the geese had more options for escape than Tug had for pursuit. He was the ultimate underdog. But, driven perhaps by a kind of instinct or simply a desire to help Healy, Tug was tireless.
Healy found Tug about ten years ago in a remote part of Florida where Healy’s family spends the winter; the dog was ambling along a road, lost and hungry. Healy gave him food and water and put him in his garage overnight to protect him from the wild pigs, bobcats and alligators that also call the area home. The next day, he took him to the local humane society and called every day thereafter to check on him. When no one claimed the dog, Healy adopted him. The vet told Healy he thought the pooch was a Lab, and about two years old.
Occasionally, signs of a hunting instinct surfaced in Tug—excitement at the sound of fireworks or gunfire and an interest in chasing critters—but no one expected him to hunt or to work. Tug settled happily into his new life as a family dog: hanging out with the kids, adding 40 pounds to his frame and taking up a sizeable portion of Healy’s son’s bed at night.
In the fall of 2000, when the family moved to the Chicago suburbs and Healy began work on the new golf course, Tug found his calling. “The days for Tug were just spent chasing these birds,” says Healy. At first, the geese simply flew to the other side of the golf course or took refuge in one of the ponds. But Tug wasn’t discouraged. In fact, he developed a few strategies of his own. He came up with a system of repeatedly jumping in and out of the water, targeting specific groups of geese with each leap and moving them into the narrow part of the pond. Once he had them cornered, he finished the job with a huge, satisfying splash, sending the flock into the air. “It was the most amazing thing I ever saw,” says Healy.
Though some people spend thousands of dollars to train a dog to chase away geese, Tug is entirely self-taught. It may have taken him three years to clear the course of geese and persuade them to take up residence elsewhere, but few geese-management approaches achieve Tug’s level of success—100 percent effective and 100 percent natural.
These days, Tug enjoys quieter endeavors, including following Healy around the course, stretching out under a tree to keep watch over the fairways and greens, and bringing up Buster, a young yellow Lab. He’s still full of life, though; he not only still enjoys a dash across the fairway to send the occasional goose packing, he takes his new mentoring responsibility seriously.
Buster, now about three, is catching on to Tug’s ways, but he has his own style—for example, he’s less discriminating, chasing after ducks as well as geese. And Buster loves water, whereas Tug won’t get wet without a reason.
Sprawled on the seat of Healy’s golf cart with Buster at his side, Tug looks as though he might be easing into semi-retirement. That is, until a goose squawks overhead. Then he and Buster are off.
Photo courtesy of Susan Sarver