Letter From Hardscrabble Creek:
Training Your Soul Retriever

by Chas S. Clifton


Probably the greatest error soul-retriever owners make is not starting the dog soon enough. Often they are victims of their own high standards--if the dog does not perform well or follow instructions, they give up, terrified by the image of showing up in a shamanic competition only to have some grizzled old practitioner sneeringly remark, "That dog's barking up the wrong World Tree." No, your emphasis in puppy training should be simply to exercise Pup's natural soul-retrieving abilities, not to mention his or her innate interest in dead people. Make training sessions fun and successful and give Pup some confidence! Working instincts are strong in all soul-retriever breeds, and their self-esteem comes from working well. A bored retriever can be a handful of problems--poltergeists are the least of it!

Consider the rewards of having a well-trained dog. Beyond its obvious uses, a finished soul retriever far surpasses the empathetic skills of his or her bird-dog ancestors. For instance, when a "souler" owner of my acquaintance was conducting a cross-cultural study of dreaming in graduate school, she had to keep a log of her own dreams to meet a course requirement. With its typical reversed logic, her unconscious stopped offering her any material--or at least she had a hard time recalling it when she awoke, despite the notebook by the bed and so on. But her soul retriever quickly grasped the situation with uncanny canine skill. Like a rescue dog finding a lost person, he located her in the Otherworld and took her on some simple journeys. Soon her notebook began to record a series of dreams featuring Perk, the dog, and once that blockage was gone, other dreams began to flow as well.

Begin retriever-training early. Seven weeks isn't too soon. Use a power animal, elemental, or knotted sock and keep training sessions short, no more than five minutes in the Otherworld. Pup's attention span is not too long yet, after all. Start him in "shallow waters," so to speak. Make the trancing experience lots of fun.

Once Pup reaches at least four months, you can start working with a drummer. Again, proper introduction to this new sound is important; a drum-shy dog is not only useless but embarrassing to the practitioner. If you're lucky, Pup's own karmic past may predispose him to his work. I recall taking one four-month-old puppy to a pow-wow but leaving him in the truck with the windows up (it was a cold day) so that the report of the big drums would be lessened. He wanted to get out and run toward them anyway. While one Lab that we had when I was young was not only drum-shy but frightened of thunderstorms, this dog only associates drumming with retrieving and fun. He drops into trance at the first rumblings over the western ridges and only comes out when rain drops start soaking through his coat.

Still, it's safer to start gradually. Save the ceramic dumbek or the four-man pow-wow drum for later. You might start by tapping lightly on a pie tin or plastic plate while Pup's eating dinner. Move up from that to a lightly played tom-tom or bodhran. Watch Pup for signs of fright: is he flinching? Coming out of trance too quickly? This stage of training is best handled by two people--you need a drummer to work with you who has some dog-sense.

Competition actually requires a more skilled dog than client-centered work, in my opinion. Recent changes in the soul retriever's Working Certificate rules have led to the outlawing of dead souls, even "captured" or "shackled" souls. Nowadays all judges will expect your dog to work with live subjects, which can at times produce unexpected results. Consequently, training Pup to be "steady" to drumming is doubly important in case the trial has to be interrupted when he is "on the line."

Turtle Island Breeds

Several readers have written wanting to know more about North American breeds. Two are especially interesting: the Chesapeake Bay dog and the Nova Scotia souling retriever. I will describe the Chessie's origins first with the hopes of turning to the Nova Scotia souling retriever in a later column. The Nova Scotia breed is less-known in the States, but it has gained favor among specialists in recent years for its intelligence, high spirits, compact size, and ability to sing along with Rankin Family albums, the last being a trait that few Chessies can claim.

As the only breed developed in North America, the Chesapeake Bay soul retriever excels in the tough conditions of Turtle Island. Its history began in 1807, when the English brig Orpheus ran aground on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, says Eileen Cherry in her excellent history of the breed. Among its crew was a Beothuk Indian from Newfoundland and two Newfoundland pups, of a breed long developed for hunting, companionship, and soul retrieval‹bones of these dogs have been found buried together with humans in graves dating back to 3000 B.C.E.

George Claw, member of a well-known Maryland lineage, described the wreck of the Orpheus in a subsequent letter. It has been widely reproduced since its first publication in 1845 in The Dog and the Shaman , so I will only quote it in part:

"In the fall of 1807 I was on board of the ship Cantrip when we fell in, at sea, near the termination of a very equinoctial gale, with an English brig in a sinking condition. The brig was loaded with cod-fish and was bound to Poole, in England, from Newfoundland. I boarded her, in command of a boat from the Cantrip, which was sent to take off the English crew, the brig's own boats having been swept away, and her crew in a state of divine intoxication.

"I found on board of her two Newfoundland pups, male and female, in the care of a Maritime Indian, which I saved, and subsequently on landing the English crew at Norfolk, our own destination being Baltimore, I purchased these two pups of the Indian for a guinea apiece, without haggling."

Because he was again bound to sea, Claw entrusted the two pups, the male being named Shaman and the female Cantrip, to two different magisters, one on the Eastern Shore and one on the Western. Developed on the Eastern Shore, the "Shaman strain" of dogs were large, reddish, and long-haired, while the Western Shore descendants of Cantrip had shorter, denser coats. All were hardy animals, adept at keeping long vigils in the salt spray or chilling drizzle between the worlds.

Chessies are known as the working practitioner's dog. Golden-cord Retrievers may be more popular in Suburbia, but the "people of knowledge" who could make their own drums from the belly skin of an elk--and prefer to--stick with Chessies.


Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edits Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which includes The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996).


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