King Buck: From Sick Pup to National Champ

King Buck had a rough start in life but overcame a severe illness and became famous in history as a National Duck Retriever champion and the first dog to appear on a wildlife stamp.

On April 3, 1948, a black Labrador retriever was born in Storm Lake, Iowa. The puppy who showed early promise as a good gun dog was sold to Robert Howard of Omaha for $50. Shortly after Howard brought him home, the puppy developed distemper and became very sick. Howard placed the little dog in a basket by the basement furnace and his wife tended the puppy (who was too weak to even stand) almost constantly. For weeks, the small retriever clung to life, and Howard was advised several times to have him put down. The loving attention Howard's wife provided finally paid off. “One night I went downstairs to have a look at him,” Howard said, “and he managed to stand in his basket and greet me. I knew then that he was going to make it.”

The little Labrador was very thin and not eating well, but he would get out in the field and run around as best as he could. This gave Howard hope that his determined dog will become a good gun dog so he decided to name him Buck. He had owned several dogs named Buck and liked "the yell of it," for it was an easily-heard call name. Thinking he might someday rank high in his class, he named him King Buck.

By the time Buck was 18 months old, his appetite and weight increased, and he began his first real field hunting. He had some impressive early victories in field trials but also marked poorly at times. Howard could not afford to run the dog in top-flight trials so he sold him to Byron Grunwald of Omaha for $500 in 1949, with the stipulation that he could continue to train Buck and handle him in trials. Buck went on to win first, second and third places in various field trials, but still had bad days. After one trial, a judge told Howard, “That dog is nothing but a runner and will never amount to anything. If you’re smart, you’ll get rid of him.”

Two weeks after that trial, Buck displayed a breathtaking ability to handle and "take a line", winning the open at Eagle, Wisconsin. Soon after, he won two second places and completed his field trial championship. John Olin of Alton, Illinois - founder of the Nilo Farms and Nilo Kennels - was on the lookout for good retrievers to stock his new kennel and King Buck caught his attention. In 1951, Grunwald sold Buck to Olin for a substantial amount of money, and famous trainer Cotton Pershall began working with the dog. King Buck was soon placed high among the nation's top retrievers. According to Pershall “He wasn’t a big dog as Labs go, but he had great style. Always quiet and well-behaved, not excitable nor flashy. He just went steadily ahead with his job, series after series, whether on land or water.”

King Buck and John Olin

King Buck completed an unprecedented 63 series in the National Championship Stake, and in 1952 and 1953 he was the National Retriever Field Trial Club champion. This accomplishment was not duplicated by any other dog for nearly 40 years. In 1959, Buck was the first dog to appear on a US Fish and Wildlife Service duck stamp - the only time the stamp has ever featured anything other than some type of waterfowl.

King Buck died on March 28, 1962, one week before his 14th birthday. His body was placed in a small crypt near the entrance of the kennel with a statue of him above his grave.