A dog of a lifetime: Rocco on the path to greatness

Art Costa got an extra-special dog in Rocco, already on the way to greatness at 2.

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Already at 2, Rocco is on the path to greatness.


A guy nudged me as I stood by the cooking stage in February at Pheasant Fest in Schaumburg.

“You should have `Recipe of the Week,’ just like you do `Fish of the Week’ or `Buck of the Week,’ ‘’ he said.

Maybe Art Costa should’ve suggested “Dog of the Week.’’ He’s got a dog worthy of starting that off

As fates work, Costa’s good idea for recipes and cooking related to the outdoors came to fruition. Jack Hennessy, a presenter at Pheasant Fest, pitched a similar idea a week or so later and Hennessy’s “Braising the Wild’’ recipe became part of the two pages of outdoors coverage when Sports Saturday started in the Sun-Times. Hennessy, who grew up in Park Forest, had his first kitchen job at the Aurelio’s Pizza in Richton Park.

Connections. In some ways, the world of the outdoors is a small interconnected one.

Last month, Costa’s 2-year-old yellow Lab, Rocco, earned his Hunting Retriever Champion (HRCH) title in Wisconsin. Next up is a try for a Grand Hunting Retriever Champion (GRHRCH).

“All my life I had dogs, but I never had one like this,’’ he said. “At my age, I want one dog that will listen and be really good. This is that dog.

“I have pretty much had Labs, but I had a lot of mutts, too. I decided to go with Labs.’’

Costa, a “retired carpenter, 35 years in the union,’’ lives in Palos Park.

“This is one of the things I was going to do when I retired,’’ he said.

He had a chance to get Rocco, born April 20, 2017, when he hunted with Neil Thalacker in South Dakota, the famous pheasant-hunting destination. Thalacker is a breeder out of Wisconsin who has about one litter a year to sell. Costa now has two dogs from Thalacker, Rocco and an older 4-year-old.

“I hunted behind them when I first got him,’’ Costa said. “Hunting the 4-year-old and him together, I couldn’t handle it.’’

One day, Jim Kirby. Costa’s neighbor said, “How come that dog is not down at my club?’’

Kirby gave Costa a card for Green Acres Sportsman’s Club and trainer Dan Ihrke, one of the best in the world.

Connections again in the small interconnected world of the outdoors.

Kirby is a retired businessman who used to write about the outdoors on the side. Years ago, he used to do a southern-northern Illinois competition (shooting and hunting) at Green Acres. He would organize the northern group and a southern Illinois guide would organize the southern crew.

A couple of times Kirby invited me for the northern side. It was my introduction to Green Acres, one of the top hunting clubs around northeastern Illinois.

I asked Costa how he knew that Rocco was special.


Rocco stepping lively.


“I saw the excitement in this dog,’’ he said.

That feeling was bolstered when he took Rocco to Ihrke at Green Acres.

“First time he saw that dog he said he could see the enthusiasm,’’ Costa said.

He wasn’t kidding. When I called Green Acres to follow up, the guy writing down my message for Ihrke blurted, “Rocco is awesome.’’

Training there went very well for Rocco at Green Acres. Make that lots of training.

“There’s lots of work involved, but they get Sunday and Monday off,’’ Costa said.

At this level, even with a dog as talented as Rocco, a lot of training is involved. The dog needs to learn to swim straight across under direction to the dummy on the other side of the water without getting out on land. There’s training when moving up to birds and then to working under the pressure of the sounds of shotguns. There is land retrieving and water retrieving.

In the blind retrieves, the dog needs to “bring it back and not drop it. Sometimes they throw a distracting bird.’’

I asked Costa is he was nervous.

“I am always nervous,’’ he said. “For something like that, I was thinking, `Please don’t screw up.’ ‘’

Back to Costa’s original suggestion for Recipe of the Week, I asked him what he thought of Hennessy’s “Braising the Wild’’ recipes.

“I enjoy the heck out of it,’’ Costa said. “Can I cook all of them, no? But I save them.’’

Dogs, hunting and food, life is rich.


Dudley, a wirehaired Vizsla, gives a photo op with Jack Hennessy, who does “Braising the Wild” for the Sun-Times.


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