It never ceases to amaze me how much farther dead ducks end up away from me than I expect when I touch off a shot or three. Their momentum alone, especially when it comes to the speedier fowl, can carry them well beyond the average backyard retrieving distance. And of course, not every duck or goose that catches a load of steel in the body starts dropping immediately from the sky. Sometimes death and gravity don’t quite conspire to get them as soon as they get walloped, which means they might flap their way to five times the average retrieve distance before hitting the water or the corn stubble.
In this case, if your dog isn’t prepared for it and hasn’t watched the bird descend, you’re in trouble. Most dogs, by sheer repetition alone, develop an internal compass that tells them they’ve gone far enough when it to comes bringing a bird or a dummy back. This goes for land and water retrieves, and it never seems like a problem until the first wing-shot duck sails 100 yards out and pitches bill-first into the drink. A dog that has only worked out to as far as you can hand-toss a dummy, which isn’t nearly far enough, is going to have a difficult time bring that bird back.
There is an easy way to avoid this situation, and it all starts now with summertime training sessions.
A good goal when working with a duck dog throughout the summer is to start out by doubling the distance of the average retrieve. For most of us, this means twice as far as you can throw a dummy by hand. Obviously, you’ve got to figure out how to do this without unchecked steroid abuse and a serious regimen in the weight room.
I like to bring my dog to heel and then tell her to stay. From that point, I’ll walk out 25 or 30 yards and then wing the dummy. She doesn’t get released until I’m at her side again. This does a few things, the first being that it increases the distance of the average retrieve. The second is that it helps to suppress the urge to break because she knows that just because the dummy goes airborne doesn’t mean that within a few seconds she gets to retrieve.
I conduct these drills on land where it’s easy. Eventually, I’ll add in some water work and then step up the difficulty by using the terrain. Anything as simple as a hill leading to a pond can allow you to add in an extra challenge to a double-distance retrieve because it will allow you to hide the toss from your dog. A wall of cattails can do the same thing, and now you’re incorporating hand signals as well as increasing the understanding of how far a retrieve could be.
Double It Again, At Least
As you can imagine, if you only progress to the double-distance retrieve, your dog will eventually get very comfortable bringing dummies back from about 50 to 60 yards. Now is the time to double it again, or go even farther. This will require either some tools, a partner, or some planning. Probably all three at times.
A dummy launcher is a great way to incorporate a gun-like looking and sounding tool (never a bad idea provided you’ve already gone through gun-fire introduction) and will allow you to get a dummy way out into the water. If you don’t want to spring for a launcher, enlist the help of a training buddy and have them help you by getting out as far as you’d like the retrieve to be and then blowing on a duck call to get the dog’s attention. Make sure your dog is keyed on your partner and have them throw the dummy so it’s clearly visible and your dog can mark it. Then it’s time to release.
This partner-based drill is best conducted first on a wide open area with short grass, like a neighborhood soccer field, so it is extremely easy for the dog to succeed. You don’t want to condition a dog to easy 50-yard drills and then suddenly increase the distance to 200 yards and expect him to work triples or blind retrieves without any trouble. Step it up in difficulty incrementally, and only after the dog has shown total confidence in whatever step you’re currently on. The goal is never to trick the dog, but to make it so they succeed with every drill.
A duck dog that believes all retrieves happen within a quarter or half the distance of a football field is in for a long morning when the reality of a hunt settles in and the first marginally hit bird makes it way beyond his range. If he understands that any retrieve might take him out 200 or 300 yards, he’s got a much better chance of bringing you your bird. If not, you’ll try – and fail – to get him to work out well beyond his comfort zone. This makes for a very frustrating morning in the blind and is totally avoidable.
So, avoid it by engaging in some distance work this summer.