A dog is never really finished until it has gone through distraction training. This is especially true for duck dogs because they need to understand you’re in control no matter the situation.
This is important because a dog’s life is full of temptation. They are tempted each and every day with a host of interesting smells, new animals, people and anything and everything that can command a dog’s attention.
A distracted dog at home can be frustrating; in a duck blind it’s a nightmare.
Knowing this, it’s important to train your dog on how to react when distractions inevitably come calling. With any level of advanced training, it’s imperative the basics be covered first.
If your dog hasn’t mastered all of the common commands from ‘sit’ to ‘place’—and everything in between—he isn’t ready for distraction training.
If he has the basics well under control, then it’s time to move on to distraction. And like all of the necessary training, it starts with a simple drill.
Set Up For Failure
This is something I don’t recommend in dog training very often, but when teaching a retriever to ignore distractions I want them to give in and fail at first. They need a correction to understand they’ve done something wrong, and I can only give a correction if they screw up during a drill.
This starts with the dog on a leash and can be used for puppies as young as five to seven months old, and really any older dog that needs it. Have the dog sit at your side and then enlist a training partner to walk towards him. The person should stop five feet short of the dog and wait.
Most dogs will break to go see the person, which allows for a correction with the leash.
It’s important to note that you should not caution the dog or warn him not to break. This goes back to the fact that I want them to try to go to the person so that they get corrected and begin to understand what is going on. Don’t give your pooch the heads up that he needs to behave, let him act on his own accord.
Once the dog learns not to break when the person walks up, repeat the drill but have your training partner stop and then crouch. This is a new element to the drill and will signal to the dog that it’s time for a greeting. If he takes the bait, correct him.
Your dog will learn to sit tight when the person crouches. At that point, have your training partner walk up, crouch down, and then start clapping. This ups the distraction ante. Again, if your dog breaks, correct him with the leash.
No matter which stage of this initial step you’re on, always remember that while correcting is important, so is positive reinforcement. For every step your dog does well on, dole out the verbal praise.
Phase Two: advanced drills
If your dog has mastered the early drills, it’s time to move on. At this point I like to leash the dog and have my training partner stand in front of us. With the dog on the same side as the other trainer, I’ll walk the leashed dog around them. If the dog pulls or tries to go to the other person, correct him.
Again, work this drill until the dog gets it. Advance the training by having the person crouch, and then crouch while clapping just like in the previous lessons. These are baby steps, but are necessary for slowly driving home the point that the dog is not to disobey you once a command has been given.
These drills will also teach you how much discipline your dog needs to finally say enough is enough. With each drill, the dog has to weigh out the benefits of breaking versus the negatives of getting corrected. Some dogs will push it much harder than others. That’s fine.
A stubborn dog just takes a little more patience and time. Just be sure not to get frustrated and give in—you’ll regret it come fall.
Build a Foundation
Eventually you should be able to command your dog with any one of his directives, and train for distractions around that command. You should also incorporate new distractions like children, cars, people coming to the door, and anything else you can conjure up.
At this point you might be thinking this is a far cry from the distractions encountered in a duck blind, however, this is all foundation work. If your dog won’t heed commands at home, he certainly isn’t going to pay any mind when the sun is rising and the mallards are working the decoys.
This is not an endorsement to ignore the distractions like decoys, calls, other hunting dogs, or any other things a waterfowler might encounter while hunting. In fact, you should train for all of those things. That might involve tossing a dummy into a neighborhood pond where the local goose population will paddle nearby honking their disapproval.
Or it might involve having your dog retrieve while a neighbor keeps a leashed dog on the sidelines. Get creative with your distraction training, and remember to incorporate an e-collar if that is what you use to correct your dog in the field. E-collars, especially when combined with leash training, provide excellent options for repeatable corrections, which is important.
While you’re wading through the simpler steps of distraction training, and then the more advanced stages, you’ll realize a couple of things. The first is that your dog will start to listen to you in a way that is a major benefit at home and in the field.
A dog that won’t disobey is the single greatest tool a hunter can have, and an absolutely invaluable asset in the marsh.
You’ll also realize that you’ve started anticipating distractions before they happen. This allows you to either steer your dog clear, or prepare him well ahead of the hunt so it’s not so surprising whenever a specific distraction pops up.
Remember, it’s impossible to anticipate all of the things that can occur while hunting. The variables are far too great. There are an infinite amount of scenarios that can distract a dog, and it’s up to you to prepare him for as many of those as possible.
If he has been trained correctly to ignore basic distractions, you’ll do just fine. However, you’ll be even better off if the steps taken during this type of training have drilled home the realization that breaking a command—any command—brings forth a negative instead of a positive.
Because once a dog fully understands that, all of those too-difficult-to-ignore temptations will become much easier to forget about while focusing on the task at hand: obeying his master.