A good working retriever should love real ducks but disdain artificial ones, feeling he has delegated all interactions with decoys to his human assistant, to whom he has also delegated all calling and shooting responsibilities. Only after the assistant has artistically arranged the decoys, melodiously called in birds and then shot at least one of them does work worthy of his lofty canine self become available.
However, no retriever is born with this haughty attitude toward decoys. Consequently, you’ll have to train it into your pooch, preferably while he is relatively young. What’s more, this training re-quires a delicate balance. A proper retriever is neither attracted to nor frightened by decoys. If they attract him, he’ll at least occasionally retrieve one instead of a duck. If he fears them, he’ll “blink” (refuse to retrieve) any duck that falls too near a decoy. Clearly, a working retriever must have complete disdain for decoys.
Therefore, during the decoy-proofing process, whenever your retriever errs, your correction must be convincing, but not intimidating. You must know your retriever well enough to understand how much correction will persuade him without panicking him. If he has been collar-conditioned, you can achieve the delicate balance with e-collar nicks of appropriate intensity. If he hasn’t been collar-conditioned, you’ll have to wing it on the intensity of your corrections, whether verbal or physical.
Steady and Ready
Before you start decoy proofing your youngster, you should be satisfied with his work on reasonably challenging, single-marked retrieves. Why bother with a dog that might not work out? He should also obey the basic commands: sit, heel, come and stay. Finally, he should be steady. Decoy proofing is control training, so you shouldn’t attempt it until you have at least that much control over the retriever.
Although it isn’t absolutely necessary, if you have force-fetched him, decoy proofing will go more smoothly for both of you. Ditto for collar conditioning, as mentioned above.
As in all control training, decoy proofing requires well-timed rewards for success and corrections for failures. The reward should be your praise. Because you’re his pack leader, he wants to please you, so you can encourage and motivate him with a hearty “Good dog!” when he ignores a tempting decoy. Similarly, a sufficiently outraged “No!” will punish him for most transgressions. However, an e-collar nick of appropriate intensity would be less personal, and therefore less intimidating.
Begin on Land
Since both you and your beastie are born landlubbers — if you doubt that, check your necks for gills — you should start this training on land.
Scatter several decoys around in your backyard. Now heel your retriever, on lead, around the area, at first staying away from the decoys. Anytime he even looks at one of them, correct him, and then as soon as you have his attention, praise him (very important). If he ignores the decoys, praise him lavishly. After he ignores them consistently at a distance, heel him near one, but keep yourself between him and it. If he tries to get to it, correct him, continue heeling and praise him. If he ignores it, praise him and continue heeling. When he consistently ignores the decoys on the other side of you, heel him near one but with him nearer the deek. If he even tries to sniff it, correct him, continue heeling and praise him. If he ignores it, praise him and continue heeling. When he consistently ignores the blocks in this situation, heel him so he has to step over a decoy. Again, if he even tries to sniff it, correct him, continue heeling and praise him. If he ignores it, praise him lavishly and continue heeling.
When he consistently ignores the decoys in all the above situations, it’s time to start tossing a dummy or dead bird for him to retrieve. At first, toss it to one side or the other of the deeks, so he doesn’t have to go near them to get to the dummy. If he veers off toward the blocks, wait until he reaches one before correcting him. That way, he’ll understand the correction is for going to the decoy, not for leaving your side to retrieve. If you don’t use the e-collar, you might consider using a retractable lead to maintain control at a distance in this situation.
After the correction, if he seems confused about what he should do next, toss another dummy near the first one. That will encourage him to complete the retrieve rather than return to you without a dummy.
When he consistently ignores the blocks while retrieving the dummy thrown off to either side, toss it to the far side of the decoys. Follow the usual correction/praise routine. When he consistently ignores the decoys while going through them, toss it right into the middle of them. When he consistently ignores them under these most tempting conditions, he’s ready to “go to sea.”
Decoy proofing will probably take several training sessions spread over several days. Don’t overwork your pooch in any one session. Also, don’t let corrections dominate any training session. If necessary, go back a step or two to give him successes, for which you can praise him. Keep him looking forward to these drills.
Move to Water
Having graduated from landlubber boot camp, your pooch is now ready to learn how pleasant life can be when he ignores decoys even in water, along with how unpleasant life can be if he doesn’t.
Start out in wading water. Put out several decoys and heel your dog around them, just as you did on land. He should require far fewer corrections in water. After he consistently ignores decoys while stepping over them, start tossing the dummy for him to retrieve again, first off to the side, then on the far side of them and finally right among them. Stay in shallow water until you’re sure he will need no more corrections.
Then, set up in swimming water and repeat the retrieving part of the drill. If he backslides, you should go back a step or two, to where corrections are more easily applied.
When you’re absolutely convinced your retriever is decoy proofed, you should take him to different lakes so he can generalize the training. If you work him in only one, he might not react as you expect in a different location. If you work him in several lakes and correct his every mistake in each place, he’ll decide that you’re really serious about this (to him) foolishness. Then he’ll play the game your way, no matter where you decide to play it.
If you train your retriever regularly during the long off-season, remember to use decoys in your training tests, both in water and on land. That way, decoys will always remain a ho-hum part of his working environment.
If you don’t train regularly during the off-season, you should at least give your dog a preseason refresher course every fall. That will save you from unpleasant surprises during hunting season. I once put this refresher off until the evening before opening day. N
ever again! There we were, my golden retriever and me, in the backyard with a spread of decoys on the grass, tossing and retrieving a dead training bird over and over again, in gully-washing rainstorm. I’ve often wondered what my then-new neighbors must have thought.
You’ve spent quite a bit of time teaching your retriever the proper canine attitude toward decoys. He’s neither attracted by them nor fearful of them. However, during hunting season, if he were to get all tangled up in your decoy anchor lines, he could become terrified of decoys. Some dogs have drowned, and others have almost drowned by tangling in decoys.
To avoid mishaps, use anchor lines that are as short as possible. In setting out your blocks, you should also leave swimming paths through them in the most likely places. And finally, if you down a duck in a place beyond a dense population of decoys and anchor lines, you don’t have to send your dog through that area. You can heel your dog down the shore-line as far as is necessary to give him a safe swimming lane to the bird.
If you have to handle him around it with whistle and arm signals, so be it. Don’t risk your retriever’s life for one duck.
Jim Spencer’s books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf. Titles are: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadow; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests: A Handler’s Guide to Success; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT!
Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.