Remember your first big crush? You felt alternating surges of wild excitement and secret terror. Your young retriever — Blackie, Goldilocks, Deadgrass or whatever you named him — will suffer those same mixed feelings when he encounters his first big duck, such as a drake mallard. He’ll tingle with delight and shiver with fright.
Before he suffers this tangle of emotions, you should prepare him to react positively rather than fearfully. During the summer before his first duck hunt, if you’ve trained him regularly with dummies and pigeons, then getting him ready for that first “big one” shouldn’t take long. You can probably bring an exceptionally bold pup around in one or two training sessions. On a more cautious youngster, you might spend half a dozen or so sessions. Either way, if you take him through the following steps, your young retriever — let’s call him Blackie — should become a gung-ho duck fetcher in a relatively short time.
You are helping him overcome a fear of big ducks, which is common among young retrievers. You can’t conquer fear with force. Throughout these training steps, be supportive and encouraging. Even if you have force-fetched Blackie, you shouldn’t command him to pick up whatever part of the duck you are using.
Acquire Training Mallards
You need a few dead mallards. If you belong to the local retriever club, you should be able to get them after the club’s hunting tests or field trials. They shoot lots of ducks at such events and allow members take them afterward. If you don’t belong to a retriever club, you should join one ASAP. Otherwise, you can buy ducks from someone who raises and sells them.
You need a freezer in which to keep your dead ducks between training sessions. Before each session, thaw out however many ducks you think you might need. You’ll refreeze them later. They can be re-used many times before they get too ripe. I once overdid it, and one of my dogs notified me of my mistake. Instead of picking up a thrown duck, he lay down and rolled on it. Don’t push thawing and refreezing that far.
In the last step, you will need a few live mallard drakes, so you’ll have to find a bird supplier to sell them to you. If the price startles you, you have probably never tallied up how much you spend for each duck you bring home from your hunting trips. (Suggestion: For your own peace of mind, don’t ever tally that up.)
Testing the Waters
Some extremely bold retrievers make the transition from pigeons to ducks quite easily. To determine whether you have such a gem, test him as follows with a dead drake mallard: Stuff the bird in your training vest, let Blackie out of your vehicle near light-to-moderate cover and start walking. When he wanders off on his own, drop the bird in cover and continue walking. Guide Blackie to the downwind side of the dropped duck and watch his reaction when he winds it. He might react in any of three ways.
If he rushes in and snatches it up, hey, he has no problem with big birds. As bold as he is, he might have a problem surrendering them to you or even not eating them, but he has no problem with big birds as such. You can skip steps 1 through 4 and go directly to step 5.
If he approaches the dropped duck more cautiously, don’t say or do anything. Just let him work the problem out for himself. If he eventually picks it up, praise him and encourage him to bring it to you. When he does, make a big fuss over him and repeat the process several times, until he approaches the duck boldly. Then skip to step 5.
If he refuses to pick the duck up, say nothing and do nothing, not even to encourage him. Simply pick the bird up, put it back in your vest and continue walking. After a while, repeat the process. If, after several repetitions, he still refuses to pick the duck up, discontinue this test and take him through the entire process described hereafter.
Piece By Piece
Step 1: A Wing — Cut a wing off a dead mallard. Take Blackie out in the backyard and hold the wing in front of him so he can smell it. As soon as he seems comfortable, tease him with it until he tries to grab it. Then toss it a short distance for him to retrieve. When he picks it up, praise him warmly. Repeat this a few times, but not so often that he becomes bored.
Step 2: A Lightened Carcass — When he enjoys retrieving the wing, make further adjustments to the mallard from which you removed the wing. Remove the other wing, the head and the legs. Now, remove the entrails. This gives you a lightweight carcass. Introduce Blackie to this carcass just as you introduced him to the wing. Since it is so light, he should have no problem with it. Give him several backyard retrieves, punctuated with a lot of praise.
Step 3: A Heavier Carcass — When he enjoys retrieving the lightweight carcass, take another carcass from your collection of dead mallards. Remove the wings, legs and head, but leave the entrails in place. Repeat the above introduction process with this slightly heavier carcass. The extra heft should cause your youngster no problems after his success in the previous steps.
Step 4: A Dead Drake Mallard — How rapidly you progress from the altered carcass to an entire dead drake mallard depends on your dog. As in all training, you must be able to read your dog and train according to his schedule, not that of your buddy’s dog. If Blackie adjusts slowly to new situations, you should next introduce him to a dead mallard with the wings and legs removed, but with the head and entrails in place. If he adjusts quite easily to new situations, you should now introduce him to a complete dead mallard, with nothing removed. If he adjusts somewhere in between those extremes, introduce him to a dead mallard that you have trimmed as you see fit.
Step 5: Live Ducks — Eventually, Blackie will perform these backyard retrieves with a complete dead drake mallard. Thereafter, you should start using your supply of dead ducks in your regular training sessions.
Unfortunately, not every duck you shoot while hunting hits the water stone-dead. Thus, fetching cripples constitutes a significant part of a working retriever’s job. One long-ago hunting buddy explained his cripples by saying, “I must not have pulled the trigger hard enough that time.”
Some cripples come down quite lively and equally hostile. With bluff, bluster and bites on the ear, such a bird can seriously intimidate a young retriever that has previously retrieved only dead birds. Let’s not let that happen to Blackie.
To prepare him for dealing with cripples while hunting, you should tie both of a live duck’s hands behind him
before the “battle” begins, so to speak. That means you should shackle the duck. Wrap a cord around the base of its wings so that it can still flap them a little but can’t fly. Tie a cord around its legs so it can’t run, and tape its bill so it can’t bite. However, be sure not to put tape over its nostrils, as that would keep it from breathing.
Now introduce the shackled duck to Blackie as you introduced the dead duck and parts thereof. When tossing this live duck, don’t toss it too high or too far, lest the landing injure the bird. Better yet, to protect the bird, do all tossing into shallow water.
Once Blackie enjoys retrieving live, shackled ducks, start using such ducks in regular training sessions — but always in water, where the duck’s landing will be soft.
Ready For Real Action
That’s it — you have successfully transformed Blackie’s first big crush into a lifetime commitment.
However, during his first season, you should sluice (re-shoot) cripples before sending him to retrieve them. Let him get pretty salty before he encounters his first unshackled cripple.
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.