You're not a professional trainer and you've got a full-time job, a few kids at home, and a litany of other factors in life that usurp most of your free time. What do you do about keeping your duck dog tack-sharp in the off-season?
The answer is, of course, train as often as possible. A few sessions per week will help more than trying to cram in a bunch of immediate pre-season drills in late-August.
If instead of just getting your dog some exercise, you focus each session on a specific skill you'll keep your dog's hunting edge honed throughout the summer. This will lead to a much easier transition into the duck blind come fall.
Following are three drills to consider.
Two dummies are all you need to ensure that your retriever understands that multiple retrieves are possible each time the gun goes off.
If your dog is a little rusty, start off in the mowed grass of your backyard or nearby soccer field. Heel your hound and toss a dummy to the side. Toss the second dummy 180 degrees to your opposite side. Send him after the second dummy first, and then follow up with the original dummy.
If that's too easy, increase the distance of the retrieves and move into some thicker cover and eventually water. Conducting this drill once or twice a week will solidify the not-one-and-done mentality all duck dogs need.
Most amateur dog trainers sell their dogs short on retrieving distance. A good duck dog should understand that a retrieve might cover 300 or 400 yards. It doesn't always happen, but when a greenhead sails into the next county, your dog needs to understand that his job is to range far enough to bring the crippled duck to hand.
Head to the soccer fields and command your dog to stay. Run out 50 yards and toss the dummy. Once you're at your dog's side, release him to retrieve the dummy.
Over time, you'll increase the distance and your dog will realize that some retrieves will push a quarter of a mile. If trotting back and forth isn't your thing, invest in a dummy launcher. Either way, at least once per week make sure your dog spends some time working on his long-distance retrieving skills.
At some point during the season, you'll be very happy with the pre-season time devoted to this drill.
It's easy to get lazy when tossing a dummy for your dog. We all do it; however, standing in the yard and winging a bumper 20 times doesn't do much for teaching a dog anything.
Tossing that same dummy in an area with distractions is a much better idea. I love to train my Lab in our backyard pond because there are always city ducks and geese paddling away in the pond. Luna learns that she is to ignore the honking geese and the scolding mallards and focus solely on the dummy.
Distractions don't need to be live fowl for these drills to work, they can be as simple as having your dog retrieve through a small decoy spread, or maybe while someone else wanders around through the dog's personal space. The idea is to teach the retriever that the task at hand is the most important thing in the world, and everything else should be ignored.
Far too few dogs are trained to work under distracting conditions, yet they are guaranteed to run into them in the field.
It doesn't take 40 hours a week to keep a good dog good, but it does take some time. As little as 20 minutes every other day can be a great investment in any duck dog. Of course, to further his education and make the most of each drill, it pays to include the right tools.
For example, an appropriate-sized bumper that has a good, wax-based scent rubbed on it is far better than tossing a tennis ball for a dog.
Do your part this summer and you'll enter the season with a dog that will do his job from day one, which is always the goal.