January 22, 2022
In the hunting dog space, we speak of drive in general terms that don’t separate upland dogs from waterfowl retrievers. In the former category, high-drive tends to refer to a dog that will work all day long in search of roosters, grouse, and other upland species. Or, to put it another way, a dog’s drive to hunt.
With waterfowl retrievers, that non-stop coursing to come up with the scent that will lead to a flush isn’t required. In our duck dogs, drive is really all about retrieving desire.
As a professional trainer, this has been clear to me for a long time. Retrieving desire varies as much as obedience compliance and overall skills from dog to dog. This spectrum covers dogs that will retrieve until they drop, and others that can barely muster the urge to swim halfheartedly toward a bumper or a downed greenhead.
Most retrievers fall somewhere in the middle. Just where, is usually pretty obvious by this time of the season when we’ve had plenty of hunts in which to see our dogs work. Because of that, if you’re looking at a retriever that falls somewhere on the middle to the low end of that spectrum, it’s time to think about how to maximize the drive you’ve got available.
The first step in addressing retrieving desire levels, is to understand how they originate. With most dogs, this starts with bloodlines. Even puppies backed by the right pedigrees and stemming from litters boasting generations of Hunt Test and Field Trial champions might only show a moderate retrieving desire at three months. Most will come alive after they learn to manage distractions and their real desire comes out, but this isn’t a guarantee.
You might also take a puppy that shows plenty of natural hold and carry, along with the desire to bring things to you, and overdo it at a young age. It’s really easy to push it when it comes to attention span with puppies because retrieving is more fun than simple obedience work, but you’ve got a short window with each session. Go too far, and you’ll make retrieving seem like something that’s not exciting or special. Obviously, that’s not a good thing.
In other dogs, the drive is just going to be low due either to bloodlines or individual variance (or both). In this case, it’s a matter of figuring out how to get as much out of the dog as possible.
Making the Most of It
We all want a waterfowl retriever that can’t stand not having something in his mouth, whether it’s a soda can or a dead honker. But some dogs don’t care much for certain textures or objects. This happens a lot with bumpers and dummies. For reasons known only to them, some retrievers don’t take to a canvas or a rubber bumper.
But they might take to a bumper that has some mallard wings tied to it. A little change like this in texture and scent can bring out prey drive, which is the source of retrieving desire.
It also matters how you’re presenting the retrieves. If you’ve got a low-drive dog, you want to make it easy. Too far, too-big waves, or anything that makes a retrieve a little too challenging, runs the risk of putting the dog off his game. This is a concern with high-drive dogs too, but you’ve got a lot more leeway with them.
Live with It
Most of what I’ve covered so far concerns training, but what do you do during the hunting season with a low- to medium-drive dog? Well, in this situation the same rules apply as it does when you’re tossing a bumper. You’ve got to ask the dog to do what it can do, and try to keep things exciting and successful.
This means that when it’s time to bust ice for a retrieve, your dog might be out. It might be too much. Or when you clip a bird and it sails out, wounded, to settle 200 yards out in the big waves. At that point, it’s time to get the boat fired up (this happens with high-drive dogs as well when the situation borders on dangerous territory). With low-drive dogs, you’ve just got to be honest about their abilities and what you’re asking of them. The worst thing you can do is send a dog on a retrieve that it has little to no chance of making. All this does is lead to frustration for all two- and four-legged parties involved.
It’s also worth it to pay attention to what other dogs are around. If you have a dog that is struggling with retrieving desire and you pair it up with a dog that lives for the game and breaks, then you’ve got a bad combo. The high-drive dog will break every time and get the retrieve, and the lower-drive dog will give up. This goes for training sessions as well. A better bet with a low-drive dog, especially a young one, is to hunt it either solo, or with dogs that are absolutely under control in hunting situations. A good dog that will honor another’s retrieve is okay here, but it has to be rock solid.
Low-drive dogs are the reality in duck blinds all across the country, but that doesn’t mean they can’t bring you the feathery good stuff when the time comes. They can, and you can do your best to bring out the prey drive in them through proper training and appropriate hunting sessions. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen to a duck hunter either. It just boils down to managing expectations and making the most of what you’ve got.