Tom Dokken is one of the best at getting the most out of bird dogs. If you love Labs, it’s hard to walk away from the campfire once he starts talking. Few know the mind of a hunting dog like Dokken, and so when we asked him what some of the key ingredients were to utilizing an e-collar properly, he delivered some seriously helpful retriever insights. We ran Tom through a few different training and hunting scenarios to find out how he would use—or not use— an e-collar. It will make a huge difference in the success of your pup this fall...if you do the work.
Plus, check out all the top training tools in the gear section that follows to help you along the way.
Here’s the first situation: You have collar-conditioned your dog. Everything is progressing as it should, and you decide, hell, this dog is trained, no need to use the e-collar anymore.
TD: You have to stay consistent. Once a dog is collar-conditioned, a lot of people stop using it and the dog gets collar-wise. He stops listening to commands because there is no reinforcement. Early on dogs are going to test you, and they are going to understand when the collar is on that it is the source of the correction. So, when it’s on, they are saints, but if you take it off...
Next situation: You’re in the duck blind and the dog isn’t performing like he should, picking up a dead bird then dropping it for another, etc. You have done all the offseason work and been bragging to your buddies how great your dog is. Now, frustration is setting in.
TD: That (correction button) is really easy to push, but you need to be aware what it can do to a dog. If you keep correcting your dog on recall or while it’s retrieving, at some point it’s going to associate going out and getting birds with discipline and will shut down. Then you’re looking at a big problem, trying to reverse that aversion to retrieving—it might not be possible. You always want to win the point, but you can’t always win it with pressure. You have to ask yourself if the dog can succeed or not and is this the right time to have that battle.
Next situation: It’s a banger field duck feed. Your group is killing birds in the decoys and the dog is making retrieves. Then your cousin-by-marriage tries to be a hero and ass shoots a mallard at 50 yards that sails into a treeline. The dog gets out past the furthest honker full-body and won’t take a hand signal when the whistle blows.
TD: The collar is for reinforcement of what you have already trained your dog to do. If you discipline him (with the e-collar) over and over for not taking hand signals he will feel safer just sitting there. We are all creatures of habit—dogs included—so if your dog just retrieved 30 mallards at 20 yards, he’s getting conditioned to a bunch of short retrieves. If you sail one, take him out beyond the decoys and then send him.
Next situation: It’s tough shooting and your young dog is having to make multiple blind retrieves but missed the last few. You know where the birds have fallen and your buddies aren’t helping matters, razzing you that this new retriever is now a very expensive house pet.
TD: It takes a while for dogs to figure out you are in this together and “this guy is here to help me.” Think about what you are doing in every situation before you start correcting the dog. That’s not always easy in the heat of the moment, but keep in mind the e-collar is not a punishment for your dog doing something wrong. Sometimes it’s better to just go to the dog and try and work things out. If that’s not working, you can go back and do a little manual training and teach the dog the collar is only to reinforce what he already knows.
Garmin Pro 550 Plus
If you don’t see a reason to have a GPS tracking system integrated with an e-collar, you should. It keeps your nerves settled when the dog disappears into the cattails after sailed birds. A lot of hunters will call their retriever off after losing sight of them for too long for fear of losing them. This Garmin unit has 18 levels of momentary or continuous stim, tone and vibration as well as beacon lights for early mornings and after dark. Capable of running three dogs, the 550 Plus has a 2-mile range depending on terrain. $650
D.T. Systems MR 1100
A well-bred retriever doesn’t come cheap, and we’re pretty sure D.T. built the MR 1100 with that in mind, creating an affordable unit, though they didn’t skimp on features. The remote is compact, and the unit (which is waterproof) has an 1,110-yard range, 16 intensity levels, vibration assist, and expandable up to three dogs, a fine feature for double-duty dogs in the uplands. The collar is rechargeable and adjusts from 7’ to 22”. $190
SportDOG Brand WetlandHunter 425X
When you're hunting public-land walk-ins, space and weight are at a premium—you want to travel light. When we take the dogs down the levee, this is the e-collar to pack. It’s small and the remote weighs next to nothing compared to those old “bricks” we used to hump out to the stake. Available in Realtree Max-5, the 425X from SportDOG is waterproof, has a 500-yard range, expandable to three dogs and the remote is easy to operate without having to look down at the buttons, so you can focus on the retriever. $200
The Dokken Way
If you want your Lab to retrieve birds right, Tom Dokken’s DeadFowl Trainer is a damn fine way to set the foundation for returning ducks to hand, unmangled. The soft middle encourages dogs to pick birds up properly. A hard head—of the bumper, not your mega-Lab—will give pup a rap on the noggin’ if he shakes. The throw handle makes the DFT easy to toss. $23-$35
Get Answers Today
In a time when good customer service is fading, it’s nice to get someone on the horn that’s knows e-collars and can help you buy the right one or get you the information you need when a collar needs to be repaired. Collar Clinic sells new and refurbished units and has over 200 models of e-collars (and accessories) in stock. If you have a question, they will get you an answer, end of story.