Duck hunters tend to differ from upland hunters in plenty of ways, but the most striking might be the devotion to gear. Take a peek into any die-hard pheasant hunter's truck and you'll see a gun case, maybe an e-collar, and dog kennel. That's about it.
Now, consider a waterfowl hunter's truck...if you can see into it through the windows caked in mud. You will notice his truck isn't big enough to hold all of the decoys, blinds, etc... He'll either have a trailer if he's a field hunter, or a boat for water. Or he might have both, packed to the gills.
For as long as I've been hanging in bird-hunting circles, I've witnessed this difference between the two factions, but also something else. The duck hunter, a dream customer for any sporting goods store, is often light on dog-training equipment.
These must-haves, while not always needed during the hunt, are as important as decoys and calls. Maybe I'm biased toward the dog side of things, but I believe they take precedence over replaceable pieces of plastic. Because of that, I've compiled a short list of training products all duck hunters should own, and why.
I use platforms a lot throughout daily training sessions with personal and client dogs. There are several reasons for this, but the easiest to understand is that a good dog is a steady dog. This is true in many aspects of life, but especially in a duck boat or blind. A dog that knows where he is supposed to be and won't leave that spot is a dog that is going to mark downed birds better, annoy your hunting partners less, and hunt more efficiently overall. You can use a square of plywood or a piece of carpet to train a dog to stay put, but I prefer an elevated platform for two reasons. The first is that there is no gray area with this type of platform. They are either on or off, and there is no cheating. With a piece of carpet, any smart dog will quickly test his boundaries and try to stretch as far off of it as he can while still keeping a toenail on his "place." They can't do this with an elevated platform. The second reason is that it provides a nice transition to hunting because there will be times in the flooded timber and other situations where things will be wet. You shouldn't ask your pup to stand or lay in water during a hunt, so the best way around that is to use an elevated platform.
Neoprene Dog Vest
If you've never heard a duck hunter brag on his dog, you have probably never talked to a duck hunter about his dog. We love our retrievers and think they are tough. They are, of course, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be miserable during the hunt. This is where a neoprene vest comes in handy. Most people use a vest on their dogs during late-season, cold-weather hunts, which is a good idea. But it's not just December hunts where the water is frigid. Duck dogs can encounter cold conditions all season long, and the best way to keep them comfortable is with a neoprene vest. I like those that are designed to be three millimeters thick. These tend to stretch better than heavier vests, which means they also fit more snugly. This matters, a lot. A vest that fits correctly provides much better insulation, plus a loose vest can get hung up on brush and impede or put your retriever in danger.
The best way to test this is to put a vest on your dog and have him go through a couple water retrieves. If you can slide your hand between the vest and his coat and it's dry (and warm), that means the vest fits properly. If it's wet beneath, you know that the vest isn't working the way it should. Retrieving drills where your dog dons his vest are a good idea for familiarity. You don't want to introduce a vest during a hunt because it can throw off your dog's performance. Introduce it ahead of time and make it part of the routine.
Clearly, I'm partial to dummies and would like it if every duck hunter bought several each year. We all need at least a few to truly prepare our dogs for duck season, and to keep them on point throughout the year. This is especially true if your dog might go from early teal to greenheads to geese in a matter of a season (or a couple of weeks). Dogs that encounter unfamiliar birds or hunting situations are more likely to make mistakes. Having a couple of quality dummies also allows for doubles and triples, drills which are always a good idea during training sessions. To make the most of your dummy usage, pick up some wax-based scents to enhance each drill.
Of all of the gear I use a lot and would fully recommend, a shoulder-mounted dummy launcher is the hardest sell for most people. That's unfortunate, because it's so useful and important.
A shoulder-mounted dummy launcher allows me to keep a hand free to hold a lead while I send a dummy well past the 25-yard mark, which is about where most dummies end up when we toss them by hand. This means that your dog will have to work through much longer retrieves and that is never a bad thing. A shoulder-mounted dummy launcher also incorporates the sound of gunfire (I use the red-colored loads for max distance), so that there is an added element of realism to each training session.
As the season comes to an end and we stare down the barrel of another long off-season, consider picking up some (or all) of these training tools to take your dog's game to the next level. They all provide real-world benefits to the amateur trainer and are relatively inexpensive. After all, when you've got a truck, and a trailer, and a boat and a garage full of a duck hunting gear, there shouldn't be any hang-ups when it comes to picking up a few useful training tools.
Especially if those tools will allow you to train your dog in a way where his performance becomes more polished. That translates to better — and more memorable — hunts for your duck-hunting crew.