It can be hard for dog and owner to muster the motivation to run training drills in the summer. It's easy to toss a dummy into a local pond for 15 minutes and call it good. While there is nothing wrong with that, it falls short of truly getting a duck dog ready for the impending season.
Each summer I like to make a checklist for my retriever of the things I want to work on before the opening bell. This involves addressing shortfalls from the previous season on the hunting front, but also often involve simple obedience and anything I want my dog to master before the opener.
This is the best way to avoid unwelcome surprises during the season and to prepare your dog to hunt and listen well in every situation you're likely to encounter. On top of that, the right regimen will involve plenty of physical education as well, meaning your duck dog will be tack-sharp mentally and ready to go physically.
What exactly ends up written on your summer school training list will depend on the age of your dog.
Most new dog owners want to quickly get their retrievers to the point where they can run triple-blinds without flinching. This is a worthy endeavor, but when we set our sights on a prize like that, we often forget the fundamentals. The little things like mastering all of the basic commands need to come first.
Without this obedience, the other stuff will come much harder, if at all. When working on obedience with your pup, think of it as a series of short sprints. Ten-minute drills are plenty long enough. A few of those per day will start to mold your dog into something special, and no you can't take one day a week and work for three hours with him.
Switch up your environments while training from the backyard to the neighborhood soccer fields, or the shallow pond down the road. This change of scenery will tell you how well your puppy is retaining his lessons, and will allow you to work obedience and retrieving drills in new areas. This is the key to getting your dog to think and develop confidence.
Naturally, you'll want to make sure you've properly introduced your pup to water, or gunfire, or whatever potential pitfall you might encounter. These things are crucial and I've covered them extensively before. Just remember, with certain introductions — like gunfire — you get one chance. Do it correctly the first time, because you won't get a second.
I like to think about the types of hunting I'm going to be doing in the coming fall and design simple drills around them to up the ante. For example, if you plan to take your first-year retriever into a situation where you'll be using a spinning-wing decoy, you'd better introduce him to it well in advance of the season so his head doesn't explode the first time you turn it on in the field. It's no different than hunting from a boat, using duck or goose calls, or working from a field blind. If your dog is going to be asked to do something, prepare him for it. Little things like introducing him to a neoprene vest might not seem like a big deal in the backyard, but can be disastrous in the field.
While you won't be able to anticipate everything, if you make a summer list for your pup and work through it, your dog will enter his first or second season much more prepared than a lot of other duck dogs.
Seasoned dogs have the game down, which is why it's such a pleasure to hunt with a well-trained six-year-old Lab. We like to believe our older dogs are ready to go because they've hunted before, but there are two ways in which they often are not prepared.
The first is simply physical. Dogs are capable of getting into shape quickly, especially dogs that love to retrieve. This does not mean they don't need plenty of exercise in the pre-season. It's a terrible idea to use the season as a means to get a dog into shape, because your hunting will suffer, the dog will suffer, and you run the risk of injuries, lost ducks and a host of other bad things.
This is why I like to run my dogs in the mornings or the evenings, and swim them throughout the day. Of course, they are often working different drills, but they are also slowly building up to peak physical shape so that when the season opens they are ready to go. This only gets easier when you start working in serious long-distance drills (always a good idea) and varying up the places he has to swim and run.
Another aspect of seasoned dogs that almost always needs a touch up is obedience. It's harder to see when messing around in the yard during the summer months, but once you get in the duck boat for the first time you may notice that your dog isn't listening.
Obedience refreshers are a must for most dogs, and this is especially true when considering steadiness. I'd say that in my experience, steadiness is the top problem with most older waterfowl dogs. To keep them sharp and ensure they won't cheat when they are supposed to sit statue-still, I like to work as many steadiness drills per day as I can.
Everything from making them wait for their food, to commanding them to stay while you go through the front door first, can foster better steadiness. On top of the little daily routine drills, it's a good idea to get out and work through some more extensive steadiness drills to gauge how well your dog is heeding the command. This will help keep your blood pressure down when the first flock of the year whistles into the decoys.
It's hard to do in the season of softball and barbecues, but worth it. With a month or more to go before the first days or early teal, make a list of exactly what you want your dog to be capable of. This will guide you through your daily training drills and allow you to measure his progress. It doesn't take much more than a few lessons per day, and before long you'll see the fruits of all that tireless summer labor.