By Tom Dokken
In past columns I’ve covered duck boat introduction, which involves confidence building steps with the boat first on land, and then on the shore, and finally in the water. Throughout those steps, the goal is to get the dog comfortable with the idea of being in, and working out of, a boat.
This is a must for anyone who owns a retriever that will hunt out of a boat. The soft introduction should involve not only retrieving from the boat, but eventually also how your dog will get back into the boat. Whether that involves a ladder, or maybe just you putting your hand on the back of the dog’s head to give him the leverage to get back in, you’ve got to run through all of these scenarios in a controlled environment.
If you do, and your dog fully grasps his role with the boat, you’ve got a great start. But the training isn’t finished yet.
A good strategy while mixing retrievers with watercraft is to anticipate the times they may want to make an exit without your consent. This is likely to happen if you pull up to your chosen cattail point and start tossing decoys into the water. A retriever, being a retriever, might think the game has started and leap into the drink to bring back some of your decoys. This is not ideal, especially if it happens an hour before first light when you’re setting up to hunt.
I like to work on this throughout the summer by putting on my waders and walking into a pond with my dog. I’ll toss a single decoy out (on a line) and tell my dog to leave it. Then I’ll reel it back in and repeat. It doesn’t take long with most dogs before they realize this isn’t a retrieving game. After that, I’ll do the same drill but from my duck boat. Again, it’s just a simple toss where I’m instructing the dog to leave it. The idea is to get him to understand that this is a part of the hunt where he is to remain seated and steady.
This is also a time when some hunters might choose to just tie the dog into the boat in lieu of working on his steadiness. That’s a bad idea. While it’s certainly not common, there’s also not a zero-percent chance that your boat could capsize. That’s the risk of being on the water, and it’s elevated while motoring around in the dark as a cold front pushes through and creates rough water. If that happens and your dog is tied to the boat it’s bad, bad news.
One exception to this rule would be that if you get to your spot and are pushed up into the weeds and not moving. Some folks at this point will tie their dog in place, but I prefer to teach my retriever where his spot is and put my trust in his training.
Spot’s Spot & The Honor System
In my duck boat, just like in my blinds, my retrievers have their place. This isn’t any random location, but a very specific spot where I want my dog to be so that he’s not in the way, but can do his job safely.
This in-boat behavior relies heavily on earlier place and steadiness training. Those fundamentals are some of the building blocks of a well-behaved dog, and they are most appreciated during actual hunting situations. This also alleviates any confusion on the dog’s part because he’ll know, due to the training, that his place in the boat is right by me and that never changes. This is not something you can teach on a hunt, it has to be instilled before the sun rises on opening morning.
Another thing you’ll want to address before the season opens is the possibility of having to honor another dog’s retrieve. This is a hard one, because if you’ve got a driven dog the thing he lives for is swimming out for a downed duck, and watching a strange dog get to do that is nearly torture on them. But it’s also a part of life.
I work honoring drills with my dogs on land first, long before we practice it out of a boat on the water. There are times when it’s possible to work two dogs at the same time on separate retrieves, but this can get messed up in a hurry. Two handlers shouting commands or blowing whistles can get distracting, so it’s usually best to train dogs ahead of time to honor retrieves.
Your Obligation To Safety
It seems like every fall we hear at least a couple of stories about dogs that accidentally shoot their owners. This clearly isn’t the dog’s fault. This also means that it’s our responsibility to manage the placement of our guns at all times when we’re in the duck boat. Laying a gun down on the bottom for any reason is a big no-no, unless you’ve got bulletproof toes and are an excellent swimmer. Propping a gun up on the edge of the boat where it’s one aggressive tail-wag away from tipping over is another no-no. Pay attention to your gun, and your hunting partners’ guns at all times to make sure an excited Lab has no chance of tangling with them in any way.
It’s also a good idea to work out ahead of time who is the cripple shooter. This means there is a handler, and there is a shooter, and the line between is very clear. When that line blurs, and a wounded greenhead starts paddling away, you could run into the situation where the dog breaks just as someone tries to dispatch the duck. This can lead to a dead dog, and is totally avoidable. Set the rules before the hunt and stick to them.
Safe Is More Fun
With boats, dogs and guns come great fun, but also great responsibility. Make sure your retriever is not only properly introduced to your duck boat, but has all of his manners squared away so that you and your hunting partners will be safe every time you launch in the predawn darkness with the promise of a limit.