There is a common misconception among waterfowlers, and sporting dog owners in general, that we need to teach our dogs to hunt. While there is a glimmer of truth to that when it comes to developing advanced skills like triple-blind retrieves, the reality is if you go out and research pedigrees and pick up a pup with even a mild case of good bloodlines, that dog will know how to hunt.
What it won’t know, is how to behave. Or how to learn very well (at least at a young age). Teaching a puppy to learn better is as hard as it sounds, but the foundation for it is exposure to new environments, textures and controlled experiences. This may seem like a long bridge to cross to get to a dog that can retrieve geese in a field or mallards in a two-foot chop, but it’s not.
Dogs need to learn more than just obedience and hunting commands. They need to learn to be comfortable and confident at a young age, because that will help set the stage for a rockstar duck hunter (and house dog) later in life.
There are a lot of ways to start this process, but the most common is through Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS). Since puppies are born with their eyes closed and a limited digestive system, they are also limited as far as what they can do or how they can interact with the world. Basically they can suck, sort of crawl around, and sniff. This also, some data suggests, means they are more sensitive to movement, textures, and heat.
While all of that might seem benevolent, any stimuli to a newborn puppy—like a change in temperature or being carried even a few feet—is a stressor. This, when conducted through ENS in tiny increments—like brushing along the pad of their foot with a Q-Tip, creates a small stressor. Other methods include holding a puppy with its head pointed down or placing a pup on cool, damp towel for a few seconds.
Studies have shown that when conducted during about the first two weeks of their lives, these ENS drills can lead to healthier dogs that are not only more active than pups that didn’t receive ENS, but also more willing to explore.
You might be thinking that this doesn’t do you a hell of a lot of good considering you don’t get to see your new retriever until he’s seven weeks old, but it’s something to consider when sussing out killer bloodlines and a trusted breeder.
This is one of the reasons Rhett Hall, owner of Iron Point Kennels, tried ENS with a litter of his Drahthaars, even though when he asked around the results were mixed on whether it was worth it. “When I was thinking about ENS, I reached out to some veterinarians and some breeders who I trust. Some said ENS works, but others said the science just wasn’t there. I decided to do it anyway, just to see.”
Hall went on to conduct ENS with a litter of 10 pups, five of which he still has heavy contact with today, including one puppy he kept as a personal dog. “This is all anectdotal, but I pay attention to my dogs’ stress levels when I travel for training throughout the summer. Because we might travel from North Dakota to Utah and then up to Idaho, our dogs can get stressed out over so much trailer time. This is a very common reaction. But during this last summer, I realized that the pup that had ENS was always laid back. He was just calm and focused, while other dogs would be losing their minds.”
That might be a case of ENS working, or it might simply be the difference between dog personalities. But, Hall isn’t alone in his attempts and perceived outcomes.
The Jump To Socialization
Owner of One Shot Retrievers, Alex Brittingham, has also attempted ENS with a litter of her Labs. “I can’t say that ENS helped with force fetch or some other things, but it seemed to help keep the puppies calmer when new people held them. It also seemed to help when my dogs ended up moving on to treat training and I was working on socialization.”
Brittingham is big on developing eye contact and a working relationship, and she felt that ENS certainly didn’t hinder that development at all. And when asked about whether it is worth it as a breeder she offered up a statement that is pretty hard to argue with, “If you’re doing ENS with your litters, you’re probably breeding for the right reasons.”
While subjective, her last point is a salient one and it ties into the overall process of researching and buying a dog that has loads of duck-hunting potential. You want a breeder who is doing everything possible not only to craft the right bloodlines, but to take advantage of the tiny window of development that they alone get access to.
This type of breeder, whether ENS is legit or largely bunk, is also the kind of person who is likely to start socialization before you get your hands on your new hunting partner. That is not nothing, and it matters in waterfowl hunting more than most would think.
For starters, a puppy that is introduced to slightly stressful, new environments learns to tamp down that anxiety and go with the flow. If you think about the varying places where a duck hunt might occur, you can start to understand why this mindset is so important.
It’s also the reason why so many dogs delaminate when opening day hits. They go from a couch lifestyle that is broken up by dummy drills in a neighborhood soccer field, to a pre-dawn wake-up call, a truck ride, possibly a boat ride, and then decoys, calls, actual live ducks (hopefully), gun shots, and exciting and often overwhelming chaos. How is a young dog that hasn’t been exposed to new environments supposed to handle that with anything short of pure lunacy?
That’s a situation when the wheels really fall off, and then a stressful hunt can turn into something worse if we, as handlers, lose our cool. This is an unfortunate reality, and at least partially, is tied to poor socialization even though we often think of socialization as introducing a dog to other people and dogs.
Which is a component, no doubt. You don’t want your dog to fear a true social setting that is any slight deviation from the comfort of your living room at home, but the act of socializing a dog runs deeper and it has direct links to better behavior in the field.
It’s also wholly dependent on your ability, and willingness, to introduce your puppy to new, relatively controlled environments, as soon as you take ownership. Just like with ENS and the window that opens up when puppies are only a few days old and then shuts down four or five weeks before they’ll be sent to their new homes, the socialization window is a tight one. This is not something you want to play catch-up with in a flat-bottom boat in a marsh somewhere while you’re simultaneously scanning the skies for the first teal or wood ducks of the season.
You want to start the process early—as early as the day you bring your puppy home. Not only is this the right time to start teaching your new retriever about basic obedience skills and overall manners, but it is the time to bring him to new places where you can keep a close eye on him. As with all puppy work, this means small controlled steps that allow your dog to develop just a little inkling of confidence every day.
Don’t Miss the Window
The foundation for a good duck dog starts generations before your chosen litter hits the ground. Once that happens, a good breeder will likely work toward helping your pup handle, and overcome, tiny stressors to set a path in their life that will allow them to be calm and focused while other dogs are coming unglued or shutting down.
Of course that’s just the work that will be accomplished before you get your hands on your new duck hunting partner. Once you do, it’s up to you to keep the process going and to truly allow your dog the opportunity to develop into a calm, collected, mallard retrieving machine. While there are a lot of ways to accomplish this over time, they almost all originate from the same point in time through specific kinds of action. If you miss that window, you might regret it come opening day.
Or every opening day for years.