March 02, 2022
By Tom Dokken
Depending on where you live, the late season could signal some of the best hunting of the season or some of the last. Where I live it’s usually the latter. Our lakes and ponds tend to be locked up, and while some of our rivers our huntable, most of our ducks and geese have long since pointed their bills south.
Even for folks living farther south and still looking forward to workable flights at dawn, all good things will come to an end. That moment signals another season in the books, and a week or two of cleaning gear and stowing it away. Most of us take a good long duck break then, but we shouldn’t.
At least not when it comes to our dogs, we shouldn’t.
The end of any season means you should be asking questions about your dog’s performance. This is not the time to bask in the highlight-reel memories of limits of greenheads and 150-yard blind retrieves on cripples. This is the time to think about the frustrating, or embarrassing, moments.
But first, ask yourself about your dog’s performance. How was his or her general obedience? How about steadiness? Did your retriever deliver every bird to hand or did you notice that a few teal or gadwalls were dropped at your boots while your dog shook swamp water all over your waders?
Honesty here is important, but you’ve also got to avoid a mental trap in these moments. Even if we list a few things our dogs could probably work on, we might peek through the living room window to see a foot of fresh snow in the yard. You might reason that even if you should be working on steadiness or proper hold, how could you? It’s miserable out.
Steadiness drills don’t all require a full dress rehearsal on open water while operating from the flat-bottom. A refresher on the trained retrieve or force fetch can happen in the garage with the right set of equipment. And of course, any basic obedience work can happen on a daily basis throughout life’s little interactions with your off-season duck dog.
Tips for Developing a Postseason Training Plan
The Real Bad Memories
As a professional trainer, I’m constantly on the lookout for hints into future dog behavior. This is a symptom of working with hundreds of dogs, because so many of their behaviors that seem innocent will turn into something that is frustrating.
This isn’t always easy for amateur handlers because they tend to think about things as close enough. The earlier example of the dog dropping the duck at your feet is the easiest way to illustrate this. In that moment of success and excitement, it’s easy to ignore a small shortfall in your dog’s performance. After all, he’s only a foot or two shy of your hand, and what’s the big deal if you have to lean down and pick up your duck?
The problem here is that close enough will soon become something worse. If you don’t address that in the moment, you’ll deal with it later —I promise. But, if you didn’t address it in the blind on your late-season hunts, you can address it now. That should be really high on the list of things to work on in the off-season, because it can spiral quickly and turn into something that is both frustrating, and often, embarrassing.
It’s also important to remember that slipping performance tends to be our fault, not the dog’s. This is hard for some folks to acknowledge, but it happens to all of us. It’s the nature of working with an animal that can think for itself.
It’s also our nature to gloss over these shortcomings, or have a really difficult time dredging up any bad memories from the season. In this case, if you have thick skin and honest hunting partners, have a conversation with them about what they saw that could use some improvement. Maybe you didn’t see your dog not honoring their dog on a retrieve? Maybe while you were focusing on scratching out a honker from the sky, they saw your dog start to creep from the mud hut in anticipation of the retrieve.
Anything here that comes from a good, honest place, can help you develop a rock-solid off-season plan. Welcome those suggestions, because they’ll make your future hunts that much better.
So far, I’ve dwelled on the negatives of last season in order to build a good off-season training strategy. But it’s also a good idea to think about the positives, and how you can expand on them. Is it time to introduce hand-signal work to your young retriever? Or, did your two-year old master every single retrieve you asked of him? If so, it’s time to work in some doubles and triples to take him from good to great.
New tasks are an excellent option for dogs that are ready, because they include so many wins, which are the glue that holds the whole thing together. This becomes even more important when you’re working on some refresher drills to shore up last year’s slippage. This is a good way to keep your dog engaged while he’s going through some of the older training that might not be as fun or as rewarding, because he’ll learn that 10 minutes of refresher work on steadiness will be followed by some new, exciting doubles work. Variety is the spice of the dog’s life too, and the more we can keep their head in the game, the more we can ask of them.
It’s not fun to look back on all of last season’s warts, but it’s worth it. The nature of dog training is one that means you’re looking to the future, but also analyzing the recent past. Both inform the best strategy for going forward, and there is no better time than right now to get serious about that.