July 03, 2023
When it comes to duck dogs, there is nothing more important than steadiness. This training concept surely conjures up images of ducks raining from the sky, with a black Labrador sitting calmly, eyes marking, and legs planted firmly to the ground. But in reality, steadiness in the field is simply an advanced act of restraint and it is something we can work on progressively and daily with our retrievers, starting when they are little.
Patience is the Reward
I like to start steadiness around the food bowl as soon as I bring a puppy home. I have seen this approach used from many trainers here and overseas and it makes sense to me. When a retriever is older there is nothing more valuable to him than a duck, but when he is young the highest value is placed on food—so this is the most logical place to start.
I have a four-month-old Deutsch Drahthaar I brought home recently. For the first week, I let the puppy eat without any expectation. It is important that he feels secure in his new home and trusts you will provide food, shelter, and safety for him. During that first week, I did however introduce him to his “place,” which for him is his soft bed, but you can do this with many things. I guided him with treats, rewarding him when he was on the bed, sitting or standing.
Gradually, I would back up and continue to say the command “place.” If he moved off his bed, I would say no and then direct him back. If he stayed on his place for just a few seconds while I backed away from him, I would quickly step forward and reward him for his patient, momentary steadiness.
After a week or so, I would tell the puppy to place before feeding him his meals. The moment the puppy gets off his place at any point while I am getting his food bowl ready, I stop the process and say no, only proceeding when he is back on his place. This tells him we only move forward with what is desired until he is on that bed. They learn this much faster than you'd think.
Then, put the food bowl on the ground. If he comes off the place, lift the bowl up and guide him back to his place. Then, put a light hand in front of his chest to make sure he doesn’t break, and send him on his name. Soon, you won’t have to even hold your hand there and he will wait remotely for his name to get his reward. Gradually add time as he ages, with progressive, appropriate expectations.
In It to Win It
Steadiness should be a part of your duck dog’s lifestyle. Think of situations where your puppy wants to move, and ask him to stay and wait instead. When you open the kennel, the door, or while watching a soccer game. Your dog should learn early that sitting patiently in place is the center of all things good, so reward him for it with high value, because when he is older and the birds start dropping, he will know the only way to get that prized duck is by calmly waiting in place first.
Nathan Ratchford is the Associate Editor at WILDFOWL and is a die-hard dog man dedicated to training his pack himself. Want to talk retrievers? Message him on IG @ratchfordnathan