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Getting a Grip on Big Birds

How to prepare your retriever for honkers.

Getting a Grip on Big Birds

(Jeffrey Karls photo)

I’ve seen even the most confident dogs run out to retrieve their first goose, attempt to pick it up and then drop it and look back as if to say, “Seriously? This thing? Come on!”

It’s one thing to have a really great duck dog, but when it’s time for your retriever to pick up a goose that’s two to four times as heavy and broad, it’s a whole different experience. Rather than pausing your hunting season to deal with this new challenge, go ahead and do some prep work along with all of your other training. Here’s how I do it.

Working Toward Heavy Lifting

Dealing with a bird the likes of a 10-pound Canada goose means figuring out how to handle the weight as well as the massive size. My approach to addressing both of these challenges starts with finding a throw pillow like you probably have on your couch (preferably one that the head of your household won’t miss). The ideal pillow is about 14 x 14 inches with a zippered cover. The pillow isn’t super-heavy (I’ll touch on that in a moment), but it’s large enough that it’s awkward for your dog to carry, which is what you want.

You can introduce this new object at any phase of your dog’s training; it’s just another variable in all of the other things you’re working on. Simply go out to the yard and do some short tosses for your dog to retrieve. It won’t take long for it to figure out that first it needs to grab the pillow on an edge or corner, and second, that it needs to carry its head high enough to keep the pillow from dragging or causing a stumble.

Once your dog has figured out how to handle the new object, it’s time to add weight. This is where the zipper comes in. You probably have plenty of lead strap weights lying around. They’re ideal for this exercise because you can slip lots of them inside the pillow cover and zip it shut.

Start by adding a pound or so, and then gradually increase the weight day after day. Your dog will get better at dealing with the challenge as the pillow becomes heavier, and before you know it you’ll be mimicking retrieving a 10-pound goose.

Retriever running with a goose dummy
(Jeffrey Karls photo)

First Goose Hunt

I’d advise that your dog has a few duck hunts completed before you take it goose hunting. It would be nice if the first Canada you dropped was a trim 7- or 8-pounder. Yes, I know you can’t control that, but do make sure that when you send your dog for its inaugural big-bird retrieve that the goose is dead. It would be unpleasant for your dog—especially a young one—to find that its favorite throw pillow has morphed into a hissing, flapping, rage-filled monster.

Perhaps an even better first goose outing would be a field hunt for snows that run more like 5 to 8 pounds. Then again, that can be a pretty chaotic scene if you have multiple guns and heavy action, so pick the opportunity that matches your dog’s capabilities and temperament.  

Some dogs will grab their first goose and proudly bring it back. Others might be reluctant, even after all the prep work you did. If your dog hesitates (remember, this is still by far the biggest real bird your dog has ever encountered), there’s nothing to panic about. Take a moment to do some short tosses with the fresh-killed bird right there in the field and do it with lots of praise and encouragement.

Sometimes the results are mixed. I’ve seen plenty of dogs grab their first goose with no problem, but then drag it more than carry it back. Well, that’s a start. Most dogs get smarter with every retrieve and, just like with the throw pillow, they learn how to carry the bird efficiently.

The ideal spot for a retriever to grab a big bird is right at the collar, that part where the neck starts to widen out and lead into the body. You can encourage this with some simple fetch and hold drills out in the field when you have a break in the action. But again, once a dog is confident in retrieving geese, it will start to figure things out through repetition.

If your retriever continues to struggle with how to handle big birds, take a fresh-killed goose to a shallow pond and do some fun retrieves. All your dog needs to do is get a grip on the bird and then essentially shove it back to you on shore. The water will support most of the bird’s weight, so it will be a good experience and should instill some confidence that will transfer over at the next opportunity for a land retrieve.

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It’s All About the Size

If you don’t have the patience to go through all the gradual steps I’ve outlined here, or maybe if your dog is such a hard-charger that you don’t think it will find bird birds intimidating, I’d still suggest that during training sessions you occasionally use oversize bumpers. The slim, knobby plastic bumpers that almost everyone uses are fine, but there’s no real challenge to carrying them. Mix in jumbo-size bumpers at random. Also, you can bulk up a bumper by taping two or three leftover pheasant or mallard wings to it.

Regardless of the approach you use, you’ll be saving time and energy during the season if you practice for the excitement of this new challenge ahead of time.




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