May 29, 2023
If you’ve landed here, congratulations! You either just picked up your first or next duck dog, or, you soon will be. You’re probably thinking you’re in pretty good shape. You made the hard choice of settling on a retrieving or versatile hunting dog breed, located a reputable breeder, and even chose a name for your puppy without having to call in a family mediator. With a new pup at 8- to 12-weeks-old, you’re probably also thinking you have plenty of time before you need to get started training them. With the spring season picking up you may be more focused on sunning yourself than thinking about beginning formal training with your pup. But the reality is that if you desire to have a rock star duck dog in your future, the time to set your dream into motion begins right now.
Matt Neal of East Carolina Retrievers in Pink Hill, North Carolina, has been hunting, breeding, training, testing, trialing, and campaigning champion Labrador retrievers for the last 15 years. What originally started as just wanting a good hunting dog, has led him down a road that turned his passion for dog training into a full-time profession. His training program is designed to build dogs that learn to adapt to whatever situation they’re in, and it all starts with a solid foundation.
When asked what every young retriever needs starting out, Neal affirms a strong foundation is critical, whether they will be a hunter or compete in hunt tests or field trials. “The beginning stages look identical,” he said. “A lot of the concepts of competition can be applied to your everyday, in-the-field hunter.”
Neal believes basic obedience is one of the pillars to success. “If dogs don’t understand obedience and then you ask them to do something else, now you’re doubling up on negatives and that’s the quickest way to ruin them.” Neal uses free-shaping with treats to nail down the basics and then removes the treats as the dog matures. “As the pup ages, we need to hold them more accountable with known behaviors, and this is when you can get into steadiness and advanced handling. If they’re developed and shaped early on and understand obedience, you can make them love to learn as they get older, and they’ll enjoy new and challenging concepts. Then, if you can get them to think it’s their idea to do something, now you’ve really got something good.”
After obedience, Neal advocates that developing a strong desire to retrieve is an absolute for any retriever. “If you don’t have that desire, you’re going to really struggle with motivating your dog to want to do it. You’ve got a window of time early on to develop and max out their drive and desire at an early age, so it stays with them throughout their life.”
To bring out a natural retrieving desire, Neal starts a pup in a hallway with a sock. He lets them get it and bring it back a few times and offers them a ton of praise and allows them to be proud of it carrying it around. He then swaps the sock for a paint roller for a few weeks until they’re consistently retrieving. Next, he takes the pups into the backyard and adds a check cord to their flat collar to have a little more control and can help reel them back in. “It’s a great way to get them started and used to holding and delivering to hand,” Neal states.
Marking is another building block that Neal believes is pivotal to a strong foundation for any retriever. This is especially important for waterfowl hunting with birds dropping from multiple places from several shooters. “Retrievers are genetically bred to mark, but we help to bring it out in them at an early age to work with us,” he adds. He uses white bumpers with young dogs because they’re easier to see and they stay visible from fall to pick up. He reminds us that young retrievers are also learning to use their eyes and look for birds. Teaching a dog to retriever different marks will help them in the field later on to understand how to handle short birds in the decoys and long birds that have sailed off. This will also play into their advanced handling later on with memories and when they learn to stay on a line and fight factors and distractions during their retrieves.
Build Your House on a Rock
With a solid foundation laid down, Neal mentions it time to put it to the test. “You have to let that foundation settle and go through some pressure tests,” he adds, “You don’t add blocks to it the next day.” With next steps, he says to focus on one new task at a time which is the easiest way for a dog to grasp the lesson. “Start with something they know, then bring in something new and you’ll see progression,” he adds.
Neal works with many handlers who rush through the basics, have to keep going back to them, and may end up inadvertently limiting their dog’s ability in the end. It’s easy to want to fast forward and get your dog steadied up for the duck blind too soon, but he cautions against this mentality. “I see so many handlers who are wanting to steady a dog at only a few months old. They don’t realize what they’re doing is draining the drive out of their dog.” With drive being so important, he doesn’t mind if a dog is a little on the crazy side early on, (maybe even breaking a time or two), because that can be taken out later on, but drive cannot be put in down the road.
Another issue that Neal finds troublesome, is when handlers want to get into advanced handling in a hurry. “Many handlers are wanting to get to the running blinds and big marks, but they don’t understand that when they get to the difficulties, you have to be able to handle efficiently to help the dog understand what they’re doing wrong. By rushing through the basics, the wheels often fall off when the dog gets to something it doesn’t understand at all, and now their confidence falls off rapidly, along with their drive and desire.” If you find yourself in this instance, Neal suggests simplifying and making it clear to your dog what they’re doing wrong, and this is why he advocates for taking your time with the basics. Doing so will make the advanced work so much smoother with little to no issues and confusion.
Don’t rush through the basics and get too focused on the finish line, you’ve got plenty of time. Doing it right the first time, even if it takes more time, will be well worth the wait. Sure, the basics may be boring to you, and if that’s the case, it is for your dog as well; they can read your energy.
When getting started with your retriever puppy, Neal recommends developing and following a systematic program, as this will become the easiest way to accomplishing your goals. Decide what you want to have in a dog at three years old and what that looks like, then reverse engineer it to establish the skills your dog needs to learn to get there. Develop a timeline from 12-weeks-old to three-years-old and figure out a progression to be on to make it happen. Then, you have to follow the steps and avoid rushing ahead. If you’re willing to put in the time and the work, you can get the results you’re looking for.
Dogs are bred to hunt, but it’s up to us to help bring out their full genetic potential, and hopefully make it fun along the way. Laying a proper foundation early will help them to build their confidence and foster a better experience for both you and your dog. Taking the time now during their puppyhood, will ensure that you’ve got a solid, functional dog that will perform at a level that meets your expectations for the entirety of their life.