May 08, 2023
You have a few months until the next opening day. How are you going to spend it? You can sit around and relax, hoping your retriever magically becomes better than it was last fall, or you can get to work right now with the goal of continuing to build a better hunting dog.
If you have a young dog, the off-season is the time to introduce new training challenges; for veteran dogs, it’s time to clean up problems that may have cropped up during last season’s hunts. Let’s look at some of the areas most likely to need improvement.
Advancing the Youngster
If you went into last season with a young (less than a year old) retriever, you should not have expected the kind of performance that you would from a veteran. I hope you used your time afield to get your pup used to things like boats and blinds and decoys and calling and all of the exciting chaos that ensues when birds are working well and providing shooting opportunities. If your rookie got the chance to make some retrieves, consider that a bonus.
So, with one season in the books, and if you made any progress at all with last year’s pre-season training, you could fairly categorize that dog as “started.” But “started and “finished” are worlds apart. What are the next steps?
Begin by analyzing bad or potentially bad behaviors that you might have let slip during the first season. If you’re being honest, I’ll bet you can identify a multitude of loose ends you’d like to tighten up before opening day.
Young Dog Off-Season Training Checklist
Firm up on control: In addition to obedience commands (you have been keeping up with obedience training, right?) such as here, sit, down, heel and kennel, work toward perfection and complete control, and then work toward that same level of control even when your dog is off-lead.
Insist on perfect steadiness: Most young dogs, if you’re not on top of them, are going to have breaking issues in the blind or in the field. So, during the off-season, don’t let your dog creep or, worse, take off for a retrieve until you send it. Your dog must never, ever get away with breaking, because once it becomes a bad habit it’s doubly difficult to cure.
Complete “trained retrieve” training (aka “force fetching”): If your dog has already been through the formal trained retrieve process, congratulations. If not, your retriever may be prone to dropping birds before it returns to you, or even quitting on a retrieve if something else catches its interest. If you’re not familiar with the trained retrieve process or if you’re uncomfortable with taking on this sometimes-challenging project, find a professional dog trainer with good references and get some help.
Details for Older Dogs
True retriever enthusiasts are driven to advance their dogs to the next level, however you define it. Perhaps your retriever has already experienced a season or two of waterfowling, and you’re pleased with its maturity and performance. So, maybe this spring and summer you’re going to work on things like improving its skills on multiple marks, stretching the distance on blind retrieves, or taking better casts at a distance. Great. Set goals and a timeline to meet these achievements before the next season starts.
While you’re working on those goals, don’t ignore little habits that have the potential to turn into big problems. And keep in mind that bad habits aren’t necessarily your retriever’s fault. After all, any dog that has even a moderate desire to retrieve is just excited to get out there and do its job. Your challenge is to keep that excitement under control and channel the dog’s energy appropriately. A couple things to watch for:
Seasoned Dog Off-Season Training Checklist
Breaking: I harped on steadiness earlier, but I’ll point out again how important it is that you never excuse breaking. As a dog matures and becomes more confident, it’s not unusual for it to start testing boundaries. Consider making training drills more like actual hunting by putting the dog in a ground blind or on a marsh stand. Perhaps mix in a flyer mallard instead of a bumper or dead duck when the dog least expects it. Ramp up the excitement and be prepared to correct your dog immediately.
Competitiveness: Sometimes you might be hunting with multiple dogs. That’s a sure way to find out in a very unpleasant way that your retriever refuses to be outranked. Try to work with other trainers during spring and summer where you can set up situations in which your dog has to sit at heel while other dogs retrieve. (If you run hunt tests, you already know that honoring is a required step in passing.) Help your dog learn that it doesn’t get to charge out after every retrieve, and all the rules about steadiness apply no matter what the situation.
Instead of thinking of the off-season as a dreary time in which you have nothing to do but count the days until fall, treat it as an opportunity to tighten up the skills your good dog already has and stay busy. When your retriever returns with the first hard-earned bird of the new season, you’ll know it was worth all the extra effort.