November 21, 2017
By Tom Dokken
The good and bad of using your retriever to hunt both waterfowl and upland birds.
Multi-tasking comes in many forms for our retrievers. It might start out with them being asked to sit quietly in a duck boat as we stash ourselves into a bulrush-choked point waiting for flocks of divers, only to start fresh the following morning in a pit blind at the edge of a harvested cornfield as honkers fly off the roost.
The scenarios stretch pretty far even when you only consider waterfowl opportunities. A lot of us, however, don't stop hunting when the ducks quit flying. We simply load up our retrievers and head to the nearest CRP field.
If your Lab or Chessie bounces between waterfowl hunting and the uplands that's great, just know it will likely affect your dog. In some ways, this will be a positive thing. In others, it will not. Here are some of the positives (and negatives) hunting dog owners need to be aware of when they use their retrievers for dual purposes on waterfowl and upland birds.
To hunt upland game, you are asking a dog to hunt, flush, chase, and retrieve pheasants, grouse and other upland birds. Some hunters train their retrievers to hold steady at the shot, so they don't worry about the chase part. I'm not one of them.
When I'm dealing with a crippled rooster, I want my dog on it as fast as possible. Ringnecks are runners, and losing one because I've held my dog back for an extra 15 seconds doesn't sit well. This is the case with most of us and our dogs, and it's a good way for them to operate when they hit the pheasant fields.
Unfortunately, that style of hunting isn't going to cut it when you return to the duck blind.
PITFALL: BREAKING ON WATERFOWL
A dog that is pheasant hunting is likely to take off full tilt when the shotgun goes off. Being able to call him back during a miss is crucial, but if the bird is hit you are going to have to let him do his thing. An afternoon of this gives a retriever all he is looking for in life and is capped off by the fact that he can fully give in to his prey drive. There is nothing a good dog loves more.
The problem is when you return to waterfowl he is going to want to break. Scratch that, he is probably going to break at the first volley of shots (this is not his fault). You've changed the game by taking him upland hunting, and now it's time to reinforce the duck-hunting rules because having a breaker in a duck blind or boat is frustrating and potentially dangerous.
Because of this, you need to anticipate him breaking the first time you're out after an upland foray. Be ready to correct his behavior and get him back into steady mode. This often necessitates leaving the shotgun at your side and letting a hunting buddy take aim at the first flock, because you will want to be able to focus your attention solely on the dog's behavior.
If you have a little time between upland and duck hunts, take him back to school and work on steadiness, which will cut way down on his ability to relearn things.
It's also a good idea to reinforce place training at this point. A dog that knows he is supposed to stay on a platform or wherever you tell him is going to return to steadiness much quicker than a dog that doesn't have a designated spot. This is all about making it as simple as possible for the dog to understand what he can and can't do as his hunting situations change and his roles change. Anything you can do to help him understand will make the entire process much simpler and far more enjoyable.
PITFALL: SIGHT VS. SCENT RETREIVES
One thing that a lot of us don't really consider when we ask our dogs to make the transition between roosters and greenheads is when it comes to waterfowl, eyesight is extremely important. When it comes to quail, grouse and pheasants, the nose rules.
When they upland hunt, our dogs will quarter into the wind to find quarry. That's a good thing because finding fresh scent and then working it properly is the whole point. The same goes for when you knock a rooster down and the dog didn't have the chance to mark it. You simply bring him downwind and send him in to 'hunt dead' until he picks up the prize.
When you switch back to ducks, your dog is going to need to follow hand signals to complete blind retrieves. Or in other words, you are going to want the dog to follow a straight line as far as he needs to in order to pick up a duck. If he's fresh out of the CRP, he may get confused and try to quarter his way there or at the very least, not take the straightest line possible. He also might come up well short of the duck because he is used to the distances associated with upland retrieves.
This means you will need to work some blind retrieve drills, as well as some long-distance drills between hunts. There is no way around this. It's the only way to get your dog out of the quartering mode and back into the straight-and-long line-retrieve mode.
POSITIVE: HANDLING THICK STUFF
Now that I've covered a couple of the pitfalls associated with asking our duck dogs to hunt upland birds, I'll say this: There are plenty of positives as well. For instance, the retrieves don't always vary greatly between the two types of hunting. All of us have knocked down a mallard that has ended up in the thick vegetation, whether that be pond-side cattails or a brushy fencerow along our favorite field setup. Any dog that can find a pheasant in the heavy thickets of brush can find a mallard.
POSITIVE: MORE TIME AFIELD
There is also the advantage of simply hunting your dog more. On big migration days in the duck blind, limits can be filled quick and the action can die as quickly as it started. Or, if the ducks don't fly, there are no retrieves for your dog.
Time in the field is as important to our dogs as time spent training. The more your dog gets to hunt, the happier he will be. But he also gets to spend more time looking for birds, working out complex retrieves, and learning.
That is a big positive. So, don't shy away from asking your dog to pull pheasant, quail or grouse duty after spending sunrise chasing ducks. Remember that he might need a refresher course or two before you try for waterfowl again. If you do, he'll be just fine no matter what type of hunting you ask of him.