A typical scenario for duck hunters is to train dogs hard in the months leading up to the season and then rely on the time in the blind to keep retrievers moving in the right direction. This can be enough with well-trained, seasoned dogs that have years under their belts. With young dogs, or retrievers that don’t get much hunting time, this is generally a poor idea.
To take it a step further, even the dogs that were rock solid in the pre-season will start to slide during the hunting season for a few reasons. The first is that training is a highly controllable situation. We can put the dummies where we want and allow the lessons to progress at the speed necessary for our dogs to learn and find success. Actual hunting, on the other hand, is filled with a litany of variables that we can do nothing to influence.
How this applies to us—and more importantly, our dogs—is that we expect some rule breaking and some slip-ups throughout the season. But as the days wind down to the final bell, we may have been giving our retrievers more and more passes for subpar behavior than we think.
That, as you can imagine, is bad. It’s also human nature. We get excited during hunts and tend to want to focus on the successes while suppressing any failures we might experience. Over time this natural tendency can allow our dogs to backslide while we are still having a great hunting season.
Awareness of this is the key to addressing it and from keeping the whole thing from subtly snowballing out of your control.
The thing about handling a dog during a hunt is that you’ve got to recognize the behavioral issues you can remedy on the spot, or those that demand an off-week or offseason approach. This gets trickier if you’re hunting with a group, because some of the remedies will require you to work with your dog during a hunt and that might be frowned upon by hunting partners when it could cost them some birds.
It's is up to you on a situational basis, but one example I find myself writing about often is steadiness. If your dog breaks during the first volley of shots and doesn’t get corrected, he’ll keep breaking. After that first break, I like to use a dead duck and work a retrieve steadiness drill just like I would in the backyard. Even if I have to toss it six times to get the dog to understand that he goes when I release him, it’s worth it.
You can take it a step further provided it’s safe and your hunting buddies won’t lose their minds, by telling the dog to sit and stay and then randomly standing up to shoot. The dog will see that as the cue that good stuff is going to happen and very likely will break because it’s a hard thing for them to stay steady during.
Sometimes, with dogs of all ages, all you have to do is jump up and pretend to shoot. You can do this in the minutes leading up to the opening bell to see what level of compliance you’re going to get out of your retriever before the hunt actually starts unfolding. This will tell you a lot about how the morning is going to go and exactly what you’ll need to do to rectify things before they spiral out of your control.
It’s important to note here that if you haven’t run through these types of drills at home in a controlled setting, you can’t expect your dog to know what to do. This goes for breaking at the shot or simply just sitting tight and staying quiet for long periods of time. If your dog can’t sit at your side quietly at home while you watch TV for half of an hour, he’s not going to do it in the duck blind when the excitement is at a fever pitch. If your retriever is allowed to break at home when you throw a dummy during a training session, he’s definitely not going to wait for his release command when a greenhead tumbles out of the sky and splashes into the marsh.
Think about what your dog is capable of during controlled situations and be honest about it, because he won’t magically become a better dog during a hunt. He’ll become worse.
It’s natural to overlook dog faults during hunting season and being aware of that is a good thing. It allows you to not only address issues that crop up during hunts, but to decide what holes in your dog’s game you can (and should) shore up during the off-season.
Every year as I’m heading out for my last duck and goose hunts of the season I pay special attention to my dogs’ behaviors. This allows to me to start a mental checklist on the things we need to work on during the offseason and to plan my drills accordingly. Sometimes it’s not much more than making an effort to work a dog in new environments more often, but especially with younger dogs, it’s all about developing a comprehensive training plan that will require plenty of confidence-building drills.
It’s easy to have high expectations going into the hunting season, and then to leverage those expectations with a laser-focus on our dog’s in-season successes. This is fine provided you remind yourself to allow an honest assessment of your dog’s behavior during hunts. If you look past the stellar, big-wave retrieves to the overall performance of your dog, you’ll probably realize there are at least a few small things that need work.
That’s when it’s best to figure out how to proceed during the remaining days of the season and then in the long months that follow.