My first experience with a truly vocal duck dog occurred long ago when I was in high school. A good friend and I sat on the edge of a lake in north-central Minnesota awaiting a few mallards. Between him, myself, and his black Lab, it became evident pretty quickly who was anticipating the first greenhead the most.
It started with soft whining, which was bearable. But after five minutes that Lab ramped up his vocalizations to the point where it was no longer cute, or tolerable. In fact, it became almost maddening in its annoyance.
Little did I know then, that dogs who can't keep their mouths shut in duck blinds would prove to be a much more prevalent problem than I ever could have imagined.
And the kicker of it is, it's all a symptom of eagerness over the hunt and the inevitable green-headed excitement they feel will cruise in on cupped wings any second. Drive is good, as is eagerness in all dogs, but without the proper level of patience to temper the anticipation, problems develop in the form of whining or barking.
Between the two, I'll take a barker all day long over a whiner. Barking is much easier to remedy than whining and it's my opinion that this is because a whiner doesn't know he is doing it. Anxious dog whining seems to be more like a reflex, something totally subconscious.
That means when you correct the whining behavior, the dog often doesn't know why he is being corrected. Barking is different because they seem to understand why they are being corrected once they bark.
If you've got a dog that gets all amped up over guns pointed skyward, calls being blown, and the first birds of the morning, and he starts barking, you're in luck. Technology has you covered in the form of an electronic bark collar. Every time your pooch barks, he is issued an immediate correction by the device, and it doesn't take long for most dogs to learn to stay quiet.
Whining is an entirely different story.
The best way to keep your dog from whining in the blind is to never tolerate it in the first place. Like all bad behavior, dog whining is like a weed you do not want to take root. After it does, you can snip it off but it's going to try to grow back time and again. Some problems and issues I have training young pups are better dealt with later in the process — dog whining is not one of them. I don't let it fester.
If you've got a puppy and he starts to whine, grab him firmly by the muzzle and give him the "quiet" command. Choose whatever command you'd like, just be consistent. Every time the puppy starts to whine, repeat this adding slightly more firmness to each muzzle grab.
It's important to remember that your pup is whining to get your attention. If at any point he whines and gets a positive response, you've reinforced negative behavior and can bet he'll try it again. It's no different than a toddler throwing a tantrum to try to stay up past a set bedtime. Weathering the tantrum can be tough, but giving in sends a message that the game can be played and won through bad behavior.
Don't let your puppy get away with whining for any reason, or you may find yourself dealing with it far more often than you'd like.
Just a Little Patience
So you missed it at the puppy stage, and now when you sit in the duck boat your dog whines at the prospect of a good hunt. To start the process to ramp down this bad behavior, you need to teach the dog some patience. This begins with having the dog sit at your side for 10 minutes at a time. It can be in the backyard, on the deck, or anywhere that is not too exciting or distracting.
The main point is to get your dog used to the fact that when you command him to stay by your side, he stays by your side even if nothing exciting is going to happen. Too often, we only demand that our dogs sit by our sides in the blind, which is always exciting for them.
If your dog can handle a boring sit next to you, take the next step and actually incorporate an unloaded shotgun. Dogs quickly learn to associate guns with good times, so the idea is to teach him that not every time the gun comes out is exciting. Take the unloaded gun out, leash your dog, and then conduct some basic obedience lessons.
A good drill to add into this mix is one that I've written about previously where you use a duck call to reinforce the sit command. This is an added measure of security for those times when your dog is likely to get over-excited. If you've done it correctly, instead of your favorite hen mallard cadence riling your dog up, it will actually be telling him to stay in his place.
Eventually, if a dog shows he has made good progress, I'll incorporate a little shooting into the routine. Having a dog that can sit at your side quietly, and then not lose his mind when you touch off a shot, means that you are well on your way toward a silent hunting partner.
Usually the best dogs for this step are those that almost just plop down next to you and lay there, waiting for you to give another command. It's almost like they've accepted that nothing is going to happen and they are resigned to your authority, which is exactly what you want.
There are a few other things you can do to keep your dog quiet and in check during hunts. For instance, a little pre-hunt exercise is a good idea. As is taking the dog for a short walk, or letting him work a few retrieves during slow times. Most hunters don't think of this, but letting the dog do a few retrieves before or during the hunt helps take the edge off and alleviate the excitement. It doesn't hurt their drive at all, but does seem to calm them down so that they are easier to handle in the blind.
Occasionally, some dogs will be so vocal that they are impossible to help. I had one fellow bring me a six-year-old dog that would wail like a banshee at the mere hint of something exciting. The dog was really hard-headed and after trying every trick in the book, I had to pull the owner aside and tell him the good news, which was that I knew how to fix his problem for about $40. He looked at me with hope in his eyes and asked how.
"You should be able to buy yourself a nice pair of ear muffs so you won't be able to hear him," I said.
Don't let it get to that point.