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Off-Season Retriever Training Considerations

Critical advice to get your duck dog ready to max out in the good times ahead.

Off-Season Retriever Training Considerations

Don’t let your dog get away with bad behavior in the off-season as it will escalate on the hunt and could lead to frustration or worse, disaster. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

In last September’s issue of WILDFOWL, I wrote a feature titled, “The Underdogs”, about non-traditional retrievers. The story generated the second most responses from readers in the more than 3,000 magazine articles I’ve written for magazines around the world over the past 25 years. Thank you!

Answering the many questions from readers got the wheels turning, and the next thing you know, Skip Knowles and I were hunting together, brainstorming, and, well, here I am writing a column for one of my favorite magazines on the planet. I love waterfowl hunting and waterfowl hunters. We’re a blessed fraternity who share the same passion; we’re on the same team.

While I bring 45 years of waterfowl hunting experience, along with degrees in education and the sciences, what I love about this sport is how the learning never stops. Yearly weather changes, gear, flight patterns, and even travel all impact waterfowl hunting.

If you’re part of the surge of new waterfowl hunters heading afield, welcome! The new Playbook column is for you. We’ll look at a range of how-to topics in each issue, starting with preparing your dog for a hunt.

DON'T MISS the author's "15 Things to Avoid with Your New Puppy"

off-season retriever training
Spending the time to discipline and train your duck dog now will pay dividends during the next hunting season. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Basic Duck Dog Discipline

Hunt preparation is a year-round commitment and it starts with teaching your dog discipline and restraint from the moment you bring it home. A dog with these qualities will listen and respect you, which equates to them wanting to please you. Be it formal training, letting the dog out to play, feeding time, or running out the back door to go potty, maintaining discipline in your dog is the number one goal at all times. Don’t let your dog get away with bad behavior, ever, as it will escalate on the hunt and that could lead to frustration and disaster.

When traveling with your dog, avoid letting it bust out of the truck the moment you open a door or tailgate. Not only can this result in serious injury, but if they leap face-first into another dog, it can result in an ugly fight; I’ve seen both.


Always control your dog, especially when in public parking lots and along roads. Having the collar, e-collar, and vest on the dog before it leaves the truck is wise so you’re not chasing it around when they’re intent on sniffing and exploring their surroundings.

Before the hunt, make sure the vest of choice fits the dog and doesn’t rub under their front legs. Neoprene vests are easy to trim. Run and train your dog with the vest on so they get used to it. The hunt is not a place to introduce a new vest. If your dog stops and bites at the vest when training, look for where it’s rubbing and trim it to fit, accordingly. When fitting your dog with a vest, don’t feel like it has to be worn the entire training session the first time out.

Ready for more retriever training tips?

Prime Time to Train

As temperatures warm up, late spring and early summer are prime time for water training. Use a variety of bumpers and dummies to not only peak your dog’s interest, but to motivate it to work. Hunting dogs are highly intelligent, so keep the training fun and challenging. Some dogs grow bored with training, so avoid falling into a rut. The more engaged your dog, the more focused they’ll be. 

Intellectual stimulation is as important as a physical workout for your dog. Maintain eye contact when working with your dog. I never wear sunglasses as I want my dogs to be able to read my eyes and anticipate my next move. I use few verbal commands when training and hunting as most communication is achieved through eye contact and hand signals which are ideal in hunting situations where it can be storming and dogs can’t hear a word you’re shouting.

Elevated platforms are a must to keep your dogs dry and warm when hunting in standing water. If hunting on land, folding platforms work, or simply build your own. Don’t block their field of view as a dog will spot an impressive number of approaching birds, often before you do. They need visibility to mark hit birds, too.

On road trips, have a list of vet clinics handy. Injury, porcupines, or illness can and will happen, eventually, so be prepared. Have a basic first aid kit accessible, too. Consult with your vet to help build a kit that fits your dog’s needs.

A good dog will likely become your best hunting partner, and it all starts with proper training and developing a stable relationship. I hate hunting without my dogs, and I’ll do all I can to make them happy and healthy because their time with us is precious. I hope you do the same.

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