September 18, 2021
Some surprises in the duck blind are welcome, like when the weather or the hunt timing has you expecting so-so action, but the greenheads turn out to be numerous and suicidal. Other surprises, like those that involve dog behavior, are rarely a positive. Retrievers don’t suddenly become better at listening or working through blind retrieves while actually hunting. The opposite is pretty much a guarantee, at least to some degree depending on the experience level of the dog.
As a professional trainer I know this, and I know that the best way to eliminate as many of the unwanted surprises as possible is to anticipate potential issues and train for them. Dog handlers are often best at this when it comes to the big, obvious stuff. But it’s the little details that often get them in trouble, and there are a few of these that are very common.
The first is one that might seem more appropriate for a pheasant dog, but it has its place in the world of waterfowl as well.
The duck game is mostly a visual game for our retrievers. The birds swing in, circle, and then (hopefully) hit the water in a spot where the dogs can see them and make a clear mark. In reality, ducks don’t always follow the script, or fly in and land in spots where there is a nice view of open water for them to die in.
Thick cattails, high cover, and field hunting situations all mean your dog might have to use his nose instead of his eyes to recover downed birds. This means that using training scents is crucial. While you can opt for liquid-based scents for your dummy work, I prefer wax-based scents because it doesn’t dry out nearly as quickly and can handle water much better.
Start off with some thin cover and have your dog visually mark the scented-up dummy. I use the Hunt Dead command here, and send the dog in downwind. This is pretty easy stuff for most retrievers, but eventually you’ll want to hide dummies in cover and then work the dog in totally blind. This forces the dog to use his nose to find the bumper and allows you to establish that when you say Hunt Dead, he’s supposed to go to work with his sniffer.
I push this one a lot, but it’s important. Our retrievers most often work the distance we can throw a bumper and nothing more. That’s a 25- or 30-yard retrieve at best, and is great for some backyard work. But that translates poorly to actual ducks, that occasionally sail an extra 100 or 200 yards after we clip them. Even when a dog visually marks a bird that has gone that far, if he’s used to short retrieves and not rock solid on hand signals, there will be issues.
This is where having an assistant is really helpful. I like to take four or five dummies out and then have my training partner stand at 30 yards. When they toss the dummy, I send the dog. As the dog is making the retrieve I back up another 30 yards. The training partner tosses another dummy, and I retreat again. This gets the dog used to running longer distances for retrieves and establishes the reality that not all retrieves happen at short distances.
If you don’t have access to a good training partner, the next best thing is to buy a dummy launcher. This is good for 100-yard retrieves on land, or in the water. In my opinion, there are few training tools more beneficial in the days leading up to the actual duck season than a dummy launcher.
Most of us train alone, but we often hunt with a partner—or multiple partners. And it’s a rare thing, indeed, when someone volunteers to leave his dog at home to declutter a hunt. What this means is that you might spend your entire summer training with your dog and never introduce another dog into the equation, yet during every actual hunt there are other retrievers present and ready to work.
This can get dicey in a hurry, especially if you’ve got a dog that will break and your buddy’s dog is steady. After watching your dog steal retrieve after retrieve from his dog you might find that the frequency of invites to hunt drops off the cliff. It’s not fair to your hunting partners, or to your dog.
Knowing this, figure out a way to teach you retriever to honor another’s retrieve. We do this by partnering up and running through a drill where one handler tosses a dummy but keeps his or her dog at heel. The other handler then sends his dog, and then the roles reverse. Because our dogs become so accustomed to getting to retrieve when we throw a dummy, this often throws them for a loop right away. It’s very common to need a little correction here, which is okay.
The goal is to get your dog to understand that the only time he gets a retrieve is when you send him for a retrieve, even if he has to wait his turn. This type of drill is really good for developing well-mannered hunting dogs. There’s a lot to think about and work on in the month leading up to the season and it’s easy to overlook certain important aspects of the hunt. Instead, be aware of them and develop a training strategy to address these potential surprises, so that when you do get up at that 3:30 a.m. alarm clock, there won’t be any major issues waiting out there for you in the blind or the boat.