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Reach Your Duck Dog's Full Potential

Are you asking enough of your retriever? Maybe your good gun dog could be great.

Reach Your Duck Dog's Full Potential
Photo Credit: Tony J. Peterson

When it comes to training dogs, it is very easy to hit a point that either feels like it’s “good enough” or that it’s as far as the individual retriever can go. I realize this is highly subjective, but most of the dogs I get my hands on are sitting on more potential than their owners realize.

This means the dog that is pretty steady in the duck blind and good for 40-yard retrieves could most likely be rock-solid and willing to bring back a cripple that is 150 yards out, provided he’s had the right training.

And now is the time to provide that training. But first, you’ve got to recognize what upper-level work you want to ask of your dog and then how you’ll ask it. Provided your retriever has all of the fundamentals and the basics down perfectly, there’s nothing standing between him being a good dog and a great dog.

Months Of Success

If there is one thing I see amateur handlers do with their dogs that isn’t as productive as it could be, it’s training without ensured success. Now, failure is going to happen with all dogs and is a natural part of the process, but you want to minimize it as much as possible. A dog that finds success and rewards through a series of small steps, on the path to something bigger, is a dog that is going to achieve great things.

A retriever that experiences failure in training, especially repeated failure, isn’t going to level up very easily and might shut down completely. A dog that disengages from drills because it anticipates failure is a dog that is very, very tough to work with. Think about this throughout the spring and summer months when you’re looking to help your dog get to the next level of performance.

If you design training drills to ensure the right amount of challenge and guaranteed success, you’re well on your way, but there is still something else to consider—corrections. Or more simply, when is a correction necessary?

Just as the dog that experiences failure might not work the way you need him to, a dog that is corrected too often or corrected when the timing isn’t right will have trouble reaching his full potential. The goal when moving your dog, step by step, into advanced level hand signals or blind retrieves or what-have-you, is to pay close attention to the lessons that have stuck. If you’re confident your dog knows exactly what you’re asking but you see him do something else, then it’s time for a correction.

If you’ve shown your retriever something for one day, or one small training session and then correct him the next time you ask, that could lead to problems. Again, give your dog the time and opportunity to succeed in every way so that you can greatly reduce the chance for failure or correction simply because there might have been a training oversight on your part.

Is It Necessary?

You might be thinking at this point that your retriever did everything you asked of him last fall in the blind, so why try to add in more skills? There are a couple of ways to answer this. The first is simply to wring the most potential out of your dog that you possibly can. The second is that it does a dog good to keep learning and to keep problem solving. Our hunting dogs are working dogs, and they thrive off of structured lives and challenges.

This means that even though your dog never let a cripple go and sat quietly in your flat-bottom for hours while you waited on flocks of greenheads, it would still do him good both physically and mentally to be asked to do more.

And if we are honest about our dogs, it’s hard to find one that couldn’t use a little help somewhere. I’ve handled hundreds of dogs in my life, many of which were really skilled retrievers, but they all had some holes in their game. This might have been something as simple as whining a bit too much in the heat of the moment, or having a long-distance switch that kept them from going out farther to retrieve a bird despite the fact that the whistle-work and hand signals were telling him do just that.

Be as honest about your retriever’s skills as your are about your commitment to training the dog. If your dog has only ever worked one retrieve at a time, he’s probably ready for doubles and then possibly, triples. If he’s not used to honoring another dog’s retrieve but you anticipate hunting with a few buddies next fall, then you know what to work on.


This might sound daunting, but it’s not. Even advanced level retriever training won’t eat up more than 10 or 15 minutes of your day—provided, of course, you work on it most days. That consistency is the key to the whole thing once you’ve identified what you want to work on.


Our duck dogs are loaded with potential, but it’s up to us to figure out the correct way to unlock it and to keep our dogs developing. Fortunately, it’s quite a few months until the first early teal and goose seasons open up, and even more before the major migration swings through and the best time of the years is upon us. Before that happens, think about your dog’s skills and just what you might be able to do with him this off-season to help him level up.

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