February 04, 2023
If you have the opportunity to watch a real, finished duck dog work, you’ll see something special. The relationship between the retriever and its handler will involve a lot of independence, but also communication. The dog will always wait for the signal to be released, and if the downed bird or dummy isn’t located quickly, will ask for help. When help is given, the dog will keep working toward the goal.
This communication seems simple enough but think about it if you add in a couple more birds into the mix. What about if there are other hunters involved, and other dogs? Not just in your party, but down the cattails a little way tucked into the next point? These dynamic situations, the kind we often face when we are actually hunting ducks, are a true test of a dog’s skills—and ours. If we can’t communicate properly with a dog, or the dog won’t listen, all bets are off. These situations show us how rare that finished duck dog really is, and if he really exists.
Hunters are often blindsided by a loss of control with their retrievers after having near-perfect training sessions at home. This is one of the reasons I talk about steadiness being such a crucial component of duck dogs. When it slips, the whole thing starts to crumble.
A good way to look into the future with your retriever is to dissect your average pre-season training session. How close to the real thing are you getting? Because it’s the exciting parts of duck hunting that will cause our dogs to break and will cause real problems in our ability to communicate with them.
For example, consider a complex training drill that involves three blind retrieves. Your dog might very well be able to go when you release them on each mark, find each bumper, and bring them back in the order you send him. That’s good, but what is that drill missing?
It’s missing gunfire, for one thing. Also, live birds, calling, maybe other hunters and dogs, and basically, most of what makes duck hunting exciting. That’s a problem, because when the real hunt happens, the dog is going to be overstimulated, distracted, and prone to not listening.
This means the more realistic you can make your training sessions, the more your dog should adopt a been-there-done-that attitude. This will also allow you to direct him with verbal commands, hand signals, whistles, and his e-collar.
But, it’s not so simple. You’ve still got to know where the communication issues are likely to crop up.
One thing that I do with my dogs during the first duck hunts of the season is test their willingness to not break. I do this by waiting for a lull in the action (and by informing my hunting buddies of what is about to happen), then I stand up and fire a couple of shots. Any dog that is on the verge of breaking is going to break at this moment, I promise. As long as you’re ready to issue a correction right away, this can be used as a valuable lesson.
Another way to test your early season communication is to let a downed duck float around for a few minutes or longer. If you read the water and decide a dead bird isn’t going to get blown away, you can let it float out there as long as you want before sending your dog. This helps him realize that the decision is yours, and it’s his job to listen for the release command.
These are litmus tests to tell you where your dog is really at control-wise. But there are many ways to gauge how good of a listener your dog is, and how good of a communicator you are. Recall is a big one. If you don’t have a rock-solid recall in your backyard, it’s a guarantee you won’t have it out on the water when the woodies start whistling overhead.
Of course, highlighting the lapses in communication between yourself and your retriever is just a start, you’ve also got to shore them up. This takes an awful lot of training.
The Best Way to Speak
One of the reasons I push the notion that we should be looking for training opportunities during hunts, but also in-between hunts, is because the duck blind really shows us what we need to work on. It also shows us how different our communication styles are, and how dependent some of them are on different conditions.
Take verbal commands, for example. These are great for close work, like telling your dog to ‘stay’ when he’s right next to you in the blind. But what if he heads out on a long-distance retrieve and the wind is blowing 30 mph? Once he swims out far enough, you can scream yourself hoarse and not reach him, which means you need other options.
In this situation, a whistle is better. An e-collar is, too. So are hand signals. While you can work a whistle into your training drills with ease, an e-collar takes the proper introduction work. Once that’s complete, you’ll have the ability to communicate with your dog over any distance he’s likely to swim for a duck, or run for a retrieve. The bigger point here is to give yourself options to always be in contact with your retriever, no matter what is going on.
To me, this stage is a beautiful thing because it’s not just me telling a dog what to do. It’s a dog that has learned to look to me for instruction, and I can give it from the boat or the blind through hand signals. This isn’t something a dog is going to learn through on-the-job training while hunting, but instead is going to take plenty of drilling during non-hunting times.
If you want the maximum ability to communicate with your retriever while hunting, you’d better work on it in training—because you can’t ask for something in the blind that you haven’t asked for hundreds of times in training.