February 28, 2023
While I have a deep passion for retrievers and waterfowl hunting, I divide my time up between ducks and deer each fall. I love bowhunting whitetails, and there is something that happens each season that reminds me of our dogs.
It involves the frequency of target practice sessions. Throughout the summer, the motivation to try to shoot a few tight groups is easy to come by. But once the hunting season kicks off, it’s much easier to head to my stand than to the target range. I have to remind myself to practice when I can just as easily go hunting.
What does this have to do with dogs? Well, we do the same thing with training. Throughout the summer and the pre-season, we put our retrievers through daily drills in anticipation of opening weekend. After that, all training bets are off as we chase limits at sunrise.
Just like how your archery accuracy can slip without enough practice, our dogs’ skills tend to erode as we ignore training in lieu of hunting. Now, dogs do learn some on-the-job skills while they are hunting, but they can also start to go the other way. To me, the initial slippage is easy to spot, but that’s not the case for everyone.
And when it happens, it often goes too far and forces us to face an unfortunate reality with our dogs—they have backslid in their obedience. There are three major ways this often happens.
I’ve beaten the steadiness drum a lot in this column, because it’s important. A steady duck dog is a good duck dog, and there’s no way around that. But the thing is, a dog that is rock-solid in the pre-season might not be so steady in the blind, especially by mid-season.
Normally, the first few hunts are where a dog’s obedience really shines, but if the training dies off, eventually that crisp behavior is going to soften. When it does, steadiness is the first casualty.
The thing with this is it happens in almost imperceptible degrees. You won’t take a dog that doesn’t break in training who always, immediately breaks in the blind. He’ll start to creep, instead. Where he use to wait for the clear signal to even move a muscle before the retrieve, he’ll now start to anticipate being sent. He’ll creep to the edge of the blind, or the boat, and prime himself to break free.
When this starts to happen and doesn’t get corrected, you’re on your way to having a full-blown breaker. Pay attention during your mid-season hunts if you’ve put training on the back burner, because what starts as a slight creep will get worse over time.
Another big one, that tends to happen in degrees but is highly undesirable in a duck dog, is the dropper. What I mean by this is that it’s not uncommon for someone to have a retriever that has gone through the trained retrieve and always brings a dummy or a bird back to hand during training.
These dogs put on a good show in the summer on the soccer field or the back yard, but when they get to hunt, they start testing out where the line really is on deliver to hand. If, in the excitement of the hunt, a dog figures out that you don’t demand he come to heel and hold the bird until you tell him to drop it, he’ll expect that out of you.
This will only get worse, and it happens in a few different ways. The first is what I just mentioned, where a dog will get sloppy in his delivery. He might assume you’re going to reach out and take the duck, so he’ll stop just short of you. Or, he might decide that he wants to drop the duck and shake before delivering it to hand.
Another common issue here is that some dogs just really like picking stuff up in their mouths. They like this so much, that they’ll drop something multiple times just to get to pick it back up. If you wouldn’t (and you shouldn’t) tolerate that during a training session, don’t tolerate it during a hunt.
Great duck dogs always possess a mix of independence and fierce loyalty to the team. This balance has to tip toward the team side of things to really work. The dog that looks you in the eyes and instantly minds every whistle during practice is working for the team.
That same retriever, after weeks of hunting, might start to believe he knows best. After all, he’s the one busting through the cattails and swimming through the chop to retrieve the ducks, not you.
When a dog starts to believe he’s in charge, you’ll know it because he’ll ignore you. This might not seem like an issue at all, when you’ve got to just reissue a command to get his attention. Yet, over time your verbal commands, whistles, or hand signals, will start to get ignored more and more. This is a gradual slide throughout the season that can lead to all kinds of problems.
An independent, free-thinking dog needs to be corrected in the field, and certainly during training sessions throughout the hunting season.
The key to curbing the mid-season slide is to be aware of your standards. If you ask your dog to be at a certain level in training, you better ask him to maintain that level at sunrise when the excitement is highest. If you don’t, he’ll quickly figure out that the training standards don’t apply to the hunt, and he’ll react accordingly. This, especially when it happens during successful hunts, can be hard to recognize until it’s too late.
So, pay attention. If you see him starting to slip, get on it. You don’t want to wait to see how that behavior will manifest itself into something desirable before the last of the migration dries up.