A good friend and I were hunting from shore on the Potholes Reservoir in Washington State. We stared skyward over the huge expanse of water while mallards and pintails sliced through the brutally cold air. It was the mid-1970s, and both of us had well-seasoned retrievers at our sides; they dutifully retrieved numerous birds in they choppy water.
At the end of the day, we commanded the dogs to retrieve the decoys, which were in water much deeper than our chest waders would allow. This isn't too common today, but back then we trained our dogs to bring in the dekes. They started this chore, but almost on cue, both stopped.
It was evident they were completely worn out and unable to function in the cold water any longer. My retriever was so cold, her back legs were giving out. We were fortunate they hit this wall while wrapping up the hunt. It's a powerful lesson I've carried with me all of these years. No matter how good your dog is, he has limits. The quickest way to find out what those are is to push it in extremely cold conditions.
Every year hunters run into the same problems we did four decades ago. Whether it occurs on a late-season diver hunt, or perhaps a December mallard hunt along your favorite river, your dog can get into trouble. If this happens, it's likely because your dog was ill-prepared for the conditions. Most of the time, our dogs start out with fairly warm, mild conditions during the duck season.
As the season progress it will naturally get colder. This is not a big deal to the dog that gets hunted every day of the season, but for the weekend warrior, or the working man who has to wait a few weeks between hunts, things can change a lot. This affects our dogs and demands that we stay extra vigilant when faced with a frigid reality.
Suit Up, Stand Up
I'm a big believer in the right gear for the right situation, and one thing my dogs won't go without during a cold hunt is a neoprene vest. I prefer vests that are 3mm thick so they will fit tightly and minimize where the water can get in.
A good vest should fit so well that during below-freezing hunts you should be able to slide your hand between the dog's hair and the vest and feel dry warmth. If that's the case, then you know the vest fits correctly and is doing its job.
In extreme cold, I'll outfit my dog with two vests and often use down-times in the action to give my dog a chance to do a few land retrieves to get the blood flowing. If at all possible, this is a great way to keep your dog comfortable and happy during these conditions.
Another piece of gear I often employ is a portable dog stand. Instead of having my dog sit in the cold water during the duration of such hunts, I'd much rather have him stay warmer and preserve his endurance by sitting on a platform and staying dry.
Lastly, one of the things I always do when it's cold is pay attention to my ammo choice. The steel shot I use on an early-season wood duck or teal hunt is not going to cut it late-season. If there is a chance a cripple might swim off in the black, near-freezing water, I want to hit them with everything I can, which typically means Hevi-Shot.
This is true of all ducks, but especially divers. If we scratch them out of the air, I follow them down and pound them on the water immediately if they show any sign of life. After that, I send in my dog to retrieve a very dead duck.
Aside from outfitting your dog and yourself with the right gear, it's also a great idea to condition him to the realities of retrieving in cold water. Although it's never a bad idea to toss a few pre-hunt dummies for your dog during the season, it's far easier to train during the spring. This is because the air and water temperatures are often very similar to the late-season fall hunting, and will give your dog a taste of what's to come.
If you do opt for this type of training, or if you push your dog during a cold weather hunt, you'll likely notice something about his desire. More to the point, you'll notice how much desire he has. Some dogs shut down after a few cold-water retrieves. Others will power through the cold over and over.
This boils down partially to training, but largely to retrieving desire. If you figure this out in the spring, there won't be any surprises come late fall when the actual hunt is on.
If this sounds like something that you're dog will benefit from, heed this last disclaimer — don't force a puppy to retrieve in brutally cold conditions. This is an exercise for older, more-seasoned dogs who have plenty of water work under their belts.
Know The Water
At this point, you may assume these conditions are only a real danger when hunting large lakes, rivers or open ocean. While big water certainly poses a threat, especially if you're hunting divers that can cover serious water when crippled, it's not the only situation that can turn disastrous.
Rivers and their energy-sapping current can wear down a dog quickly when temperatures become frigid, and even small lakes and ponds can be big trouble no matter how fit your retriever is. Two-foot waves are huge to a dog whether they occur on a 75-acre pond or a giant reservoir.
If you send your dog out for a retrieve in these conditions, pay extra attention to what is going on. If he takes off after a cripple, be ready to go with the boat, especially if he looks like he is going to swim out of earshot. There is nothing worse than knowing your dog is in trouble and then having to scramble to go after him.
Also, there are times when it's just foolish to send your dog on a retrieve, and it's up to you to know when that is.
This isn't meant to be a dissuasion because late-season, cold weather hunts can be an absolute blast. There is something very rewarding about taking a limit of pressured birds in weather so cold your fingers and toes go numb. Just make sure that if you do opt to brave these conditions, your dog is not only outfitted properly, but prepared as well.
And make sure you know that everything is, and will be fine, each time he leaps into the water for another retrieve.