If there is one thing I've learned in all my years as a professional dog trainer it's this: plan for what can go wrong, not for what you hope will go right. And if you want to ensure your retriever hunts the way you want him to, it's best to understand what you're asking of him every time you hunt.
This is most evident with pups in their first fall, usually the first hunt of their life. Too often, hunters will train a puppy all summer and then engage in a series of mistakes once the alarm goes off opening morning.
For example, asking a pup to ride in a truck at 4 a.m. when he is not used to riding in vehicles, or trying to get him in a boat for the first time during the hustle and bustle of hunt-prep can result in unwanted consequences.
Once you get to the blind and throw out the decoys, your new retriever may return a few plastic fakes to hand, after all he spent a summer fetching dummies at the neighborhood pond.
See where I am going with this? In order to get your bird dog to perform, there must be a clear plan and proper preparation for the way you and the dog will hunt together.
You're Like A Child
Young dogs in their first fall are much like taking a kid on an inaugural spring fishing trip. The process needs to be simple and successful. A pup needs to see ducks, hear shots and retrieve, just like your youngster needs to see that bobber go down immediately.
Small ponds and slow-flowing creeks with flights of early-season wood ducks or teal are great training grounds. Too many bird dog owners start their pups on an early goose season hunt, which is often a mistake. Small ducks in a highly-controllable situation are a much better option.
I prefer to find a very reliable hunting partner and designate him as the shooter. I want to control my dog and encourage a positive situation throughout the first hunts. It's imperative the shooter know he should only take singles and also expect breaks in the action to conduct retrieves the right way — this process is all about the dog.
These initial hunts typically last only 30 to 45 minutes because of a young dog's short attention span. If I misjudge the potential of the spot, I always carry a training dummy in my pack. That way if the ducks don't show, I can still toss the dummy and allow the dog to have some fun.
Only after I feel the pup has a solid understanding of what is going on will I shoulder a gun myself. This may take a week or more of hunting with another shooter, but that's a small price to pay for a dog that will grasp the concept for the rest of his life.
It's not just puppies that need to be coddled through new hunting experiences, established dogs often face firsts too. New hunting ground is unfamiliar and can put your dog outside his comfort zone. In each instance, take time to understand how your dog's role has changed from the known to the unknown.
This happens a lot when opting to hunt out of a new type of blind, like a pit instead of a box blind. A dog used to seeing the action might go stir-crazy in a pit because he cannot see the ducks approach or fall from the sky. He'll do his best to get into a position to see, which may seem like poor behavior, but he is just doing what he knows.
Similar situations occur when going from small to big water. Think about the difference between retrieving a duck that falls into a one-acre pond versus a good-sized lake with two-foot rollers. Even if your dog marks the bird, it's likely he'll quickly lose it while paddling through the waves.
These new situations have a tendency to confound our retrievers, and if we're not careful, we'll give in to our tempers. If the poor behavior is due to obedience issues, then a little elevated blood pressure might be warranted.
Although in this case, it's our fault as well and often something we noticed the previous season but neglected to work on. If your dog did something wrong last season, it's likely he'll do it again until the behavior is corrected through proper training.
Introducing your dog to a new hunting situation requires patience and understanding. It's not fair to ask near-perfection of a dog when he's placed in unfamiliar settings, potentially with unfamiliar people and dogs. The best bet for quick success is to anticipate challenges and train for them well before actually hunting.
As this duck season progresses, take special note of anything new or different you might introduce your retriever to. If it's something that can be practiced and trained for throughout the week, do so. We often forget a duck dog needs work all year long, not just during the off-season.
This is especially true when you remove the familiar conditions and ask him to perform at a high level in unfamiliar surroundings. Whether this involves a pup or a seasoned birder, it's imperative to know exactly what you are asking of him before the whistling of wings grabs your (and his) attention.