By Tom Dokken
While sporting dogs and bird hunting are my main passions, I also happen to be obsessed with bowhunting big game. The thing about trying to arrow a big whitetail or antelope is you’ve got to be good with your equipment long before the season ever opens. This means weekly practice sessions honing your shooting skills are a must. You can’t get as good with archery tackle as you need to be if you start shooting three weeks before you’ll be hunting. It doesn’t work.
The same goes for dog training. Too many hunters decide that August is a good time to start throwing some dummies, but it’s simply not enough time to hone a dog’s duck game. This is true for most of the important skills, and definitely true to the higher-education skills like mastering double and triple retrieves. This is the perfect off-season project for any duck dog owner because you’ve got the time to get it right and who doesn’t want a dog that can remember where each bird has fallen during a volley of shots and retrieve them all perfectly?
The key to this upper-level course is to understand memory birds.
Provided your dog is obedient and competent with any singles you ask him to retrieve, you can—and should—work in doubles. This process can start in the yard or anywhere that the grass is short and the dummies will be highly visible. Have your dog heeling beside you and toss a dummy to your left a short distance. Then toss a dummy 180 degrees to the right a short ways. Send him after the second dummy first.
Because you’ve place the dummies 180 degrees from one another, he’ll have to run right past you to investigate the second, which gives you the chance to have him drop the first dummy in your hands and then send him to the second. It’s simple, but important for building a foundation. Work on this for a week or so until the dog is highly confident, then switch it up and toss the second dummy at 90 degrees. Your dog should retrieve it while not breaking his lines to sniff the first dummy, but if he doesn’t then you’ll have to go back to the 180-degree drill. If he does, relocate to an area with knee-high grass.
As soon as you add in this little layer of extra difficulty, it’s time to introduce the memory bird. Position yourself so you can work the 180-degree drill in the cover and toss a single first. This is the memory bird. Send your dog and have him do the single retrieve. Now, toss the dummy right back to that spot, and then throw another 180 degrees from it. The dog already knows all about retrieving that memory bird, because he’s already done it.
Work through this process in the light cover, and eventually move to some heavier cover. Start with the memory bird every time, so that the dog can work on a single where he’ll eventually get to work on a double. Always keep the distances short until the dog shows 100 percent confidence in working the doubles with ease.
At that point, it’s time to ask for some help from a training partner.
Heel your dog and have your helper toss the memory dummy. Run through the single and make sure the dog gets it. If he does, have your helper toss a dummy and then throw one yourself. If the dog retrieves both correctly through multiple drills, you can extend the distance and add some challenge. If you can’t lock up the help of a good training partner, invest in a dummy launcher so that when your retriever is ready to do some long retrieves, you can make it happen. The goal should be to work doubles out to 150 yards, which may seem too far but is a good distance for a duck dog to understand and be able to handle.
I’ve run into plenty of hunters who don’t really think triples are necessary for a bird dog. Here’s the thing: You may not have too many times in your life where a trio of mallards hit the water in the same volley, but if you do you’ll want a dog that can handle the task. It’s also never a bad idea to challenge your dog to learn new skills and work on becoming a better retriever overall.
For both of those reasons and a few more I haven’t listed, consider teaching triples. If you think your dog doesn’t have the mental bandwidth to handle triples, consider that field trial dogs are capable of doing quad (four) retrieves out to 400 yards. Our dogs are capable of way more than we typically ask of them, and I can’t think of a better example than that. Triples, done right, can be achieved by nearly any dog that has gone through the proper stages of learning doubles.
To start with, head to the backyard or neighborhood soccer field and think of yourself as the center of a clock. Toss a dummy to 9, 12, and 3. You’ve got two birds at 180 degrees from one another, and one at 90. All should be visible, and all should be close. Send the dog to the last bird first, and work him through the dummies. If he can handle this, move to the light cover.
Now, you’ve got to use two memory birds when working triples instead of one. So toss your first memory dummy and have the dog go through the single retrieve. After he does, throw the second and have him work that single as well. When you set up for a triple, throw both dummies to the spots you’ve already worked as memory retrieves.
If your dog is doing well, advance through the steps with a training partner and various levels of cover, always being aware that each drill should start with confidence-building memory retrieves.
Move to Water
You’ve probably noticed that to this point, all of the double and triple work has occurred on land. This is because it’s much easier to teach, and for a dog to learn, while he’s not swimming. Eventually, after plenty of land-based drills, you’ll be able to start working in a small pond with your dog on doubles and then triples. This, too, will also require a training partner but if you do start on small water in a controlled setting, it should not take long before your dog is ready to work triples in bigger water at farther distances. The best part is, if you start this when the duck season is just barely in the rearview mirror, your retriever will be double- and triple-ready by opening day.