My current Lab, Luna, just turned five. That means she is in the prime of her life and doesn't need too many lessons on how to behave, retrieve, or hunt in general. This is the result of great genes and plenty of training, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a few holes in her game.
All dogs do, and the latest I noticed with her was late last duck season when a buddy and I spread out a few mallard decoys in a backwater pool off of the Rum River near the Twin Cities. The birds were heading south along the river and would occasionally dip into the floodplain to hole up for a breather.
Austin mentioned he was going to set up a jerk-string as well, and I didn't think anything of it. Now, I've never had the need to use one so I was curious to see if we'd be able to dupe in a few greenheads by adding some extra movement to our dekes. What I didn't anticipate, was that we'd fool my dog all morning long into thinking that a crippled duck was on the water.
It was entirely my fault, and while Luna didn't break, she seriously considered it for about three hours. When we finally called it a morning, Luna took off like bottled lightning for the spread and was disappointed to find only lifeless decoys.
As her owner, I should have anticipated her reaction. She's never hunted with that type of rig, and would have no idea what it was. This goes for most dogs in new situations, and little things can certainly ruin a perfectly good duck hunt when we don't do our pre-hunt prep drills.
The Easy Ones
Introduction to decoys, boats, and anything and everything a dog is likely to encounter on a typical hunt is a good start. You don't want your retriever to be distracted by anything once the shooting starts. The problem is, if your dog isn't familiar with all of the accoutrements and necessities of a hunt, you have no idea how it will react.
This is most common with decoys. If you haven't trained around decoys, or had your dog watch you toss them out, you're in trouble. Ditto for boat work, or blind work for that matter. You don't want to challenge your dog to conquer new tasks while hunting that could have been worked on at home in the backyard or the neighborhood pond.
With any drills, start small and easy. If that involves decoy introduction, begin in the backyard with a few fakes on the ground. Let your dog check them out, and eventually you'll be able to toss a dummy into them and then move the whole thing into shallow water. The goal is to get the dog to focus on the dummy, not the decoys (or anything else that might distract him).
It's easy enough to train around decoys, but not-so-much around real ducks and geese. I'm fortunate enough to have a small pond in my backyard where the waterfowl are somewhat tame. At least the honkers and greenheads are, the woodies and teal are something else.
When Luna was a one-year old dog, I started working her in the pond when we had feathered visitors. At first, a honking goose was too much for her and she'd abandon the dummy and give chase. She learned quickly that she wasn't going to catch any healthy honkers, and that none of us would be very happy with the developments.
Over time, and with the help of plenty of birds, she realized that the best way to work through the drills and keep everyone smiling was to focus on the task at hand. This is easier said than done.
If you want a dog that doesn't get distracted by every log in the water or butterfly fluttering past, you've got to work it a lot under conditions that will make it want to succeed for you. This means finding new environments with distractions both under your control, and out of your control.
Setting Up To Fail
The best dog trainers out there, of which I am not, will tell you the secret to productive training — don't set your dog up to fail. This is important when it comes to distraction training, because it is very easy for the dog — especially young dogs — to fail. Don't lose your cool if this happens. Reset, work the dog and try as hard as you've tried for anything to create success. If this means tossing the dummy 10 feet instead of 25 yards into a flock of geese, start there.
The goal is to keep up with the confidence building while allowing your dog to figure out that he needs to ignore the noise around him and focus on bringing the dummy back. This will translate directly into better hunting, because every morning in the blind is different and every retrieve represents a new set of challenges.
A confident dog, that has worked through a pile of distraction drills in the days leading up to the season, will be a better dog overall in all types of waterfowl situations. I don't know any self respecting duck hunter who doesn't want that.