Professional dog trainers are supposed to have The Secret. Something, anything, that guarantees success many times over in an arena where others seem destined to fail.
The truth is, we do know a few tricks of the trade, but there's no magic wand that turns a dim-witted pup into a Rhodes Scholar. Instead, we rely on a healthy dose of patience, repetition, understanding, and a bevy of tools.
When I started training sporting dogs four decades ago, our equipment was primitive compared to today. This is good news for both trainers and the thousands of do-it-yourself bird-dog lovers. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the benefits of certain training tools, or how to put them to good use.
Launch that Dummy, Dummy
A duck dog that won't retrieve isn't much good to anyone. That's why we spend so much time tossing dummies and working to foster our dog's ability and desire to run out and return with fake birds. I would never discourage anyone from throwing a dummy and working with a dog, especially a puppy, however too many of us rely solely on this method.
The reasons are many, but the most common stems from how easy it is to go into the backyard or to the neighborhood pond and toss a bumper for our dog. The good is obvious, but the bad might not be. Negatives include a routine that leads to boredom quickly, both in human and canine, and it ingrains in your dog a belief all birds will fall close to their position.
Unless you're Peyton Manning, it's not likely you're going to be able to throw any kind of dummy by hand the necessary distance.
One further deleterious effect that crops up from hand throwing is your dog will soon start to believe the fun begins when your arm starts swinging. This leads to dogs that focus more on you than the sky above, and that's bad news once you're sitting in the duck blind. To remedy this, it's a good idea to consider a dummy launcher.
Throw the Distance
Launchers have been around a long time, and vary greatly in style and performance. I use a couple of different models when training the dogs that come through my facility, and wish we would have had modern launchers when I started out. They have truly changed the way I train, and are probably the most under-utilized tool available to amateurs.
Hand-held or shoulder-mounted launchers allow you to train your dog to retrieve out to the 100- to 125-yard range. This distance may be two or three times longer than the average retrieve on a dead duck, but that's the point. It allows the chance to solidify an ability to handle longer marks, and that is important for a finished retriever.
My personal preference is the shoulder-mounted launcher, because it leaves one hand free to control a leash, check cord, or e-collar remote. These launchers also incorporate an element of training I cannot stress enough — gunfire. After the proper introduction stage of a puppy, gunfire should be incorporated into every training session possible.
This reinforces earlier training, and increases the level of enthusiasm in your dog with each retrieve.
With my shoulder-mounted dummy launcher I can go beyond a single marked, long-distance retrieve by keeping my dog steady and reloading. I can offer double and eventually triple retrieves.
This is good practice for the duck blind and also offers the added benefit of steadiness drills. A dog that is new to the dummy launcher game is going to want to break at the shot, and will probably come unglued by the second and third.
At this stage, just remember why you're training your dog to complete these drills. No one wants their dog to break early, especially if the skies are full of ducks. A good dog will understand even though all of those feathery prizes are thumping or splashing in front of him, he needs to wait for your release command.
Shoulder-mounted launchers provide the opportunity for your dog to graduate with a high degree in steadiness and long-retrieve education.
Remote-operated dummy launchers are highly beneficial because they teach the dog to focus on the sky in front of him instead of on you, and are portable, which means you can practice retrieves in a variety of environments.
Not only does this provide the perfect chance to train in hunting situations that closely resemble the real thing, but it also keeps things interesting. Bad dogs are often bored dogs, just like a teenager too smart for algebra.
Remote launchers will provide a platform for your retriever to keep learning while finding success in new and varied environments. This leads to confidence and enthusiasm, two traits every bird dog owner loves to see.
Added bonuses include the ability to truly stretch out retrieving distances, and further incorporate realistic sounds. On the distance front, I find it's a good idea to use a "beep" mode if available that will grab the dog's attention before the dummy is launched.
Some even offer a variety of sounds like gunfire or mallard quacks, which can create an even more beneficial experience.
Also consider a remote-controlled dummy and bird launcher, which is commonly referred to as a winger. Wingers function like slingshots and can be loaded with a dummy, or a dead bird and then activated from a distance. These are invaluable for finishing dogs because they allow your retriever to handle real, albeit dead birds.
Although not everyone will spend the money on a remote bird releaser, I do use them a lot, and recommend one if you can afford it. Nothing compares to a live bird — and I mean nothing — when it comes to training a duck dog.
Remote bird releasers catapult a live bird into the air when you trigger it. This allows you to either shoot the bird for the dog, or use a clipped-wing bird (check your state's laws for restrictions.) Both are good choices, and both should be used if possible.
A live bird that isn't clipped mimics upland hunting, but doesn't much apply to duck hunting. That's OK, because any time your dog gets to see a bird shot from the air and retrieved it will cement the desire to do it again, and again.
Using a clipped-wing bird, such as a pigeon, in a bird releaser will teach a much different lesson than an unhindered bird. A clipped-wing pigeon is perfect for training drills that involve letting a dog get close and then triggering the releaser. At that point, a bird will pop up into the air and fall back to the ground, giving your dog a chance to track it down and retrieve it.
No matter what style of dummy launcher you opt for, or if you go all out and start using a bird releaser, you'll find many of the different facets of dog training will come together. Each gives the trainer a good opportunity to work steadiness drills, marks, and hand signals, which are all important come opening day.
Another simple tool I use to enhance my training involves using something white. It can be a bucket, flag, or even a helper wearing a bright white shirt. I prefer the training partner dressed in white because it's easier for a duck dog to see than a five-gallon bucket in the distance, but make do with what you can.
Either way, try to place a visual marker when you're starting to establish long-distance retrieves. We often forget dogs use their eyes as much as their nose and ears when hunting, and their ability to see a visual marker where they have to make a long-distance retrieve encourages them to follow a straight line and make the retrieve.
This is a great way to complement your hand signals, because using signals alone can get confusing for a dog not used to long retrieves. The visual cue is a confidence builder at first, and a much appreciated addition during the early stages of stretching retriever abilities.
Also, think about the dummies used during various training sessions. Obviously, I've got a vested interest in training dummies of a certain kind (DeadFowl Trainer), but there is a reason I tinkered with the design so long ago.
A dummy that feels like a real bird and looks like a real bird will keep a dog's interest longer. It will also prepare him for the actual bird he is going to encounter while hunting. Since it's difficult to get live birds or even dead ones, a realistic dummy is the next best thing, especially if you add scent to it.
In that case, you've developed a trifecta of sensual cues from the visual, to the audio (gunfire), and the olfactory. All three are very important to a retriever's success, and anything you can foster in a dog to use the tools given him will go a long way toward developing a better sporting dog.
There are a variety of training tools, but in the interest of space, they can't all be listed. Several of the items covered here are what I use in day-to-day training sessions.
Whether you're starting out a seven-week-old pup, or keeping a seasoned veteran sharp, they will help your dog develop confidence and understanding in the ways of hunting and retrieving.
Each has it's place in your arsenal, and when used correctly, will pay dividends come fall.