Throughout the summer, I swim my Lab pretty much every day. We work drills in the backyard pond, the neighborhood lake, or sometimes at one of the rivers near my house. That’s the luxury of living in Minnesota. But even if we didn’t have access to as much water as we do, I’d still try to find a few spots where she could engage in some water work.
It’s that important to a duck dog. And while tossing a dummy into the drink and sending your retriever is good, you can do better. In fact, you should do better if you want your retriever to be season-ready when the first teal are showing up and there is a long runway left on waterfowling for the year.
To get him where he needs to be, consider these water-based drills.
Go Deep, Dog
The average retrieve will be, not surprisingly, the average distance you can hurl a dummy. That’s not very far for most of us. What that does, is condition your dog to think that most retrieves will occur fairly close to you, which means when you hit a strafing greenhead and it sails 150 extra yards before hitting the lake, your dog might mark it but will probably devote frustrating recovery.
Long-distance water work is important and can be accomplished several ways. The first and easiest for the solo handler is with a dummy launcher. If you have a place to use one, buy one. You won’t regret it.
If not, you can work long-distance with a training partner. This is simple enough on the right-sized body of water because you can have your partner throw the dummy from a spot across a good-sized pond, provided your dog is paying attention (use a whistle or duck call to get the dog’s attention before throwing the dummy). When he marks the dummy, send him.
If you’re solo and without a launcher, find a shallow enough place to wade out and throw a dummy while making your dog sit on shore. This is a steadiness drill as well, and while it’s not as easy to get truly long retrieves this way, you might be able to double the distance of the average retrieve. That helps.
Where I live, a fair amount of our best duck water is ringed by cattails. It’s no surprise, then, that my dog does a lot of retrieving in them. Knowing this is how our hunts will likely unfold and that our wounded ducks can hide really well in the reedy, thick cattail patches, it’s imperative we work in the type of cover we hunt in.
Blind retrieves in the cattails are a must. I like to use wax-based scent on my dummies to give Luna a chance, and then it’s a matter of hand signals, playing the wind, and being patient. This is advanced work that your dog has to be ready for, but it’s a necessity if you want to have a sharp retriever that understands all a hunt could entail.
If you don’t hunt cattails, that’s okay. Find the environment that closely mirrors the type of spots you’ll actually hunt and work your dog there. Simply standing at the boat landing and tossing a dummy into easy, open water will only serve to get your dog some exercise. This is good, but again, you can do better. Working in the right cover and shoring up your hand-signal game will give your duck dog a doable challenge.
Doubles and Triples
One dummy is a good start, but if your dog is ready for doubles or triples that’s even better. It’s also the reality of a good duck hunt that more than one quacker will fall from the sky at any given moment. A dog that thinks retrieves only come one at a time will have a hard time understanding things when you tell him that there are other birds to retrieve. You don’t want to go through this during a hunt.
This means that you should be running multiple dummies during specific training sessions throughout the summer. The goal here, like with all training, is not to trick the dog but to get him to understand what’s possible and how he needs to address each situation. If you haven’t worked doubles on land, don’t expect him to get it in the water.
If you have, it’s still best to start easy with high-visibility dummies and short retrieving distances. The first step is to always get the dog to succeed when the game has changed slightly. This means you should make it too easy at first, and once he shows that it’s a cinch, you can stretch out the distance and difficulty in small steps.
Eventually, a good dog will learn that one retrieve does not mean the drill is over, and he might have to follow your lead and swim back out one or two more times. This is exactly what could - and hopefully will - happen during a duck hunt. If your retriever has gone through this process multiple times during the summer, it’ll be easy for him to understand during an actual hunt. That’s the goal.
Get your dog into the right water and work him on some challenging yet 100-percent doable drills. You want your retriever getting in shape while having to think through each retrieve so that by the time you’re in the blind, he’s as sharp as possible. That’s something that can - and should - be accomplished right now, well ahead of the season.