For waterfowl hunters it almost never fails: Your high hopes are dashed on the first hunt of the year when your retriever shows you his or her actual skillset. A seemingly rock-solid backyard gun dog can let you down as soon as the first woodies circle and the shotguns come up. This can be partly due to first-hunt jitters, but mostly because of a hole in your summertime training.
In fact, you might consider yourself lucky if there’s only one red mark on your hound’s early season report card. A problem with steadiness or breaking the blind a touch soon on the first hunt aren’t worth getting upset about, but they are issues that can develop into full-blown bad habits. Fortunately, there’s still time to get ahead of those problems through proper summertime drills.
Practice Long and Short Retrieves
One of the reasons Tom Dokken is such a successful trainer is that he also happens to be a diehard hunter (you’d be surprised how many expert trainers can’t run a duck call). This real-world dedication to waterfowling helps him cater training drills to the problems he encounters on the water, and he says one of the most common is the distance a dog will retrieve.
“If you want to prepare a retriever for the inevitable long-distance retrieve, you’ve got to employ the help of a training partner or pick up a dummy launcher,” Dokken said. “I prefer the latter when possible. It’s easier and just such a good way to teach a dog that he will have to retrieve much farther than I can hand-throw any dummy.”
Dokken is right. The consistency with which we throw a dummy conditions our dogs to retrieve that far. So, when you clip a mallard that sails an extra 60 yards before falling in the drink, you’ll want a dog that’s practiced out to that distance. One of the best (and easiest) ways to improve your drills is to vary throws from 10 yards out to however far your dummy launcher can go.
Work Around Decoys
This is another easy and essential way to change up your training. According to Dokken, not enough waterfowlers mimic actual hunts in the summertime, which he compares to playing a pre-season game in sports. The duck dog’s version of a football scrimmage is to run through drills with as many actual hunt details incorporated as possible—details like calls and decoys.
These aspects can be really exciting to a dog if they’re not used to it, and the only way to get them used to it is to build them into your training sessions. Calling is the simplest and a great way to test steadiness when your dog is waiting to be released on a retrieve.
Decoys demand a little more planning, but it’s worth it. When you can work on retrieves around decoys and get your dog to ignore the fakes, they’ll start to develop a been-there-done-that attitude. It’s also the perfect opportunity for your dog to learn that not everything you throw is meant to be retrieved, and that the fake ducks he has to swim through have strings attached to them. You don’t want to go through the panic of a tangled dog on opening morning in cold water—trust me.
Get an Extra Dummy
It’s easy enough to run into trouble with single retrieves when a dog is unprepared, but a hound who doesn’t understand that multiple birds might hit the water at once is a recipe for a breakdown of the hunt.
To address this, start working with multiple dummies in an unintimidating setting (like a soccer field or empty lot). Make your dog stays while you toss one dummy a distance and then turn around and toss the other 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Send your dog after the second one, first. Even if he wants to avoid bringing the first retrieve to hand in order to go straight to the second one, he’ll have to go right past you to get it. This allows you to show him there’s a process to multiple retrieves.
It usually doesn’t take long for them to figure out that the game has changed slightly and that instead of one retrieve at a time, they get to do two. This is an easy foundation to build in short grass with highly visible bumpers.
Eventually you should be able to move into taller grass, and then finally water. It’ll be obvious when your dog is ready to advance to the next step. You’ll also know when it’s time to bring in a third dummy, but you’ll want to head back to the soccer fields for this. Start it exactly the same way and work through the steps again.
All of this might not seem necessary, but it gives your dog the best chance to succeed and saves you from implementing last-minute correctional training in fall. The more you can accomplish in July and August, the more you can hunt in October and November. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Feature image via John Hafner.