Most waterfowl dog training advice addresses good behavior in a boat or blind. This might involve steadiness, marking downed birds, or returning on command.
That’s all well and good, but a major hole in a lot of dogs’ game shows up when a duck that still has plenty of life hits the water. A good hunter doesn’t want to let his or her dog suffer, or lose one toward the limit, but bad wounded bird chases can be dangerous for your canine.
A crippled duck in big water can drag your dog into a level of exhaustion that it might not be able to survive—especially green dogs that might not understand a duck’s evasive tricks or eager dogs that don’t like giving up. So, just remember: ducks float and dogs don’t. This situation means you had better have a handle on controlling your retriever and a means to get to him quickly if things start to spiral out of hand. Here’s how to make sure your hound can safely retrieve every cripple.
Scent Matters, A Lot
Most wounded upland birds end up in the game bag through scent work. But duck dogs also need to understand that the wood duck they saw splash might crawl into the bankside brush and hide with skills that could put the sneakiest rooster to shame. A lot of soon-to-be-dead ducks are never recovered this way.
For cripple retrieve training sessions, you can start by putting wax-based duck scents on dummies and hiding them ahead of time. A dog that doesn’t have a visual mark to work from has to follow your lead via hand signals, and a couple of dummies stashed in the summertime cattails allows you to practice these skills. It’s a simple thing, but will help develop your dog’s understanding that not every water-based retrieve starts with watching something fall from the sky.
No matter what your command is, it’s important that your dog understands when it’s time to use his nose to find a downed bird, whether he’s in water, on shore, or in the field.
When I was training my current Lab, dog training guru Tom Dokken told me I should work her on diving birds. When I told him that most of my waterfowl hunting doesn’t involve big water divers, he explained what he really meant.
“All ducks have the potential to be divers, particularly when they can’t fly anymore and have a 60-pound dog paddling at them,” Dokken said.
I’ve seen this with mallards, wood ducks, and teal, and it’s always fascinating to watch the dog hone in on a sure-thing retrieve only to have the trap door open and the prize disappear.
To train for this, Dokken modified one of his popular DeadFowl Trainer dummies to dive like a lipless crankbait after attaching it to a stout fishing rod (I use one of my bass flipping sticks). This works perfectly to mimic a wounded duck’s escape tactics. With just a few training sessions, dogs quickly learn to swim down and spin in a circle to see where its prey has slipped off to.
When you want your dog to win, a quick hook-setting motion releases the dummy via an ingenious rubber band connection system and brings it to the surface. It’s some of the most enjoyable training I’ve ever done in my life and can really prepare a dog for when ducks go subsurface. It also does a pretty good job of mimicking the ducks that figure out how to go into low-rider mode with just their heads poking out of the water. In either case, a dog that has been trained to recognize this situation will have a huge advantage when it occurs on a hunt.
The Real Thing
Another option for training for cripples involves the real thing. Rody Best, one of the most accomplished Lab trainers in the country and owner of Best Retrievers, says that there’s no better way to do this than with live ducks.
“If you can, a pen-raised mallard with tied feet and clipped wings is ideal. Toss it into a small pond, and send the dog,” Best said. “The mallard is guaranteed to dive, which teaches the dog to either wait for it to pop up, or eventually grab it underwater.”
Not everyone has access to pen-raised ducks, but in the off chance you can get your hands on a couple or work with a trainer who has them, this real-world training will solidify skills better than anything else. It’s akin to an upland dog refining its skills by working with clipped pigeons or pheasants.
Cripple retrieval training is an excellent way to end your offseason. Once your dog has mastered obedience and hand signals, this will be the cherry on top of their well-established skillset. Your freezer and dog will thank you, even if the ducks don’t like the attention to detail.
Feature image via John Hafner.