A well-trained hunting partner starts in your yard – not the blind
In my last post, I discussed the basic retriever training tools you need to train your hunting or gun dog. Those basic training tools are important, but depending on how and where you hunt, there are many other aspects and equipment your retriever will need to be comfortable with before you initiate that first hunt. Thankfully, if you are a hunter, you probably already own most of these things.
The key to training an excellent duck dog, or upland dog for that matter, is to never put your retriever in a position of having to perform in a way they have not been trained or conditioned to respond. This may not always be possible, but it should still be the goal.
It is not fair to you or your retriever to put them in a new situation and then get frustrated and angry with them for not performing as you want or hoped they would.
For instance, if you never train with a real live or dead bird, and then you go out hunting and your retriever will not pick up a bird, you should not get angry or frustrated with your dog. You never gave them the exposure they needed to perform well in this situation.
So, how can you avoid situations like this? Exposure and conditioning.
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Training a duck dog begins with exposure
Exposure and conditioning are two major aspects of any retriever training program. Exposure is simple. It is simply putting your retriever in a position to explore and smell new things in a non-threatening way. This may seem too simplistic, but I assure you it is not. Dogs learn about things through exposure and encouragement. Here is some of the hunting equipment we expose our client’s dogs to during the first few weeks of training and how we do it.
If you are going to hunt out of a boat, it is important to make sure you start exposing your dog to the boat on land. Set the boat out on your lawn, let your dog walk around it, smell it, climb in it. Go sit in the boat and call your dog to you. Encourage him/her to get in the boat with you. Encourage, not force!
If your dog gets into the boat, praise him/her and throw a bumper from the boat. Let the dog jump in and out of the boat doing several retrieves with bumpers or dead birds.
The goal is to get your dog comfortable with coming in and out of the boat, the slickness of the boat floor, the movement of the boat as it rocks on the ground.
Later, you will move the boat to very shallow water. Use an oar to anchor the boat a bit and do the same thing.
Decoys can be a major source of confusion for duck dogs if they are not exposed to them prior to a hunt. For this exposure, again just lay out a bunch of decoys on your lawn. Spread them out a bit and let your dog walk around them and check them out. Then start throwing retrieves on the outside edge of the decoys. As they get more comfortable, you can start throwing marks that require your retriever to go through the decoys to get the bumper or bird and back through them to deliver the item to you.
If your dog tries to pick up or carry a decoy, simply say NO, and HUNT IT UP. This will gently teach your dog that the decoy is not what they are looking for.
This one might seem strange to some people. Many retriever owners just assume their retriever will pick up a bird and bring it back, but I can assure you that is not always the case. If all your dog has retrieved is bumpers or balls, it is not uncommon for the dog to balk at a dead bird. It may take some encouragement to get the pickup and delivery of a bird the first few times. This is normal. Therefore, take the time to expose the dog to live and dead birds prior to that first hunt.
And feathers attached to a bumper are not a substitute for a dead and live bird introduction. The sensation, the weight and the interaction is just not the same.
Learn more about the importance of using birds to train.
Cover is the type of grass or hunting conditions your dog will be exposed to during a hunt. For instance, do you hunt in deep reeds or on a corn field. Dogs that are not used to pushing through deep grasses and reeds may be afraid or reluctant to do that even with a dead bird on the other side. Floating weeds and lily pads can also be a distraction. Take time to exposure your duck dog and/or gun dog to all different types of cover and obstacles they may encounter during a hunt. This can greatly enhance your success in the field.
This one seems like a no-brainer. If your going to hunt ducks in water, your retriever needs to know how to swim and be comfortable in and around the water. But, I feel the need to mention it nonetheless. Water exposure is so important. It must be done slowly and over time. Preferably when the dog is just a puppy.
Lots and lots of water retrieves are needed to get retrievers comfortable swimming. Don’t be discouraged if the first few times retrieving in water your dog gets lost and confused. Some dogs are splashing so much they lose track of the bumper and/or get scared. With experience, most dogs learn to slow down and then plane out and swim much more efficiently.
And to reiterate the cover exposure, the water exposure should include clean and dirty (weedy) water. The more situations you can expose your retriever to prior to the hunt, the better.
Will you be using a duck call when you hunt? If so, it is important to get your dog used to that sound so that it does not distract them from marking the birds. Use the call when your dog is sitting next to you during training, then throw a retrieve. Let your retriever learn that the duck call is a normal part of the hunt. Teach your dog to be steady (stay seated) while you blow the duck call!
This is a critical element and one that is introduced wrong so much of the time. Most hunters understand the need for their dog to be exposed to gun shot, but they are not sure how to do it in a way that their dog will not become gun shy. We cover our method in How to introduce your Labrador Retriever to gunfire. Don’t rush or try to cut corners on this step. The effects are long lasting and often impossible to fix if done incorrectly.
Ramps or blinds
When you hunt, do you sit in a blind? Or, will your retriever need to sit on a ramp or in a hut while you are hunting? These are things you will want to spend time exposing your retriever to before the hunt.
Add elements slowly
There are many aspects that you will need to consider when exposing your retriever, but do not try to do it all at once. And don’t try to do it all the day before you go on a hunting trip!
Spread the exposure out over a period of days or even weeks. Take it slow and don’t add something new if your dog is struggling with any one of these elements.
Conditioning your duck dog for the hunt
Exposure is step one, but it is not the only step. Once you have exposed your retriever to the tools and equipment used for the hunt, now it is time to do some conditioning.
To condition your retriever for the hunt, set up some mock hunting situations designed specifically to train your dog for the hunt. Add in elements slowly until you have given your duck dog a good simulation of what your hunt may look like.
I know that you will not be able to include all elements. For instance, you will likely not be able to simulate the excitement of a flock of birds flying over or multiple shots happening all at once, but if you take the time to train your dog is a mock situation, you will be better equipped to understand your retriever and your retriever will be better equipped to handle the amped up situation in the future. This can eliminate a lot of frustration on the day of the hunt.
Conditioning your upland dog
If you hunt a lot of upland birds, conditioning is vital. If your dog has been sitting idle most of the year or if he/she only has been training on a few marks a week, a day long upland bird hunt will be too much for them. And if you force the dog to perform for that long prior to conditioning, you will create a bad experience and your dog will not be excited to go hunting in the future.
Start with shorter hunts and slowly increase the time and difficulty so that your dog builds muscle and endurance.
Final thoughts on essential equipment for the training a duck dog
Taking the time to expose and condition your retriever for the hunt will never be a waste of time. Even with this training, we always recommend, when possible, that on the very first hunt one person does not hunt and just spends their time handling the dog. This is especially important if you are hunting with multiple hunters. The first hunt is an education for the dog. If you take the time and use that first hunt to enforce steadiness, ensure a hand delivery and encourage your dog to do the work they have been taught, you will reap the benefits for years to come.
If you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I am here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.