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. So, how can you avoid this? Exposure and conditioning.
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 are 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 your 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. Throw a bumper from the boat and let the dog jump in and out of the boat doing retrieves. The goal is to get your dog comfortable with coming in and out of the boat, the slickness of the 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.
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 the first few times. This is normal. Therefore, take the time to expose the dog to birds prior to that first hunt.
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 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. Lots and lots of water retrieves are needed to get retrievers comfortable swimming. 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 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, then throw a retrieve. Let your retriever learn that the duck call is a normal part of the hunt.
This is a critical element and one that is done 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 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 while you are hunting? These are things you will want to spend time exposing your retriever to before the hunt.
Add in the elements slowly
There are many aspects that you will need to consider exposing your retriever, but do not try to do it all at once. 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 exposure 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.
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.