By Gary Koehler
A duck blind is no place for an unruly retriever. There are simply too many potential hazards to tolerate bad behavior. Yet, over the years, I have seen plenty of cases in which other hunters allowed their retrievers to run amok in the blind. Several times I've had to bite my tongue in deference to the old rule of never criticizing another hunter's dog. Confession: it can be hard to heed your manners when a retriever isn't minding his.
This begs the question as to whether the dog knows the rules in the first place. Sure, he's a duck dog, but good breeding doesn't guarantee good manners. Retrievers must be taught where to sit and how to act in a duck blind.
Duck gunners with pups would be well advised to introduce them to the duck blind prior to the season opener. Get the pup situated in his assigned area, either in a dog hide or on a raised platform at one end of the blind, preferably near you, his handler. Make it clear to your retriever that this is where he is supposed to sit and stay until you send him after a downed bird. Then toss a bumper from the blind and release the dog. He should fetch the bumper, bring it to hand, and return to his hide or platform.
Many hunters believe that a dog sitting in plain sight will not flare circling ducks. Keep that in mind as you position your retriever. To perform his job effectively and efficiently, he must have a clear view of the sky, the water in front of the blind, and the decoys. He will learn the game much faster if he can see all the action. Indeed, experienced dogs often spot distant ducks well before their handlers do. Learn to watch your retriever for cues.
Duck hunting often demands a lot of sitting and waiting. This makes it imperative for your retriever to develop patience. This, too, can be practiced in advance of hunting season. Simply place your dog on a platform and instruct him to sit and stay. Release him after a time. Repeat this exercise, gradually increasing the duration of the sit-stay period. Your retriever will learn to stay put until you give the release command.
Some waterfowlers claim that insisting on steadiness can be detrimental to a dog's natural retrieving drive. But discipline and drive can coexist in a finished duck dog. The one need not cancel out the other. Just avoid heavy-handed training tactics and your retriever will be both steady and hard-charging. What you don't want is a dog that breaks at the first sign of ducks or when you raise your gun. Steadiness prevents the horror of having your retriever lunge in front of a gun barrel.
If an older retriever begins to misbehave in the blind, there's a good chance that obedience has taken a holiday. Dogs learn best through consistency and repetition. Letting a retriever get away with something is an open invitation to more mischief. Nip unwanted behaviors in the bud, and reinforce duck blind etiquette by repeating basic obedience and steadiness drills.
Layout hunting requires additional considerations. There are a number of portable dog blinds on the market. Alternatively, you can make your own low-profile dog hide or dig a shallow pit, which you can cover with natural vegetation. Because everyone is at ground level—including all the gunners—steadiness is an absolute must when layout hunting.
If all else fails, tie up your retriever. A quick-release clip at the end of a rope can be attached to the dog's collar. Using such a check-cord system will allow you to send the dog after the shooting is done and ducks are on the water. A retriever in a duck blind need not be a three-ring circus. Let common sense and advance preparation establish the standard.