10 Retriever Tips for Waterfowlers

Follow this expert advice to get your dog ready for opening day

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Photo © Lee Thomas Kjos / TheRawSpirit.com

By Tom Davis

Duck season is just around the corner. Your retriever feels it coming too. His excitement builds as he listens to you practice your duck calling and watches you touch up your decoy rig.

Your best hunting buddy is as eager as you are for the season to start. But is he as prepared as he needs to be? Follow these 10 tips from some of the nation's top retriever pros to ensure that your dog has the proper nutrition, conditioning, and training to be ready for opening day.

[1] Stick to a Diet

The best genetics, the best training, and the best intentions are all wasted if your dog isn't working from a solid nutritional foundation. It's literally the basis of everything you expect him to do. The most proactive thing you can do to ensure that he's getting the nutrition he needs is to feed him a "30/20" dog food formula—30 percent protein, 20 percent fat—year-round. 

According to Purina Research Nutritionist Dr. Brian Zanghi, feeding a high-fat, high-protein diet "primes" your dog's metabolic engine to efficiently convert nutrients into fuel. "Research has shown that by simply keeping your retriever on this kind of performance diet year-round, you're giving him what amounts to a two-month conditioning edge over dogs fed a 'maintenance' diet lower in fat and protein," he says. 

Zanghi notes, too, that for optimal nutrient uptake you should feed your dog as soon as possible after he has finished hunting for the day—just make sure that he's completely cooled down first. It's counterproductive, however, to feed your dog in the morning prior to hunting. "Those nutrients won't be available when your dog needs them," Zanghi explains. "Also, whenever a dog eats, the 'meal effect' kicks in and basically tells his brain it's time to take a nap. Feeding him more than a few tablespoons of kibble immediately prior to hunting puts your dog at a metabolic disadvantage."

[2] Focus on Steadiness

A steady dog is the goal of every waterfowler who hunts with a retriever, and it's easily attainable if you go about it the right way. "Steadiness is an extension of sit and stay behaviors," explains veteran trainer Tom Ness, owner of Oahe Kennels in Menoken, North Dakota. "It starts with a lot of basic obedience, ideally under increasing amounts of distraction. 

"To teach these behaviors using a lead, sit the dog at your side. Turn and face him with the lead in your hand. Then, with one hand raised in front of the dog's face, begin to put pressure on the lead and repeat the sit and stay commands. The dog must learn that 'sit' means sit—even when you're throwing a bumper and shooting a blank gun.

"At first you should pick up all the dummies that you throw. Then do the same with birds. As the dog becomes steadier, you might send him one time out of four, and eventually as often as every other retrieve. It's important not to send him every time; he should learn to retrieve when you tell him to, not when he wants to."

[3] Establish Obedience Early

Whether your goal is to develop a superb waterfowling companion or simply a good canine citizen, it all starts with obedience. "A sound foundation in obedience is essential for a working retriever, both for an efficient job in the field and as a basis for further training," notes Amy Dahl, proprietor of Oak Hill Kennel in Vass, North Carolina, and the author of 10-Minute Obedience. "A good retriever must come, heel, sit, and stay reliably when told." 

Careful training is important, however, because pitfalls occur with each command. "With the come command, it's easy to inadvertently teach your retriever that there are times when he may ignore you," Dahl explains. "To prevent this, enforce the command in different settings, and avoid giving the command any time the dog is unlikely to comply. 

"The danger with heel is that you might confuse your dog and make him afraid to leave your side to retrieve. Teaching him to maintain his position for the required time can be tricky. I recommend beginning with very short heel routines of two steps, ending with a sit. Then, in small increments, add distance and turns, so that with few corrections your dog learns to move with you on command and to sit when you stop.

"Many of us use sit to cover staying put, but it's important to recognize that staying is an additional concept our dogs must learn. As with heeling, start small and build up slowly. Have your retriever stay briefly, then return to him. Gradually lengthen the staying time as your dog's abilities improve."

[4] Drill for Skills

Training drills instill good habits that carry over not only from the training field to the marsh, but also from one season to the next. "Once you've achieved a happy compliance through drills, you'll have a dog that's a joy to hunt over," says Tom Quinn, renowned wildlife artist from Point Reyes Station, California, and author of the classic Working Retrievers. 

Quinn recommends the "wagon-wheel" drill, which is detailed in his book and in many others, as the best exercise to start with after your dog has completed basic obedience training. "The idea of this drill is to be able to point your dog in whatever direction you want and have him imagine there's a reward somewhere on that line. You're essentially convincing him that he should believe you whenever you send him for a retrieve. 

"You start by sending your dog to a conspicuous bumper that might be only 10 feet away. Then you put out two bumpers some distance apart. When he'll reliably go to the one you point him to, you put out another and another, building up until you have six bumpers arrayed in a 360-degree radius.

"Once your dog has mastered this drill, you'll be able to send him to ducks he doesn't see fall, or send him past dead birds toward cripples that may be swimming away. That's incredibly beneficial in any kind of hunting situation. It also prepares him for more advanced work like the baseball drill, which will teach him to take directional hand signals."

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Use the classic "wagon-wheel" drill to teach your retriever proper lining skills.

Photo © STEVESANFORDARTIST.COM

[5] Gear Up

To do any job well, you need the right tools. Tom Dokken, of Dokken's Oak Ridge Kennels in Northfield, Minnesota, carries the following items in his pickup truck and recommends them for amateur trainers as well.

  • Retrieving dummies. For obvious reasons, Dokken is partial to his own DeadFowl line of training dummies and carries them in different sizes for training pups and adult dogs. 
  • Dummy launcher. A handheld dummy launcher (the kind propelled by .22 blank loads) is a must if you train by yourself. 
  • Blank pistol and ammo. A pistol that fires .22 crimps will work well for most situations. 
  • Lead and check cord. Dokken carries a six-foot lead and a 30-foot check cord, both fashioned from lightweight woven polypropylene. 
  • Remote trainer. "With today's remote devices, I can customize a setting to match the temperament of each dog I train," Dokken says.
  • Whistles and lanyard. Dokken prefers the tried-and-true "pea whistle" and always carries two on the same lanyard in case one freezes up.
  • Training drone. "It's a game-changer," Dokken says. "We've been using an aerial drone with great success to drop dummies and even live birds precisely where we want them."

[6] Keep 'Em in Shape

It's unrealistic to expect your dog to be in peak condition on opening day. The goal for the opener should be to increase your dog's cardiovascular health so he's capable of performing the tasks required of him at an adequate level. Then, as his strength and fitness improve, you can expect him to morph into the mud-slinging, water-cleaving, ice-breaking beast that he becomes as the season progresses.

The biggest key to getting your dog in shape is not letting him get out of shape during the off-season. This means giving him plenty of regular exercise, maintaining portion control at feeding time, and keeping him from putting on extra weight. The Purina Body Condition System—you can find the chart online—is a terrific tool in this respect. Simply compare your dog's appearance to the examples on the chart; if he's not in the "Ideal" range, you have some work to do.

In terms of preparing specifically for hunting season, my mantra has always been that how you get your dog in shape isn't as important as the fact that you are getting him there. Swimming, free running, and "roading"—or better yet, some combination of these and other activities—will advance your dog toward the goal. Start at least six weeks before the opener with 10- to 15-minute workouts three or four times a week, gradually ramping up the intensity and duration of these sessions as you go. Giving your dog rest days in between is important as well, so resist the temptation to overdo it by trying to accomplish too much too fast.

[7] Stay on the Train

The mindset of many retriever owners is that training ends once duck season begins. While this attitude isn't exactly wrong, it can lead to trouble if you're not careful, says veteran trainer Bob Olson of River Road Kennels in Lena, Wisconsin.

"You should never stop training," Olson says. "What often happens in the heat of the moment is that you let your dog backslide. The tendency is to tolerate little slipups—creeping, lack of steadiness, sloppy retrieving in general—and tell yourself you'll correct them later. But the longer you let them go, the more difficult they become to fix. You should always insist that your dog perform to the level of his training, even if it means taking time out during a hunt to remind him of that."

In addition to maintaining your dog's training, Olson notes that you should look for opportunities to advance it. "If you get what I call a teaching moment, you should take advantage of it. Probably the best example, especially for a young dog, is to send him on the longer or more difficult retrieve when you have more than one bird down, and make him take the easier bird later. Everything gets amped up in a hunting situation and what your dog learns then tends to make a lasting impression," he says.

[8] Accentuate the Positive

Positive training is based on the dog's expectation of a reward if he does something right, rather than the anticipation of a correction if he does something wrong. Most of us use some combination of both reward and compulsion to train our retrievers. I think we'd all agree, however, that when we can achieve the desired result with positive training, we'll choose that route every time.

No professional trainer has embraced the positive model more enthusiastically than Robert Milner, owner of Duckhill Kennels in Somerville, Tennessee, and author of Absolutely Positively Gundog Training. Milner cites three main advantages to this form of training.

"First, it's much easier for a novice trainer to learn and implement than traditional compulsion training," Milner says. "Second, the training time is much shorter—there's no force-fetch training, for example, in a positive training program. And finally, it's just a lot more fun for both the dog and the trainer."

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Photo © John Hoffman, DU

[9] Build from the Ground Up

You can't build a house from the roof down—and you can't build a retriever that way, either. "Whatever your ultimate goal is, you're not going to get there by taking shortcuts," says Mike Botts of Ringneck Kennel in McCausland, Iowa. "Whether your objective is a gun dog or a Master Hunter, you have to build up to it block by block and level by level."

For Botts, the training progression starts with lots of socialization followed by a heavy dose of basic obedience. "Everybody wants to be able to give hand signals and do blind retrieves, but before you can do the fancy stuff you have to lay the groundwork," Botts adds. "There's a lot of repetition involved, but again, you can't take shortcuts. It's like football—until you've mastered blocking and tackling, you're not going to be successful."

Still, if Botts could offer only one piece of advice to beginning trainers it would be this: "Join a retriever club. You'll benefit from the knowledge of the other members, and it'll give you an opportunity to train your dog on actual birds—something the average retriever owner doesn't have access to."

[10] Maintain the Standard

"I know a lot of trainers—amateurs and professionals—who adhere to a very high standard in their training work, but once the birds start flying, it's like they forget everything, including the dog," says Ted McCue of Rosebriar Kennel in Dover Plains, New York.

For McCue, it's all about maintaining the standard you've established in training and ensuring that it carries over to the field. "This is especially important for a young dog," he explains. "I always say that what happens in your dog's first season sets the tone for the next ten."

Something else McCue says is that young dogs actually benefit from hunting in the company of less-than-stellar wingshots. "You don't want a young dog to develop the mindset that every time the guns go bang a bird will fall and he'll be sent for a retrieve. He needs to learn that a retrieve isn't automatic; it's his reward for doing everything correctly," he says.

Another McCue axiom is that disobedience is taught. "People look at me funny when I tell them that, but when you repeat commands without enforcing them you're actively teaching your dog to disobey. You need to maintain your standard and make your commands stick," he says.