By Gary Koehler, Senior DU Magazine Writer
With hunting season just around the corner, it's important to make sure our retrievers are ready for action. The following is a brief refresher course, per Mike Stewart's instruction, on how you might start readying your dog for what everyone hopes to be a banner hunting season. Most tips best apply to retrievers that have had at least some previous training.
1. Obedience With a Twist
Basic obedience should be an integral part of your off-season training. Heel, sit, stay, whistle, and steadying drills should all be addressed. In addition, since duck hunters often tromp through water of varying depth, Stewart believes in training retrievers to heel in water-keeping the dog under control while you are wading. "We will take puppies and heel them so that when they are in, say, deep water situations, they are by our side," Stewart says. "We want that dog to hover." Like duck hunters, retrievers often are required to sit still for extended stretches of time. "We also teach the dogs to sit on stumps, on water stands, and in water for long periods," Stewart says. "These are obedience drills, and summer, in water, is an excellent time to work on those things."
2. Steadying to Shot
"Some people think they can get their dog in shape by repetitively throwing bumpers. But that's really counterproductive to steadiness," Stewart says. And steadiness, according to Stewart, is critical to your dog's development. He employs a number of methods when teaching steadiness. One technique is linked to clay target shooting. Stewart will bring together three or four gunners and their dogs and position them either on buckets (like a dove shoot) or in simulated blinds. Clay targets are launched. Once every five or six shots, a bumper will be tossed. But only one dog will be sent to retrieve the bumper. Each dog is allowed only two or three retrieves per outing.
This exercise also reinforces honoring. Stewart sometimes uses mechanical bumper/bird launchers. The dog is taught not to seek out the bumper until after getting the OK from the handler. If your dog has a propensity to bolt at the site of a rising bumper, or at the sound of a gun shot, attach a lead to the retriever's collar and steady the animal the next time a bumper goes up or a shot is fired. A couple of jerks on the lead may be required before the retriever learns that it is not supposed to flee until after being released by the handler.
Marking drills need not be done in open fields or big stretches of open water. "Once a dog is using its eyes and marking well, it doesn't take any more than from two to six good marks a day and the dog is back on it," Stewart says. "What you should be doing is more complex marks, like in woodlands. People do not spend enough time on that." Stewart suggests tossing bumpers from fields into cover, or from cover into fields. "Get the dog tuned up to hunt the cover, to hunt the grass at the edge of water," Stewart says. "Teach the dog to get into that cover, because if a duck is shot or wounded, it will usually head toward cover." Do not forget marks that require the dog going over barriers. "I would do some marks across ditches, across fences, and across water," Stewart says. "That's what the dog is going to have to deal with in the field."