The straighter the line a dog runs toward a mark, the less handling one is likely to have to do. "The object of these drills is to get the dog holding lines," Stewart says. "You have to put the straight-edge back on them." Dogs will fade to the contour of the land, in accordance with the wind, or with natural barriers, such as ditches or other obstacles. "Teach them to run through the barriers," Stewart says. "You want the dog running a nice, clean straight line instead of scalloping." One way to do this is to incorporate a natural or man-made straight line into the training. These can be as simple as a fencerow, or, in a more urban environment, a building.
In either case, the longer the better. Place the dog in a sit position. Then toss a bumper parallel to the fence or building, either of which will then serve to discourage the dog from running wide. "The hardest thing to get a dog to do is run deep," Stewart says. "With the fence, you can teach the dog not to bow out. The dog should be running straight lines along the fence or building."
The time-tested baseball diamond setup remains one of Stewart's favored methods for fine-tuning a dog's understanding of handling via hand signals and whistle. With the trainer stationed at the imaginary "home plate," and the retriever positioned on the "pitcher's mound," the dog can be taught to go right (toward first base) or left (toward third base) with overcasts, or toward second (with the "back" command) in search of hidden bumpers or bumpers tossed by hand. One of the goals here is getting the dog to go after the bumper that you want it to retrieve first.
The practical side of this is that during a real hunting situation, if two birds are on the water, one dead and one crippled, you likely will want your retriever to seek out the cripple first, to lessen that bird's chances of getting away. Handling can accomplish that. On a somewhat related note, you will want the dog to make a clean delivery of the bumper or bird. Do not allow the dog to drop the object it is retrieving, or to play around with it. The bumper or bird should be brought directly to hand.
6. Get Birdy
Re-introduce the dog to birds before the season. That is, replace your plastic or canvas bumpers with frozen or live birds. "No birds, no bird dog," Stewart says. One way to have birds available is to breast out game birds during the course of the season, and then freeze the remainder of the carcass for training purposes later on. Wrap the bird's body in heavy tape to keep this from becoming messy. "You can use frozen birds, pigeons, pen-raised quail, or other game birds," Stewart says. "And you will be amazed at how your dog responds." [Be sure to check with your state game department to see if special permits are required to train with game birds.]
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If you don't want to bother with an entire bird carcass, waterfowl wings also can be used; tape them to a bumper.
Exposing the dog to gunfire prior to the season should also be mandatory. "Do multiple gunfire, not just a single shot, because hunting dogs are going to hear multiple shots more often than not," Stewart says. "They have to become reconditioned to the gunfire, and to the associated movement that goes on while duck hunting."