by John Riggle
It's never good when a wingshooter takes a young retriever duck hunting for the first time and then doesn't understand why their pride and joy is picking up sticks in the water and bringing back decoys instead of ducks. If that dog has never been in a duck blind before, it's understandable to me, but hunters are always asking themselves, "Why isn't my brand-new, well-bred, super-expensive retriever sitting there like he's supposed to, and retrieving like he's supposed to? Heck, he does it perfectly in the backyard!"
Often, the reason the dog is not performing up to an owner's standards on the first hunt is that the owner never exposed the dog to actual hunting conditions before he took the dog into the field.
Too often we don't think ahead and expose our dogs to these normal hunting conditions. And it costs us. You don't want to be training during a hunt. You want your dog at peak performance at all times during the hunt.
The easiest way to prepare a dog to ignore a floating decoy is to condition the dog before the hunt to leave decoys alone. For starters, take the dog out after you have set out a small spread of decoys - let's say five to seven - on the lawn and walk the dog through them. Let the dog know you don't want him to pick up these decoys. They are taboo.
After we make the dog comfortable around the decoys to the point that he's not picking them up, we can start throwing the training dummy into the decoys and have him retrieve the dummy out of the decoys until he's very comfortable with the concept. You must also be careful that you don't make the dog afraid of the decoys (for example, by applying collar stimulation when you shouldn't). You want to make sure the dog is comfortable moving around amid the decoys and not trying to retrieve them for you.
If you know you're hunting out of a particular boat, be sure to load the dog in and out of the boat a few times so he's comfortable with it. If you can work it out, take the boat to a lake or pond and let the dog make some short retrieves so he knows where he's supposed to sit and his entry and exit points. After you have done some of that initial work, it's time to take the dog out to a pond. Spread out six or seven floating decoys and make sure the dog will retrieve through the decoys.