By Dave Carty
Put yourself in this familiar scene: At the precise moment a flock of mallards begins working your spread, your retriever—the apple of your eye—is running amok in the decoys while you hiss at him from the blind, ready to explode.
“Motion from a retriever isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Brent Bouldin, a professional trainer from Arizona and a hard-core waterfowler who hunts from Texas to Canada. “When one of my buddies and I used to hunt in Montana, he had a yellow Lab who spent his whole time out mousing, and he did not bother the geese one iota.” Since those long-ago days, Bouldin has been in similar situations many times, although lately the transgressing dogs probably belonged to somebody else.
That’s because Bouldin likes his dogs inconspicuous and well mannered, whether lying beside him in a field set or sitting at his side in a boat blind. It is a matter of control and peace of mind. A dog that is running wild may not bother the ducks, but it creates a potentially unsafe situation and announces to the world that your training program is inadequate.
Actually, keeping a retriever out of sight and steady in a ground blind is not difficult. If all else fails, you can simply tie the dog to a corner post or stake. But making a dog lie calmly beside you when you are in a layout blind is another matter. Bouldin usually keeps his dog under cover by using either a ghillie blanket or, more often, a commercially made, dog-sized layout blind set up beside him. Either can be camouflaged with whatever vegetation is at hand.
Bouldin takes a laid-back approach to retriever platforms positioned on the front or sides of permanent blinds. “The dog is camouflaged enough,” he says. ”When ducks are flying over, they are seeing dark spots all the time—or yellow or chocolate.”
Regardless of where you put your dog, it has to stay rooted to the spot until told to retrieve. To that end, Bouldin’s training involves several steps, the first of which is teaching a simple “down” command.
“I’ll put a cookie in the palm of my hand, let the dog smell it, and tell him to sit,” Bouldin says. “Then I’ll just lay my hand flat on the ground, and the dog will follow it right down. If I need to, I’ll take my other hand and bring the dog’s front legs out from under him. Once he’s down, I’ll give him the cookie.”
Unlike some trainers, Bouldin has no hang-ups about using treats to reinforce positive behavior. “The books say not to cookie-train your dog,” he says, “but anything I can do to get my point across works for me.”