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."
Once the dog begins to grasp the command, Bouldin reinforces it with a lead. "If the dog needs some persuasion, I'll stand beside him, clip a lead to his collar, and put it under my foot," he says. "Then I'll slide my foot along the lead and pull up on it at the same time, which forces the dog's head to the ground."
Dogs have a hard time seeing the big picture, and most won't lie quietly for long before springing up again. Bouldin anticipates that behavior and continues to raise the bar.
"If I'm training a young dog and I'm lying in my yard [as if in a layout blind with the dog on his left], I'll put the lead under my back and then pull it under me with my right hand until he lies down again," he says. "Once he's down, I'll slip him another cookie."
Like most trainers, Bouldin eventually transitions his dogs to an e-collar. "They go through the basic obedience with a pinch collar," he says, "but once a dog's got it, I'll put an e-collar on him with the receiver on top of the neck (not under it, which is the normal position). As soon as he tries to stand, I'll say 'down' and then nick him. He'll move away from the nick, and that will drive his head toward the ground. And once he's down, praise is just as important as correction. I let him know I'm happy about it. I discourage petting, because dogs that get petted are always rooting around for your hand, but I will give him a cookie treat."
Of course, getting a dog to lie beside you—or sit quietly in a blind—is relatively easy at home. Getting that same dog to obey you in the field when ducks or geese are working the decoys can be a struggle. So Bouldin raises the training bar still further.
"I've got a winger, one of the contraptions that throws dead ducks during a hunt test," he says. "I'll go out and set decoys all over my yard. Then I'll lie down in the decoys and make the dog lie next to me. I'll flip the winger, which will throw the bird (or bumper) right over me. Then I'll grab the lead with my right hand and pull it under my back when the dog tries to stand up."
In the field, Bouldin fine-tunes his dog's obedience by letting somebody else call the shots on incomers while he makes sure his dog remains steady. It is great training because it's the real thing, and any dog worth a cookie will be straining to hear the command to go.
"My dogs think their middle name is Take 'em!" Bouldin laughs.
The upshot? If keeping your dog hidden doesn't always get you more birds, keeping him under control will certainly make you more popular with your hunting partners, who just might invite you back on the next hunt. And that means more ducks for both you and your dog.