Mike Stewart has been training gun dogs for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 14 in northern Mississippi at Wildrose Kennels near Oxford. Listed among his current pupils is a handsome black Lab named Drake, who just happens to be Ducks Unlimited's canine mascot.
A disciple of trainer Robert Milner, who established Wildrose Kennels in 1972 near Grand Junction, Tenn., Stewart continues to strive to promote calm, cooperative gun dogs. Drake is but one of 40 retrievers currently under Stewart's tutelage. Their respective summer training schedules may vary due to age differences and natural ability, but there is consistency to their lessons.
Here is a brief refresher course, per Stewart's instruction, on how you might start readying your dog for the upcoming waterfowl 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 depths, 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.