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.
If you don't want to bother with an entire bird carcass, waterfowl wings also can be used by taping 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."
7. Be Cool
To ensure the health and safety of your dog, precautions should be taken during warm-weather training sessions. "Try to stay out of the direct sun," Stewart says, "and try to involve water."
Dogs do not perspire, per se. They cool off through their mouths, by panting, and, to a lesser degree, through their foot pads, which release heat. "Heat continues to build in dogs," Stewart says. "Too much and they go down to heat exhaustion."
Try training early in the morning when there is dew on the ground. Or find a grove of trees (not thick woods, which can be extremely warm). Instead of running or roading your dog to get it in shape when the weather is hot, send the animal on long water retrieves. Water helps keep a dog cool through evaporation. But, if the pond or lake water is warm, it probably is not cooling the animal as much as you might think.
If your dog has packed on some pounds during the off season, put your retriever on a diet before beginning a rigorous pre-season training regimen. This might be called pre-conditioning. Cut down on the amount of protein and fat the dog consumes. Stewart suggests feeding your retriever once a day, in the evening.
With a 141-acre training facility, including six water sources, Stewart has the luxury of replicating nearly all possible hunting scenarios. One of his ponds includes fingers of land that extend into the water, channels, coves and an island. He uses this body of water when teaching land-water-land retrieves. Stewart will toss a bumper from shore, over a finger or island, into the water on the other side. Then he will send the dog. The retriever will dive into the water, go up over the finger or island, into the water on the other side, and then return via the same route.
"Dogs are going to see all of those things," Stewart says. "They're not going to be dealing with just water retrieves or just land retrieves. Often, they are going to be required to go in and out of water when they are on a bird. This gets them ready for that."
9. Go Boating
If you typically use a boat to hunt waterfowl, it is in your best interest to introduce your dog — particularly if it is a puppy — to the watercraft long before opening day.
"We teach boat entrance and exit," Stewart says. "Dogs can be miserable to have in a boat if they are out of control." Whether you are working with a pup or an older dog, put the animal in the boat and assign it a place to sit. Then make the dog stay there until you release it. The more a dog gets accustomed to the boat, the more comfortable it will become. If you hunt out of a boat, the last thing you want is a dog jumping around. Your training boat need not be in water; dry land is fine.
10. Meeting Mr. Decoy
Who hasn't seen a retriever drag decoys in its wake? Usually, this happens when the decoy line gets tangled up in the dog's legs. But some of us also have witnessed duck dogs grab decoys by the head and pull them to the blind.
"We start them around decoys on land — that lets them (dogs) get used to decoys," Stewart says. "If they bump them, they know what they are about." Stewart recommends working both young and older dogs around decoys. He maintains a couple of decoy rigs on his training ponds. The decoys are set in groups of six or eight, with open lanes between each group.
Stewart begins by tossing a bumper just short of the decoys, throws the next one in the decoys and then another well beyond the decoys. He also pitches bumpers into the lanes. "This teaches them that all birds are not found in the decoys. That's a common mistake people make — putting all the bumpers in the decoys," Stewart says.
Once a dog gets tangled up a time or two, it learns what decoys are. The animal soon recognizes that the bumper is the target. "If our dogs get tangled up in decoys and drag a couple to shore, we don't set the decoys back out until we put the dog up," Stewart says. "We never let the dogs see us throw the decoys when we are training, because we don't want them to think that's what they're supposed to be going after."
For more information on Wildrose Kennels, which specializes in Labrador retrievers, phone 662-234-5788, or check out Mike Stewart's Web site at www.uklabs.com.
by Gary Koehler