By Will Brantley
Tough environments are about the only constants in waterfowl hunting. Avid hunters are likely to put their retrievers through a variety of elemental challenges over the course of a season. Thick brush, thin ice, wide rivers, and blind retrieves are all common but challenging obstacles for a hunting dog. But with focused training time and a few specific drills, your dog can be ready for them all.
Thick Grass and Brush
Mike Stewart, a professional trainer who operates Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, cut his dog-training teeth in the uplands. So when it comes to finding a downed duck in thick cover, Stewart knows the most important thing a retriever has is its nose. But all too often, retrievers fail to use their keen sense of smell.
“A dog that sees a bird go down into grass, brush, or other heavy cover but has never been trained to hold an area will run out, give a quick look and a sniff, and then leave,” Stewart explains. “This is because a lot of people throw out bumpers that are easy to find. They don’t train a dog to actually hunt. But what you want in a duck dog is a game finder. So you have to develop your dog’s scenting abilities. Of course, your dog has to have these abilities genetically, but unless you develop them, it won’t be proficient in using them.”
Stewart begins training dogs to hunt downed game with their nose when they are seven to eight months old. To help a young dog learn to recognize duck scent, he tapes several duck feathers to a small puppy bumper. Next, he takes the young dog to a field where he has mowed a 15-yard-wide circle surrounded by high grass. Standing in the center of the circle with the dog at heel, Stewart begins by tossing the bumper into the grass a short distance away so the dog can mark where the bumper falls. After the pup has completed several retrieves by sight, he proceeds by covering the dog’s eyes and tossing the bumper so the pup can only mark where the bumper falls by sound. Lastly, he leaves the dog in its kennel (where the dog can’t see or hear what Stewart is doing) and places the bumper in the grass. Then he releases the dog and lines the pup on the mark. When the dog is near the bumper, Stewart gives a “dead bird” command. He compares this exercise to saying “cold, warm, warmer, hot!” to a child on a scavenger hunt. Eventually, the dog will associate the duck scent with the “dead bird” command and learn to use its nose to find the bumper.
Stewart uses the same three-step process to train young dogs to retrieve in brush. For a bumper, he uses a tennis ball that has been kept in a bag of dried duck feathers for a week. He begins by tossing the ball where the dog can see it fall, then covers the dog’s eyes but allows it to mark the fall by sound, and concludes by hiding the ball (Stewart likes to roll it under the brush so that it leaves a scent trail) before letting the dog out of its kennel.