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.
In a field trial or hunt test, one of the most difficult retrieves often involves a "poison" bird. This is a retrieve where a dog has to ignore an easy mark and complete a longer, often blind retrieve. Retrievers routinely encounter similar scenarios while hunting. For example, imagine a pair of greenheads pitching into the decoys. You shoot the duck on your side first, but instead of falling dead, the bird sails 80 yards and lands with its head up. Meanwhile, your partner cleanly folds the second duck, and it falls stone dead in the decoys 30 yards away. Not only is your partner's duck an easier mark for the retriever, it's also the last bird to fall, capturing the dog's attention. But your duck is now swimming away and must be retrieved quickly. So you give the dog a line to retrieve the crippled duck first, forcing the dog to swim directly past the dead bird in the decoys. This retrieve tests the dog's obedience, as well as its ability to execute your lining commands.
Lyle Steinman, a professional trainer who operates Castile Creek Kennels in Stewartsville, Missouri, believes in the value of an electronic collar for reinforcing obedience, particularly when working with dogs on distant blind retrieves. But being able to use a collar effectively from a distance starts with proper training up close. Steinman trains all his dogs with a good force-fetching foundation.
"The theory of obedience is that if you can't control your dog at two feet, then you're not going to be able to control him at 20 feet or 100 yards," Steinman says. "A whistle and electronic collar are almost as important as your shotgun and shells."
As for lining, Steinman trains his dogs using a variant of the "baseball diamond" drill. A bumper is placed on each of five "bases" around the diamond. The retriever is positioned on the pitcher's mound, and the handler stands on home plate, where he uses hand signals to direct the dog to the bumpers. This drill teaches a retriever to follow the handler's commands and to retrieve only the bumper to which it is directed.
Once your retriever has developed enough obedience to pass a visible dead bird, all that remains is to sharpen the dog's performance on blind retrieves. Marking where a wounded bird falls is especially important in hunting situations. Always select a bush, tree, or other natural feature near where the bird landed as a reference point. Then simply give the dog a line to this landmark and allow the dog enough time to scent the downed bird before giving further commands.
Ice is one of the most dangerous elements faced by retrievers. Besides the obvious dangers of breaking through a hole and drowning, jagged ice can injure a dog. Consequently, Steinman makes sure his retriever is wearing a protective vest, both for warmth and protection, anytime the dog may encounter ice. And if he has any doubt about the safety of a retrieve, he won't send the dog.
Stewart prepares his dogs for working in ice close to home, but he is careful how he does it. For starters, he never sends a young pup out on ice. A young dog's coat isn't thick enough yet, and if a pup has a bad initial experience with ice, the dog may refuse to retrieve in it later.
Stewart typically starts working a dog in ice and frigid water at 14 to 18 months of age. He begins by allowing the dog to become comfortable on ice by walking along a shallow, frozen shoreline where the water is only a couple of inches deep. "I just work on obedience here," Stewart says. "Getting him to heel on ice is the first step."
Next, Stewart begins sending the dog on short, shallow-water retrieves in thin ice that is easy to break. He wants the dog to learn to break through ice with its front feet while bounding. Only when the dog is older and has some experience does Stewart set up a longer retrieve that is likely to cause the dog to break through the ice and into deeper water. In this situation, he wants the dog to learn to use the solid ice to regain its footing and return to shore, so he conducts drills on ponds that are solidly frozen several yards from the bank.
"Always do your ice work in a controlled environment," Stewart says. "Have your waders on, know how deep the water is, and be able to go get your dog if you need to. If you're not sure about the water depth, don't send the dog."
Divers on Big Water
Diving ducks are incredibly tough birds that often require a finishing shot after they've hit the water. But follow-up shots aren't an option if downed birds fall or dive out of range. This is when a retriever is an invaluable asset.
Steinman says it's essential for hunters and retrievers to work together while pursuing crippled diving ducks in open water, especially when a dog has to swim a great distance to reach a bird. "You have to help your dog out," he says. "Diving birds require more teamwork than any other type of retrieve."
Although having a dog with a good nose is an asset on any retrieve, Steinman believes sight-marking is more important than scenting in open-water retrieving. "A dog is probably going to have a hard time winding a diving duck on open water, so I want him to sight-mark it," he says.
While not technically complicated, long open-water retrieves are physically demanding. In many cases, a dog must swim hundreds of yards to get the bird and then return to the boat or blind. Consequently, conditioning is vital in big-water retrieving.
Steinman likes to train his dogs in warm (but not hot) weather, and he conducts the training process in graduated steps. He begins by having the dog perform extra-long retrieves on land before moving to the water. "We just try to build momentum," Steinman says. "We start with 100- or 200-yard retrieves in the water and then gradually work up to 300-, 400-, and 500-yard swims. You have to be patient."
Steinman says it's also wise to help dogs become accustomed to retrieving from a boat during the off-season. "Teach the dog to be steady in the boat and to jump out and climb in," he says. "But there's nothing wrong with helping your dog back in if it's having trouble."
Many big-water hunters fish from their boats during the summer as well, and Steinman advises taking the dog along on these warm-water outings. Throwing a couple of bumpers from the boat in short training and swimming sessions is also a great way to pass the time when the fish aren't biting.
Another challenge for many dogs is what's known as a far-bank retrieve, where the dog has to cross an expanse of water and then hunt on land for a bird that has crawled into vegetation on the opposite shore. This may not seem difficult, but it can be a confusing situation for a retriever.
"If a dog has never been taught to get out of the water for a retrieve, he's not used to getting out on the opposite side," Stewart says. "But don't put a dog out on an opposite bank until he will handle. He needs to stop and cast. Otherwise, he'll learn to be out of control on an opposite bank, and there's not much you can do about it."
The primary lesson for a dog to learn here is not all birds are found in the water. For this purpose, Stewart selects a command during training to signal the dog to hunt on the opposite bank. He says a simple command such as "get over" works best. He begins training by putting on his waders, placing a bumper on the far bank, and then wading into the water with the dog at his side. When the water is about nose-deep on the dog (still shallow enough for the dog to get some footing), he sends it to the bumper. Gradually, Stewart progresses to sending the dog from one bank to the other, using large, easy-to-see bumpers placed near the water at first and then progressively farther up the bank. Having an assistant on the opposite bank to toss the bumper can help the dog understand what it needs to do.
"You just want to train the dog so that he handles easily from the opposite bank," Stewart says. "You want to use a long but narrow body of water, such as a slow-moving river, for your work, so that the dog doesn't cut corners."