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.
Marking drills need not be done in open fields or big stretches of open water. "Once a dog is using its eyes and marking well, it doesn't take any more than from two to six good marks a day, and the dog is back on it," Stewart says. "What you should be doing is more complex marks, like in woodlands. People do not spend enough time on that."
Stewart suggests tossing bumpers from fields into cover, or from cover into fields. "Get the dog tuned up to hunt the cover, to hunt the grass at the edge of water," he says. "Teach the dog to get into that cover, because if a duck is shot or wounded, it will usually head toward cover."
Do not forget marks that require the dog going over barriers. "I would do some marks across ditches, across fences and across water," Stewart says. "That's what the dog is going to have to deal with in the field."
The straighter the line a dog runs toward a mark, the less handling one is likely to have to do. "The object of these drills is to get the dog holding lines," Stewart says. "You have to put the straight edge back on them." Dogs will fade to the contour of the land, in accordance with the wind, or with natural barriers, such as ditches or other obstacles. "Teach them to run through the barriers," Stewart says. "You want the dog running a nice, clean straight line instead of scalloping."
One way to do this is to incorporate a natural or man-made straight line into the training. These can be as simple as a fencerow, or, in a more urban environment, a building. In either case, the longer the better. Place the dog in a sit position. Then toss a bumper parallel to the fence or building, either of which will then serve to discourage the dog from running wide. "The hardest thing to get a dog to do is run deep," Stewart says. "With the fence, you can teach the dog not to bow out. The dog should be running straight lines along the fence or building."
The time-tested baseball diamond setup remains one of Stewart's favored methods for fine tuning a dog's understanding of handling via hand signals and whistles.
With the trainer stationed at the imaginary "home plate," and the retriever positioned on the "pitcher’s mound," the dog can be taught to go right (toward first base) or left (toward third base) with overcasts, or toward second (with the "back" command) in search of hidden bumpers or bumpers tossed by hand.
One of the goals here is getting the dog to go after the bumper that you want it to retrieve first. The practical side of this is that during a real hunting situation, if two birds are on the water, one dead and one crippled, you likely will want your retriever to seek out the cripple first, to lessen that bird's chances of getting away. Handling can accomplish that.
On a somewhat related note, you will want the dog to make a clean delivery of the bumper or bird. Do not allow the dog to drop the object it is retrieving, or to play around with it. The bumper or bird should be brought directly to hand.
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