Pre-Season Retriever Training Tips

A summer workout program will help get your dog ready for duck season

Even though the lazy days of summer are upon us, this is no time to forget your retriever. Starting a consistent conditioning and training program now will help get your dog ready for opening day. As a first step, consider incorporating the following tips and drills from pro trainers Mike Stewart and Justin Tackett into your workout. Working toward specific goals this summer will make you and your retriever a more efficient hunting team in the fall.

Warming Up and Cooling Down

Even in hot weather, always begin training sessions with a warm-up period. When the dog comes out of its kennel, do not immediately begin high-exertion drills. Instead, start each training session with basic obedience. This time of year, heeling can get sloppy, so tighten that up. You should also reinforce the “sit,” “stay,” and “here” commands. A routine of heeling, a couple of steadiness drills with tossed bumpers, and perhaps calling the dog to you and then tossing a diversion would make for a sound start. Begin slowly and allow the dog to stretch its muscles. And make sure the dog is steady, manageable, and patient before beginning lining patterns or handling exercises. “Those who get the five basic obedience steps down—and for me that’s ‘here,’ ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ ‘kennel,’ and ‘no’—are going to have a better gun dog than about 75 percent of the dogs in this country,” says Waterdog host Justin Tackett. “Obedience is where it all starts.”

Completing each training session by working on obedience before the dog goes back into the kennel serves a similar purpose—just as walking a short distance after you have taken a long run slowly lowers the heart rate and cools down the body. During the cool-down period, you are reemphasizing the importance of obedience and steadiness before putting the dog up. A cool-down period following the workout also helps prevent your dog’s muscles from tightening.

Fitness

The downtime between hunting seasons is when dogs get soft. Cushy beds, too much food, and the comforts of air conditioning may combine to foster laziness. If you want your dog to be physically ready come opening day, you should work on conditioning during the summer.
Most dogs will not exercise themselves into shape, and there are side effects to lounging around. Inactivity, for example, can produce soft foot pads. Walking or jogging with your dog is a fun and convenient way to get it back into shape, but stay on grassy areas and avoid hard surfaces such as concrete because they can be tough on your dog’s joints and bones.

Also, be mindful of the temperature. Heat exhaustion is a serious threat to heavy dogs. Avoid strenuous activity during the hottest part of the day. Plenty of swimming is a good place to start, but do not push your dog past its physical limits even while in the water. Several 15- to 30-minute sessions each week are much better than hour- or two-hour-long workouts.

In addition to an exercise program, carefully monitor your dog’s food consumption. Above all, do not overfeed your retriever during the summer. Consider “wet” feeding—filling the dog’s food dish with about an inch of water and cutting back on food. The dog feels full despite eating less. Physically fit dogs not only perform better but also are less likely to suffer injuries to muscles, joints, and feet.

Lining

One skill your summer training program should emphasize is lining. Once the hunting season begins, you want your retriever to mark a fallen bird, find it, and return as quickly as possible. “Holding a line means that the dog will run a straight line to the fall despite distractions,” says Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi. “Two core skills are involved. One is marking, or seeing and remembering the location of the fall. The other is the ability to run an accurate line to the fall area by the most direct logical route.”

While working your dog this summer, you can sharpen its lining prowess with a simple drill (see diagram). Walking with your dog at heel, drop three bumpers staggered at descending angles—the first one 30 yards out, the next at 20 yards, and the third at 10 yards. Heel the dog to a position where the middle bumper is directly in front and 20 yards out. Line the dog past the close bumpers (B3 and B2) for the farthest bumper (B1). Then line the dog for the middle bumper and finally for the close one. As the dog masters the drill, gradually move B3 and B2 closer to the line to B1 while at the same time lengthening the distance to B1. This narrows the angles between the bumpers and increases the temptation for the dog to veer off the handler’s line toward the closer bumpers. This is also a great drill for lining on water.

Lining drills form the basis for more advanced skills, such as hand signals. A dog’s ability to effectively hold a straight line to a fall area will make teaching such complex skills much easier and less confusing to the dog.

Hand Signals

The baseball diamond drill, a simple yet classic handling exercise, can help you fine-tune a trained retriever’s understanding of hand signals this summer. With the trainer stationed at “home plate,” the dog sitting at the “pitcher’s mound,” and bumpers placed at first, second, and third bases (see diagram), cast the dog right, left, or back with the proper hand signal in conjunction with an “over” or “back” voice command. One goal of this drill is to establish through repetition that when you give a hand signal and the dog obeys, something good happens. The retrieve (along with the resulting praise from the handler) becomes positive reinforcement for responding correctly to the cast.

Blind Retrieves

For the duck hunter, few things are more exhilarating than watching a retriever execute a blind retrieve, which involves finding a bird the dog did not see fall, often in heavy cover. Running successful blind retrieves are mutual victories for both dog and handler and a testament to the training level they have achieved as a team. A retriever needs four fundamental skill sets to succeed at blind retrieves: holding a line; handling, or responding well to whistle commands and hand signals; good scenting ability; and confidence in the handler. The dog must trust that there is a bird down and that the handler will assist in locating the reward (the retrieve).

In addition to honing your dog’s lining ability and working on hand signals during summer training sessions, you’ll need to set aside some time to focus on whistle commands. To be successful on blind retrieves, your dog must stop on the whistle promptly, recall (come to your whistle) quickly under all conditions, and hunt back toward you while slowly searching for a fallen bird (a whistle different from the recall is usually used).

Mike Stewart uses the push/pull drill to reinforce the whistle commands required on blind retrieves (see diagram). With your dog at heel, drop a bumper and walk away. About 30 yards from the bumper, make the dog sit and stay while you continue walking. When you are about 30 yards from the dog, pull the dog toward you with a recall whistle. When the dog is halfway to you, stop it with the whistle and, if it obeys, cast it back to the bumper. Over time, the drill teaches the dog that it will be rewarded with a retrieve when it heeds your whistle commands.

Multiple Marks

When there are multiple marks, most retrievers will instinctively set out to retrieve the last bird that falls. Sometimes, though, that bird may be dead while the one shot first may be crippled and swimming away. Waterdog host Justin Tackett uses what he calls the no-no drill to gain control over which duck his retriever goes after first. Tackett places one bumper at 9 o’clock about 60 yards out and a second 20 yards away at about 2 o’clock (see diagram). The dog is put at heel on the left side of the handler, who uses his body to shield the dog from the closest bird. “You should turn and talk the dog into that long bird on the left,” Tackett says. "A dog has to be steady to do this, and you may need a check cord to keep it under control. But make sure the dog knows that it is to go after the bird you line him to, and often that’s not the last bird down."

Story by By Gary Koehler