River Dogs

A river dog is a canine companion for adventure

Flynn, a small, yet athletic yellow Labrador is the finest of river dogs. "Every year two buddies and I host a church group for a camping trip on the Colorado River, just 75 miles upriver of the Grand Canyon," says Joe Auteri of Virginia. "It's a secluded, beautiful destination only accessible by boat.

While there, we hunt duck, float the river fly fishing, and enjoy the leisure of camping riverside. My British lab, Flynn, is a fantastic companion on our Colorado River adventures… civil around the camp; he's brilliant at picking our ducks when hunting the river, and patient on trout float trips." Flynn is indeed a testimonial to the companionship of a river dog.

A river dog is a canine companion of adventure for the hunter or family; a dog that will:

  • retrieve game from the swift current of rivers
  • sit quietly along the bank in the company of a fishing partner
  • remain still and peaceful in boats
  • exhibit courage: unafraid of noisy boats, boldly cross swift currents, rides willingly in an unstable canoe or dives off a steep bank into icy water

River dogs are not breed specific. Labs, like Flynn, are great but other breeds may work for a family equally well, even mixed breeds.

My wife's little Opie Taylor, a miniature Jack Russell, proved to be an adequate river dog. Opie would follow Cathy anywhere, even wading through the strong current of Arkansas' Buffalo River. He was small enough to fit nicely in any boat, even my kayak, for float trips. His courage was unmatched; no bank too steep, no rocks too rough to curb his enthusiasm for our companionship. Now, he surely was not duck retriever. His limited size would not qualify for river dog points in this department. Otherwise, he was proud to be an excellent sporting companion on hikes, canoeing, and fishing excursions. He was a keeper!


Qualifications for river dogs

  • A reasonable size – a large dog will prove to be cumbersome in the confines of a boat, canoe or duck blind.
  • Biddable temperament – willingness to please, calm nature, no aggression and low prey drive (won't chase wildlife), a dog that is easily trained and intelligent.
  • An obedient, patient dog – nothing disrupts an outdoor adventure quicker than bad weather, a toothache, or an unruly, annoying dog.
  • The love of water – river dogs have a passion for water sports.
  • Athletic ability – You'll need a strong swimmer to handle the power of currents and the strength to negotiate steep banks, river rocks and fallen timber.  

River hunters

The river waterfowl retriever will require specialized training beyond basic duck dog work. A dog unfamiliar with the effect of current can easily lose a bird due to lack of experience. For instance, a dog trained to mark a bird down on land or still water will likely drive out fast to pick up a bird which fell in moving water only to be surprised that our duck has drifted well away. The bird will not be where the dog marked it down, as is normally the case. Without training to understand the concept of moving water , how to continue a search downstream and the ability to take hand signals from their handler for direction, our bird may well be lost to the amazement of our hunting dog.

Next, our hunter must understand the effect of the current on their direction of travel once they jump into the current. Being swept downstream is always a surprise for a dog's first attempt at capturing a bird on moving water.

In training, toss bumpers upstream… the dog runs to the fall area, and then they must learn to recognize the direction of the drift working their way back downstream for the pick. Toss a training dummy downstream. Allow the dog to watch the bumper fall and begin its drift. After steadying the dog briefly, make the release and the race is on.

Similarly, a bird falling across the river to the far bank offers a special challenge. Our hunting dog sees the bird drop on the far bank, enthusiastically takes a straight line toward the fall, and then enters the water only to be swept completely off his line of travel. An exit downstream in an entirely different area than the dog intended may prove confusing. With practice and experience our hunting dog will learn to swim into the current to compensate for the effect and become a much better marker of birds across swift water.

River companions

The river dog sporting companion must be obedient, patient, and trustworthy; a dog with the capacity to sit quietly on the bank of a stream or in any boat, attentive yet in no way disruptive for extended periods of time. Many dogs are demanding of other owners for their attention and most are intrigued by a fish's movement, both in and out of water. These interests left uncontrolled can interfere with the outdoor experience for those in their company.

Training for this level of control and patience is best started, when the dog is quite young, with place training. If our subject is an older dog, the same skills must be taught but the earlier the start, the quicker the behavior will be entrenched. Begin place training on a mat, platform, or stool. A "place" defined for the dog that limits their movement helps to teach the concept. Heel work, sit and stay (permanently) must be thoroughly taught. The recall command, "Here" command, must be instantly responded to by a river dog. Control is imperative. Practice these skills and once they are understood, move outside around distractions and activities. Reward patience and stillness with vigorous praise and perhaps the occasional small treat.

Place training or stay must be conditioned to the point that a dog will remain steady even if the handler is not close by. Our dog must understand that patience and quietness is expected in all matters on the bank, boat, blind, camp, etc. NO exceptions!

Some of the most fulfilling outdoor experiences I have shared with my dogs have been on rivers: hunting waterfowl; shooting quail along stream banks; float trips while fishing and hiking. I'm with Joe Auteri, the companionship of a dog on a river excursion just can't be beat. To see two short videos of River Dog Training, visit www.uklabs.com, "Video Section."

Criteria for developing a river dog

Hunters:

  • Steady to shot
  • Responsive to whistle and hand signals
  • Understands the effects of current
  • Athletic ability and stamina

Adventurers:

  • Obedience off lead: heel, sit, remote stay
  • Patience to remain still and attentive for long periods of inactivity
  • Rides well in water crafts
  • Not disruptive to the outdoor experience
  • Does not chase wildlife

by Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels