Bad habits are the bane of almost everyone who owns a working dog, whether that dog's job is retrieving, flushing, or pulling a sled. No dog is perfect, of course, but cleaning up his bad habits will go an amazingly long way toward making him a more enjoyable, less stressful dog to hunt with. Your two-legged hunting companions will appreciate the improvement as well.
"You own what you condone," says Karl Gunzer, a longtime professional trainer who now serves as Purina's director of sporting dog programs. "Most bad habits are the result of one of two things: not intervening to put a stop to an undesirable behavior when it first crops up, or not insisting on compliance when you give a command. You're essentially telling your dog that it's okay to behave this way."
One of the most common bad habits is whining or barking in the blind. It's a notoriously difficult behavior to correct, which is why it's critically important to nip it in the bud before it becomes a habit. "There's no reason for any duck hunting dog to bark," Gunzer says. "You should start discouraging vocalization when your dog is a puppy, then continue all the way through his training."
The way to do this, he notes, is to teach the no command and enforce it with the appropriate correction. When the pup complies, be sure to praise him and "love him up" to add a layer of positive reinforcement to the experience. "You want him to understand that he'll not only be reprimanded for making noise, but that he'll be rewarded for keeping quiet," Gunzer explains.
Lack of steadiness is another of the most common bad habits that retrievers acquire. "A dog that breaks is a danger not only to himself but also to hunters in the blind," Gunzer says. Steadiness needs to be locked down as part of your dog's preseason preparation. You should try to train under simulated hunting conditions when possible, but basic obedience commands such as sit and stay can be drilled anywhere—even in the house. Another useful exercise for encouraging steadiness is "denial training," in which you throw a bird or bumper for your dog and, instead of giving him the retrieve, you retrieve it yourself (obviously it's easier to do this on land). This drill helps develop patience and teaches discipline, both of which are huge factors in the steadiness equation.
Gunzer is not opposed to tying up a dog if there are any questions about his steadiness. "He may not be a perfectly trained dog," Gunzer notes, "but he's a safe dog."
Failing to deliver completely to hand isn't just a bad habit; it can lead to unrecovered birds. The prescription here, says Gunzer, is the "trained retrieve." Many still refer to it as "force-fetch," but the process has evolved to become vastly less coercive and unpleasant for the dog than it used to be. Gunzer notes that the trained retrieve is also the most effective remedy for a dog that has a tendency toward hard-mouth.
"The dog needs to have the mind-set that it isn't his bird, it's your bird, and you're allowing him to retrieve it," Gunzer explains. "He needs to understand that he's working for you, not the other way around."
Finally, there's the dog that habitually ignores commands and generally makes a royal pain of himself. "You need to say less and expect more," Gunzer insists. "If you give that dog a command and he doesn't comply, don't repeat the command until you're blue in the face; do what you need to do to enforce the command.
"It comes back to preseason preparation. If your dog's not trained to be reliably obedient, you can't expect him to magically become that way on opening day. Every day you spend with your retriever is an opportunity to reinforce an obedient mind-set that will carry over into the hunting season."