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. Lyle Steinman, a professional trainer who operates Castile Creek Kennels in Stewartsville, Missouri, 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.
Mike Stewart, a professional trainer who operates Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, 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."