With early seasons for teal and Canada geese available in many states, waterfowlers and their retrievers are blessed with abundant opportunities to knock off the rust and get into fighting shape before the main waterfowl seasons begin. The other opportunity is dove season, which is open in 41 of the 50 states and, in terms of bang for your retriever-training buck, offers just about the best payoff you can find anywhere.
"Dove season is a tremendous opportunity to get your retriever ready for duck hunting," says Scott Miller, resident professional trainer at Brays Island Plantation in South Carolina. "Other than retrieving from water, there's nothing your dog is expected to do on a duck hunt that he wouldn't be expected to do on a dove hunt. All the same skills are required.
"Dove hunting is typically a lot more action-packed than duck hunting, especially if you're in a hot field. So it puts a premium on steadiness. If your dog can stay steady and maintain his line manners during the chaos of a dove shoot, he'll have no problem whatsoever staying steady in a duck blind."
Because of the volume of gunfire associated with dove hunting, you need to be judicious about bringing along young dogs who have only recently been introduced to the gun. "Your dog may be perfectly fine with the gun in a training situation," Miller explains, "but what you have to keep in mind is that he's probably looking at a bird or has just seen one fall when the gun goes off. So that's where his attention is focused. On a dove hunt he might not see the bird, so the sound of the gun may come as a surprise to him. You need to be sure that your dog's completely comfortable with the gun."
A dove hunt provides a made-to-order environment for the final steps necessary to create a steady retriever, but Miller stresses that it's not the place for a dog that isn't fairly well along in the steadying process. There's a big difference between a dog that's steady when you're shooting one or two birds at a time and a dog that's steady during the barrage of gunfire he's likely to encounter on a dove hunt. For this reason, Miller is a firm believer in keeping dogs who are new to dove hunting on a tie-out stake with a short lead for at least their first couple of outings.
In addition to promoting steadiness, dove hunting simply gives dogs more retrieving "reps" than any other form of wingshooting. But this real-world experience can't be at the expense of discipline. "You have to maintain your structure," Miller emphasizes. "If you can handle your dog to blind retrieves, great. What you don't want to do is stand there hollering and nicking your dog with the e-collar. Go out in the field and help him if you have to. The important thing is that you recover the bird, and that your dog feels as if he's succeeded."
Of course, doves are commonly hunted in warm weather. Temperatures that are comfortable for you and me are likely to be less so for your dog, especially if he's working hard retrieving birds. Pick a spot in the shade to shoot from, invest in a camouflage umbrella, or put your dog in a crate with good ventilation and a lightweight camo cover.
Also, remember to keep your retriever well-hydrated. Miller likes to train his dogs to drink directly from a squirt bottle. Stay vigilant for signs of heat stress: excessive panting and drooling, lack of coordination, and lethargy. The most effective treatment for heat stress is immersion in cool (not cold) water. If that fails, immediate veterinary intervention is imperative. Once a dog's internal temperature reaches 106°F, he's at serious risk for permanent neurological damage or even death.
Assuming you play it safe in that regard, there's no better or more enjoyable place than a dove field to get your dog right where you want him. In Miller's words, "A dog that will stay steady until you send him to retrieve on a dove hunt is a dog that's ready for duck season."