By Tom Davis
When upland birds are the quarry, the advantage of having two dogs on the hunt, as opposed to just one, is obvious. Because two dogs can cover significantly more ground than one is able to, the result is almost always going to be more birds in the air and more chances to pull the trigger.
In the world of waterfowling, however, where the dog's role isn't to produce game but to recover it, the question of whether two dogs are better than one can be tricky. You have to weigh a number of factors, from the size of the blind and the difficulty of concealing more than one dog to the temperament and experience of the dogs being considered for the assignment.
"You can't just take two dogs and say, 'We're going to hunt them together,'" explains Mark Atwater, a hard-core Georgia waterfowler and one of the country's top photographers of working retrievers. "If you don't take the time to think it through, hunting two dogs can end up detracting from the hunt instead of enhancing it."
To successfully hunt two dogs, both should be, in Atwater's words, "well-mannered, well-trained, and seasoned in the field. If you have those components and there aren't any major personality conflicts, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to put those two dogs in a blind or pit and successfully hunt them together.
"Aggression can be a problem," Atwater adds, "but when both dogs are seasoned veterans it's rare. They may not be buddies, but they're going to go about their business like the professionals they are and see that the job gets done." It's when you try to introduce an inexperienced dog into the mix that things can get ugly. "If you put an unruly hellion in the blind with a well-trained dog, he's still going to be an unruly hellion."
Training a dog to honor another dog's work is, like most training, primarily a matter of repetition and reinforcement. With the dogs on platforms or place boards, Atwater and his training partner start by throwing single marks and having the dogs take turns making the retrieves. Then they expand the distance between the dogs, send one trainer's dog for bumpers thrown by the other trainer, and gradually increase the complexity. The goal, says Atwater, is dogs that are comfortable working together in the close quarters of a duck blind.
Atwater cites several waterfowling scenarios in which it simply makes sense for two dogs to share the load. "If you're hunting five or six guns," he notes, "you may be looking at 30 or more ducks, and maybe some geese. That's a lot for one dog to handle, especially if the weather is nasty."
Snow goose hunting is another classic two-dog scenario. "On a good day of snow goose hunting," Atwater observes, "you might be looking at more than 100 retrieves. And even on a slow day you might have 20 or more. Throw in seven or eight guns with multiple birds falling, and it really makes sense to have two dogs stationed at the opposite ends of the decoy spread. Communication between the handlers is key, especially for birds that fall in the middle. You want to avoid sending both dogs for the same bird at the same time. That's where the potential for conflict can arise."
Atwater notes, too, that young up-and-comers can profit tremendously from being paired with veteran dogs. "It's an opportunity to give the youngster some valuable experience," he explains, "while not asking him to do anything that's above his pay grade. You let Junior take the easy birds that fall right in front of the blind, and you call on the veteran for the more difficult stuff." Then, a few years down the road, this same pair of dogs can switch roles, with the younger one, now in his prime, doing the heavy lifting and the older one, nearing the end of his career, sopping up the gravy.
Hunting with two dogs—provided, of course, that they're the right two dogs—can be tremendously satisfying. "You start out regarding your dog as a tool," Atwater muses, "but over time, as your priorities evolve, he becomes the reason you go. And when you can do it times two, that makes it better still."