By Gary Koelher
Waterfowl dogs that routinely pick up downed ducks may display a completely different mindset when first confronted with the task of retrieving geese. Canadas, snows, and specks are generally larger, look and smell different, and are cause for much more formidable labor.
A goose's size and weight alone are enough to confound dogs that have not been conditioned in advance. While this issue is seldom addressed in dog training books, there are ways to prepare your retriever for its first goose hunt.
"Geese have a scent that is different from ducks," says Auggie Argabright (shannondoahretrievers.com), who has raised and trained retrievers for more than 30 years near Queenstown, Maryland, in the heart of Atlantic Flyway goose country. "To familiarize our dogs with the smell of a goose, we let our pups play with goose wings, but not tear them up. We introduce them to wings when they are very young." As the pups grow, Argabright attaches goose wings to retrieving bumpers, the larger the better.
"When we take a young dog on its first goose hunt, we make sure the birds are dead before we send the dog to retrieve them," Argabright says. "You absolutely don't want a young dog going in on a crippled goose."
Because wing-tipped geese sometimes glide considerable distances before falling, Argabright is a stickler for handling. "We teach our dogs to mark multiple downed birds, and we teach them hand signals," he says. "We start with marking singles—teaching the dog to use its eyes—then we go on to doubles and triples. It's important for the dog to develop confidence in your handling. It takes time, but it's worth the effort."
Missourian Tony Vandemore, an Avery pro-staffer who is also involved with Habitat Flats, a commercial hunting operation, spends an extraordinary amount of time in the field—often hunting more than a hundred days a year with his black Lab, Ruff. Vandemore trained Ruff himself, and the daily sessions have paid off handsomely. Ruff, now six years old, had it figured out well enough last season to retrieve 3,500 birds, 70 percent of which were geese, the majority of those being snows.
"You have to have patience with young dogs, whether they are force-fetched or not," Vandemore says. "I recommend force-fetching, but that's up to the dog's owner. Regardless, if your dog is having trouble with geese, don't freak out. Go out into the field, pick up the bird, and tell your dog to ‘fetch' right where the wing joint is. Give him an idea, or show him, the easiest place to pick up a goose. In my opinion, it's the base of the neck for a smaller goose, and for big geese, between the shoulder and the wing bone.
"Dogs have to be taught things, just like people," Vandemore says. "Goose hunters can't expect a dog to automatically know what's going on and know what to do. You have to spend time teaching them. If you do it right, it's going to save you a lot of headaches and footsteps."
Vandemore often hunts out of layout blinds in agricultural fields. There is an inherent danger because hunters are on their backs and then shoot from the sitting position. Quite often, multiple hunters and shotguns are involved. Having a retriever running wild should never be part of the mix.
"Dogs absolutely must be under control and camouflaged," Vandemore says. "There's a safety aspect involved. When we hunt snow geese in a field, I can let Ruff out of the truck and he'll immediately go to his dog blind and sit there. He knows it's his place.
"I would advise putting the dog blind behind your layout blind to discourage the dog from breaking. Unless the dog is 100 percent steady, use a tie-down to keep it under control. If set up behind you, he's looking down your gun barrel and that allows him to follow the barrel and mark birds quickly. It sets the dog up for success."
It would seem logical that the bigger the dog, the better equipped it would be to tackle goose-retrieving chores. But does size truly matter? Vandemore says no. Ruff weighs 60 pounds. "I don't think the size of the dog matters at all," Vandemore says. "If you get a dog with drive, he'll get it done."