Off to a Good Start

5 Tips to introduce a young retriever to waterfowling basics

© Diane Glassmeyer

By Gary Koehler

My late father loved to tell the story of a springer spaniel he once owned. Her name was Duchess, and she was a little more than a year old when he acquired her to be his duck dog that fall on a small backwater lake in the Illinois River valley. When opening day arrived, my father and his hunting partner tossed out decoys and then settled into a meticulously camouflaged blind. Duchess was sequestered just outside the blind's side door, within easy reach.

A couple of ducks came in, and a couple of ducks stayed behind. Duchess took due note and romped into the lake. She returned with a decoy. Duchess dropped the faux duck, spun around, and waded into the lake a second time. Again she returned with a decoy dangling from her mouth.

"It was the darnedest thing," my father would say, recounting the events of that morning. "She knew she was supposed to go get something, but she wasn't sure what."

My dad's mistake was that he didn't introduce Duchess to decoys during the training process. Many retriever owners make similar errors by assuming an almost innate knowledge on the part of their dogs. But just because your dog is a retriever doesn't mean she will somehow naturally know a duck from a decoy, or take to the water like a champion field-trialer. It's up to you to introduce her to the world of waterfowling.

5 tips to help you do it right and get your pup off to a good start:

WATER Taking your retriever pup out in a boat to the middle of a lake and throwing her overboard is not a proper water introduction. Ideally, you want the experience to be pleasant and fun. Find a small pond with a shore that drops gradually from shallow to deep water. The weather should be mild, and the water temperature 60 degrees or warmer. Wading into the water with the pup will help alleviate any fear she may have. Bumpers and water retrieves can come later.

GUNFIRE The worst thing you can do is to take a puppy to an open field and fire a 12-gauge over her head. That's almost guaranteed to cause gun-shyness. Instead, recruit a friend or family member to help with this part of your pup's training. While you handle the dog, have your training partner move a good distance away. Each time you toss a bumper, your partner should fire a shot with a starter pistol or cap gun. Be careful not to overdo it. A few shots each outing will suffice. Each day, decrease the distance between the dog and the gunfire and repeat the same drill. Keep in mind that introducing a dog to gunfire is a gradual process that shouldn't be rushed.

DECOYS Don't wait until hunting season to familiarize your dog with decoys. Incorporate them into her training exercises. Place a dozen or more decoys around a field when you're tossing bumpers. This will help teach the dog that decoys are just part of the setup and not her main focus. Once she learns that, she can move on to retrieving bumpers around a decoy spread set in shallow water. This will help her learn how to swim through the decoys without getting tangled in the lines. If you hunt with motion decoys, incorporate them into your training spread as well.

BOATS The best way to acclimate a pup to watercraft is on dry land, where the boat won't rock or tip over. Place your retriever in the boat and let her explore this unfamiliar setting. Do this several times over a period of a few days, and when the dog is comfortable in her new surroundings, launch the boat and take your pup on a cruise around the lake. Be sure to go slow and avoid rough waters. Keep the outing as pleasant as possible, with the dog sitting calmly beside you. Allowing her to run around while the boat is under way can be extremely dangerous.

BLINDS Whether you hunt out of a permanent blind or a layout blind, your retriever should have a place of her own. Set up a dog stand or platform during your training sessions. Begin by teaching the dog to sit still on the stand. The younger the dog, the less patience she will have. But after several training sessions, she should learn to be patient and sit on the stand for extended periods of time.