by John Riggle
It's never good when a wingshooter takes a young retriever duck hunting for the first time and then doesn't understand why their pride and joy is picking up sticks in the water and bringing back decoys instead of ducks. If that dog has never been in a duck blind before, it's understandable to me, but hunters are always asking themselves, "Why isn't my brand-new, well-bred, super-expensive retriever sitting there like he's supposed to, and retrieving like he's supposed to? Heck, he does it perfectly in the backyard!"
Often, the reason the dog is not performing up to an owner's standards on the first hunt is that the owner never exposed the dog to actual hunting conditions before he took the dog into the field.
Too often we don't think ahead and expose our dogs to these normal hunting conditions. And it costs us. You don't want to be training during a hunt. You want your dog at peak performance at all times during the hunt.
The easiest way to prepare a dog to ignore a floating decoy is to condition the dog before the hunt to leave decoys alone. For starters, take the dog out after you have set out a small spread of decoys—let's say five to seven—on the lawn and walk the dog through them. Let the dog know you don't want him to pick up these decoys. They are taboo.
After we make the dog comfortable around the decoys to the point that he's not picking them up, we can start throwing the training dummy into the decoys and have him retrieve the dummy out of the decoys until he's very comfortable with the concept. You must also be careful that you don't make the dog afraid of the decoys (for example, by applying collar stimulation when you shouldn't). You want to make sure the dog is comfortable moving around amid the decoys and not trying to retrieve them for you.
If you know you're hunting out of a particular boat, be sure to load the dog in and out of the boat a few times so he's comfortable with it. If you can work it out, take the boat to a lake or pond and let the dog make some short retrieves so he knows where he's supposed to sit and his entry and exit points. After you have done some of that initial work, it's time to take the dog out to a pond. Spread out six or seven floating decoys and make sure the dog will retrieve through the decoys.
Always make sure when you put your decoys out that you keep the anchor strings as short as possible or the dog will get tangled in your decoy spread and start dragging them around. A young dog can become afraid of a floating decoy if he has become tangled in the anchor string and the decoys bumps him a few times. We don't want that.
Many dogs don't hear a duck or goose call until the first time they hunt. When they do, they can't identify the noise and it causes excitement and confusion. You need to condition your dogs to the call. Use the call while you're training them.
Many dogs have never been shot over prior to their first hunt. You have to train the dog to react positively to a shotgun going off over his head. In training, start out shooting away from the dog and slowly adjust until you are shooting right over the dog. You want the dog to remain perfectly still as the gun is going off.
What I do when training is blow the call for a while, shoot the gun and throw the dummy bird to retrieve. Then the dog will get used to the scenario. He'll become more efficient when he's not surprised and will perform properly that first time in the duck blind or the boat.
If we're going to change something—let's say we've been hunting out of a blind and now we're going to use a boat—then we should expose the dog to the boat and make him comfortable in it before we hunt.
I never get too critical of my dogs in a new situation until they know what is expected of them. Once they understand the rules, then often just a low level of stimulation from the collar is all that's necessary to keep them on track.
Bad habits are reinforced every time we let a dog do something more than once. If you let your dog leave the boat or leave the blind before you have commanded it, then you are allowing a situation to develop that will be harder to break later. That's why you want to have all the kinks worked out before you actually enter a hunting situation.
Although your dog may be well trained, you may discover that all the excitement of the hunting action can cause your dog to have some temporary memory loss. Even if that happens and the dog gets a bit out of line, he will understand why he's being corrected and what needs to be done so he won't have to feel the stimulation of the training collar. A few simple reminders with some low-level stimulation will be all it takes to get the dog on the right path and get him thinking properly again.
One big problem we all see in blinds is that the dog likes to break for the bird before we give the command. The best way to train a dog from breaking too quickly when a bird drops is with a breaking box. I have also used an eye bolt in the boat or blind to put the dog on a check cord while hunting.
We put the dog in the box and attach him to a check cord attached to the box. Where the cord is attached to the dog we use a slipknot, and when we are ready to release the dog we just reach over and pull the knot loose on the cord and give him the command. Without the box the dog is spinning around and moving. This box is just big enough for the dog to get into and he can't buck around in it.
Many people think their dog is ready for hunting because he's doing a good job of retrieving. But unless your dog is brilliant—some are, but not all—you need to train with hunting situations. It will keep your hunt from turning into a training session, and you will be proud of the way your dog performs.