Reset Button for Retrievers: Spring Training

Every retriever picks up bad habits during duck season – now is the time to make corrections

Photo © Corey McDonald

By Chris Jennings

Spring is a time of renewal, and for your retriever that means reinforcing techniques that may have given way to the excitement of duck season. Multiple birds falling, the chaos of duck blinds full of people, boats, dog hides, and tough weather conditions can all be contributing factors to retrievers losing their way. Here's a list of the most common post-duck season issues and accompanying videos to help guide you through each lesson.

Mike Stewart, owner of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, can list thousands of different training regimens that you should focus on right now, but one aspect that he stresses is conditioning. Much overlooked and crucial to peak performance, conditioning should come with a training focus.

"Dogs are athletes and must be conditioned as such," Stewart says. "Proper exercise and nutrition should always be a priority, and it's this time of year when some dogs don't get enough attention in these areas."

Exercise in the form of running or swimming is one thing, but Stewart says that proper exercise should come with a purpose. Have a purpose for every move that you make with your retriever. There should be a goal every time you step outside with a bumper. Take everything you can from last waterfowl season and turn it into a part of your exercise and training sessions this spring.

"What needs improvement? Do you want your retriever to do something different? What were the mistakes from last season? If you use this time to reorganize your training schedules and add more attention to what needs to be fixed this year, you will also meet your dog's exercise needs at the same time," Stewart says. "All dogs have deficiencies, and these can be corrected."

There are numerous bad habits retrievers can pick up throughout duck season, and Stewart has narrowed down the four most common problems that he addresses during the off-season each year.

1. Steadiness – Breaking on the shot or to live birds

This is the most common issue following duck season. Dogs learn to watch hunters' behaviors and jump the gun when they are too eager to retrieve. This behavior can create dangerous situations for the dog and hunters.

2. Self Hunts – When the dog decides to take its own direction

Dogs can begin to become accustomed to making their own decisions on which birds to retrieve. Stewart refers to this as self-hunting. This bad habit can lead to lost birds, but it can be corrected in the following way.

3. Hand signals and focus – Disregarding or extending signals

The excitement of the hunt and a sense of complacency after making many retrieves can cause a dog to lose focus on you or a mark. Getting your dog to focus will help him pay attention to you, and then follow your commands.

4. Stopping hunting – Not using the nose to find downed birds

Many times a retriever will see a bird go down, but when called to make the retrieve, he will run past the downed bird without actually hunting for it. While hunting in heavy cover, it's important for retrievers to slow and use their keen sense of smell.

If these four common lapses in retriever obedience do not apply to your dog, Stewart recommends that you tailor your training to your retriever's particular needs.

"The idea of focused and specific drills to correct any problems your retriever may have will benefit you next waterfowl season," he says. "Reinforcing these behaviors and maintaining regular training sessions will be a huge help during duck season, and you will also be meeting the conditioning needs of your retriever this off-season."

Find other behavior-specific training techniques