By Tom Davis
The quality of your dog's performance in the field is a direct reflection of the quality of his preparation. This is especially true if you hunt from a boat or blind, where visibility can be limited and room to operate is at a premium. Roger Hanson, a trainer from Green Bay, Wisconsin, offers the following tips to bring out the best in your retriever on land and in the water.
Create Realistic Training Scenarios
Hanson says it is important to set up training exercises that simulate the conditions your dog will experience when hunting. "Opening day shouldn't be the first time your dog sits in a boat or blind," he explains. "You should make every effort to expose your dog to the same kinds of situations in training that he'll encounter in the field."
If you don't have access to boats, blinds, water, and other resources you need for training, Hanson suggests seeking out a professional trainer who does. Some pros offer fee-based day training. Another option is to join a retriever club—many of them have excellent training facilities.
At the very least, buy a portable field blind and set it up in your backyard. Have your dog sit in the blind while you sit next to him. Wait several minutes, blow a duck call occasionally, then toss a bumper. Insist that he remain steady until released, and that he deliver the bumper all the way to hand. "The retrieve is the reward for his patience," Hanson explains. "You're instilling good blind manners, which will carry over no matter what kind of setup you're hunting from—boat, blind, or whatever."
Prevent Breaking, Reward Patience
Breaking—going for the retrieve before being released—is another common problem encountered in boats and blinds. "There are two kinds of dogs," Hanson observes. "Dogs that used to break, and dogs that are going to. No matter how experienced or well-trained they are, all dogs break once in a while."
With all but his most reliably steady dogs, Hanson takes the breaking option completely off the table by keeping them securely tethered, whether it's to an eye-bolt, a cleat, or a screw-in stake. "It's not field trial approved," he quips, "but it sure reduces everybody's stress level. Besides, we're not chasing ribbons, we're chasing feathers."
On days when there's not much action, Hanson likes to keep a bumper handy and toss it now and then for the dog to retrieve. "You want to give him something, and you're reinforcing the lesson that patience and adherence to his training will be rewarded," he explains. "You're also helping to release some of that pent-up energy, making him less likely to break when the ducks start to fly."
Help Him Out on Blind Retrieves
Cramped quarters in a blind or boat can make handling dogs during blind retrieves difficult for even the best of trainers. Also, because you're dressed in camo, your dog's going to have a tough time seeing you and accurately interpreting your hand signals. Hanson suggests taking off your hat to increase your visual contrast and give your dog something to focus on.
If you're able to get out and line up your dog, great. If not, he'll probably make a beeline for the center of your decoy spread, where he's enjoyed the most success finding birds. The scent from previous falls may be lingering, too, meaning that if you let your dog go too far in the wrong direction you'll end up fighting both memory and scent to convince him to go where you want him to. "Whistle early and whistle often," Hanson says. "Get his attention right away, before he's distracted, and keep on him to guide him to the right place."
Correct Problems in the Field
Another key to a successful hunt is not compromising on your dog's performance. In other words, don't allow him to take liberties or get sloppy. The classic example of this is dropping birds short rather than delivering them to hand.
"The typical response is to let it slide and say, 'I'll fix it later,'" Hanson explains. "That's just asking for trouble. We have a rule of thumb: If your dog does something three times, it's a habit. I'll give a dog one pass—even the best dogs have an occasional hiccup—but if he makes the same mistake a second time I'm going to correct it."