Exam room discussions between veterinarians and clients frequently begin with the admonition, “I’m no dog trainer; I’m merely a veterinarian.”
While this phrase technically holds true, years of treating — and owning — a handful of duck dogs has allowed for the extraction of lessons most retriever owners would love to learn. From building a relationship with a trainer to first aid, this knowledge can hopefully spare you and your new duck dog a little misery and provide a quick “how to” for navigating duck dog ownership as peacefully and inexpensively as possible.
Choosing a duck dog breed can be tricky as the choices out there are endless and can be quite puzzling. The available breeds can generally be lumped under Labs and non-Labs. Non-Labs encompass a large group of breeds ranging from the Chesapeake Bay retriever to a standard poodle. The inclusion in the game of these smart and lovable breeds is welcome, but care needs to be taken when choosing a puppy.
Trainers are not one size fits all, and often the different breeds require different styles and speed of training. With this in mind, it is important to first find a trainer specializing in your chosen breed and ask them to help you find a puppy they feel will be best for their training program.
Most great dog trainers say that proximity to your dog and trainer will be one of the primary keys to success. Spending a significant amount of time with both to learn what has proven successful in training your particular dog is imperative to success, and driving distance can be a major factor affecting this relationship. Lay out the attributes of what you consider the perfect duck dog, and your trusted trainer will be able to find the perfect fit.
The process of picking a puppy is fun and full of promise, but building a team to ensure future success is paramount. Along with a trainer, your team should include a local veterinarian with whom you make a strong connection. The health of your duck dog drives long-term success in training and in the field, often extending a dog’s hunting career and keeping it in a peak-performance state.
Prevention provides a strong foundation, but preparedness keeps you and your dog at the top of your game. Take the time to speak with your veterinarian about putting a small medical kit together with medications that could help in an emergency. A short list should include bandage material, carprofen (an oral anti-inflammatory), diarrhea medication and antibiotics.
On their weekends in the field, hunters often find themselves in secluded places with no veterinarian on site. Combining medications with a first-aid field trauma kit, like those found at hunting dog safety outfitter GunDog Outdoors and other outlets, could prove helpful to you and the dog owners you hunt alongside.
Your dog’s health is the foundation to success in the field, but what qualifies as “success in the field?” What should we expect from a duck dog’s first or second season after spending time with a trainer?
Firsthand accounts from first-season duck dog owners, either during the season or afterward in the veterinary exam room, range from positive to strongly negative. The negative experiences often originate because of a dog that is either too young or hasn’t completed enough training to understand what’s unfolding before them. Taking a dog into the duck woods too early can create issues that sometimes can’t be overcome through additional training.
Overstimulation and a developed aversion to heavy gunfire from large party duck hunts can send a dog back to the levee with its tail tucked. It’s advisable to take a dog into the woods for the first six to eight hunts with just one other person and refrain from shooting while asking your partner to shoot sparingly. This allows complete control and helps create a mental connection in which the dog applies the principles it learned in training to retrieving ducks in the field.
These initial opportunities to correct bad behavior at the outset of that first season can have the most long-term influence. The focus on control ensures that your dog doesn’t break off the stand early and remains quiet throughout the hunt. These measures will ensure your dog’s safety and lock in the chance that you, and your dog, get invited to go hunting again.
Building a solid relationship early with your dog trainer is crucial to finding that perfect duck dog. Trust and communication are vital in building reliability, and investing time and energy into the relationship with your trainer and puppy is essential.
By bonding with your puppy in both a home environment and a learning/training environment, you’ll develop a foundation for success that will carry through your dog’s training and hunting career. With patience, positivity and a strong bond, you and your duck dog will be fondly remembered by everyone long after the hunt is over.