Every duck hunter who has chased cripples through submerged broken limbs in the timber or had a downed bird disappear in rice stubble knows a good duck dog is an essential conservation tool. It is hard for me to imagine hunting without one, not only for the dog’s ability to fetch waterfowl, but the companionship they provide during the season. Dogs never have an excuse as to why they can’t go hunting, no weather is too nasty or too cold, and they rarely complain about a slow hunt. The opportunity to get out of the kennel and experience the smells and sounds of a duck hunt is typically enough to make their day.
The well-trained, well-behaved retriever is an anomaly to a vast majority of hunters. My guess is there are too many poorly trained, bad-behaving dogs messing up too many duck hunts for a non-dog owning hunter to value the dog’s usefulness in the field. We have all been on hunts where our buddy’s dog finds a way, and sometimes more than one, to completely ruin the hunt for everyone else involved.
You know the one: the breaker, the barker, the fidgeter, the whiner, the pooper, the refuser, the eater, the roamer, the dropper, the chaser, the soaker and, my favorite, the napper.
Sometimes it’s the dog’s fault. Bad breeding or just a dumb dog — it happens. “Backyard breeding” has led to a lot of undesired traits passed along in the American retriever lineage while trying to create a super-charged, high-energy dog. The British-bred pups have a much cleaner pedigree and for the most part have kept the unwanted attributes of frustrating retrievers out of the breed. That’s not to say you can’t get a good gun dog from your neighbor who bred his “meat” dog to another buddy’s dog, just know the risks and the potential amount of work in front of you to get a useful retriever.
A majority of the time the responsibility for bad behavior on the hunt falls directly on the do-it-yourself trainer. Whether American or British bred, retrievers come equipped from the get-go with the core skills to fetch what they are sent for, an incredible scenting ability and a generally good disposition. An understanding of dog behavior and a strict, consistent plan is essential to take those raw instinctive skills and mold them into a disciplined, dependable retriever.
Be smart about training your pup, and get a firm strategy. There are countless methodologies on training a retriever. Pick one and follow it COMPLETELY. That is the only way it works. Professional trainers have developed their systems by studying and working with hundreds of dogs. Their philosophies and techniques work, if executed as they intend.
Even if you send your dog off to be trained professionally, it’s still up to you to carry on the drills and discipline once the dog comes back home. Too many dog owners get their dog back from a few months at school and believe that is all the dog needs to be a hunting machine.
Once home, keep the momentum with your pup, and get guidance from the trainer on drills and timelines to maintain your duck dog. Many a dollar has been wasted on a quality education only to let the dog sit in the backyard and get an occasional dummy thrown between seasons.
And by all means, do not underestimate the importance of basic obedience. It’s easy to get excited when a new puppy fetches that first tennis ball and brings it back. Seeing your dog do its job inevitably makes you throw more balls or dummies and fetch, fetch, fetch. All the while, sit, stay and heel get put on the backburner. Do this and you are asking for a world of trouble later.
Most of all, have patience. Don’t push your dog too fast through the basics. Core fundamentals should be 99.9 percent fail-proof before anything else can be taught. Who cares if you dog can stop on a whistle at 500 yards if he can’t sit still or be a good citizen at duck camp?
Humorist and author Arnold Glasgow said, “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”
That’s a very applicable quote to creating the duck dog all your buddies will envy.