Summertime and the living is easy. Time to relax on a hammock and grill some burgers on the patio. Maybe mow the lawn – or not. Over there under the oak tree lays your trusty retriever and he’s enjoying the laid-back vibes of summer living, too.
Snap out of it! This is no time to relax. Duck season is just a few short months away and the best hunting dogs are made in July. The dog is probably feeling just as lazy as you are, but this is your chance to make that retriever something special when chill winds blow and ducks fly. So keep these hunting tips in mind as you prepare your pup for the hunt.
Start with the basics
Obedience is your friend whether you’re in the blind or in the yard. Sit, stay, heel, and come are critical to any dog owner’s sanity, but total compliance is critical in a boat or a blind. The wrong move at the wrong time can overturn a boat or tip over shotguns in a blind. Make him heel while you are wading through shallow water, too. Your dog should always be under control in hunting situations.
Frankly, you should be reinforcing obedience year-round, but this is a good time to start it up again in earnest. Just remember the words of expert trainer Tom Dokken: “Start with something fun, and end with something fun.” Don’t end the session after a correction. Put him away happy. Dogs live in the moment — a dog that enjoys training will automatically be a better hunting companion.
After you’re sure your retriever has the basics down, refresh his memory about some of the finer points of waterfowling. A good place to start is reinforcing “steady to shot” training. Having a dog that bolts at the shot is a good way to ruin a hunt, or worse.
While we’re working on that, let’s throw in some multiple retrieves, too. If your dog is steady to shot, then he’s ready to mark several downed birds and remember where they landed. That’s going to make life easier for both of you when the action comes fast and furious this fall.
Multiple retrieves and blind retrieves (or any retrieves for that matter) should come from a variety of situations: In a boat, from a tree-mounted platform like the ALPS Timber Dog Stand, through a port, even retrieving through decoys — make sure you practice all of them. Young dogs especially can be overwhelmed by new hunting situations. They need to see it all well before the opener.
Keep the training short and fun for that pup and vary it a bit each time you train. A bored dog is a distracted dog. Send him into shore vegetation after a dummy. Start him in shoreline veg and send him into open water. Make sure you are challenging the dog to think. Wounded ducks usually head for whatever cover is available, so practice retrieving from those thick edges.
Dogs live in the moment — a dog that enjoys training will automatically be a better hunting companion
Work on dry ground retrieves, too. If you are primarily a field hunter, that should constitute the bulk of your training sessions. If you use field concealment for your dog like the ALPS Alpha Dog Blind, make sure you are using the blind during summer training, too. Marking from a dog blind is more challenging for the dog and he needs that practice. But even if you don’t hunt fields, ducks still end up high and dry occasionally.
Where I do much of my hunting in northern Wisconsin, we regularly hunt from well-defined points on bigger lakes. We frequently drop birds on higher ground behind the blind. Occasionally a bird will even hang up in the trees. It’s hard to train for that, but if your dog is good a marking and rock steady at the shot, your odds of finding even that bird go up dramatically.
If you plan to hunt geese this year, make sure your dog is ready to handle big birds by using big, lifelike retrieving dummies. Young dogs can be confused and intimidated by the shear size of a mature goose. Make sure they’re ready for what’s coming. If your dog wears a vest like the ALPS Topflight Dog Vest, use it in training, too. I use vests sporadically during the early season, usually when I need to hide the dog a bit better. But I love the added insulation they give during late season when breaking ice is a real possibility, or when I’m hunting flooded timber and there are hidden snags that could hurt the pup.
Another thing to watch for is signs of heat stress. Dogs don’t perspire like we do and they can overheat quickly in summer training sessions. Watch the heat and train early or late in the day.
I shouldn’t have to say it, but overall fitness is crucial for your dog. If you are willing to work him every day, even if just for a few minutes, he won’t be overwhelmed or worse yet, quit on you, when birds are piling in ahead of an autumn front. And the exercise won’t hurt you either. Keep it snappy and make it fun. Your dog will thank you with a thousand memories from the field.