Developing the Waterfowler

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Developing the Waterfowler

by George Hickox

The polished waterfowling dog is a master of its trade. Whether waiting patiently with impeccable manners until the arrival of the next flock of greenheads or leaving a wake when zeroing-in on a downed cripple, a trained retriever sends a shiver of admiration through any hunter.

It is pure joy to watch a high-caliber duck and goose dog. A fully trained 'fowler is line-steady and alertly sits in the blind or boat until given instructions to propel itself into the water. After putting forth a Herculean effort chasing down a cripple, the steadfast retriever brings back the prize, sits by its handler's side and awaits the command to gently release the bird into its master's hand-all without damaging the bird in any way.

In addition to demonstrating manners that would make Emily Post proud, a waterfowl hunting dog is expected to complete blind retrieves with exacting precision. Trusting its handler completely, the dog follows hand and whistle commands to the area of a downed bird. Although the dog never saw the fall, it is expected to use the tools Mother Nature and hours of training gave it to produce the prize.

Any aficionado of waterfowl hunting drools over images of hand-crafted decoys, finely tuned calls and expertly honed waterdogs. Unfortunately, far too many dreamers never put themselves in that perfect picture. The goal of developing a top-notch duck or goose dog often falls short.

Before a dog can master double or triple blind retrieves, it must have a sound foundation in the basics. Rushing the young student often leads to apprehension and confusion on the dog's part and frustration on the owner's. By the same token, waiting for the dog "to get old enough to train" is a path fraught with roadblocks. The first eight to 10 months of a pup's life are critical to preparing the dog for more-advanced schooling.

As I've emphasize before, it takes proper genetics, training and nutrition for a working dog to achieve excellence. If a dog is not blessed with the desire, drive and physical attributes required of a hard-core waterfowl hunting dog, the owner should never expect greatness and should limit the dog to less-demanding duties. A willingness to learn and the ability to be trained are also prerequisites. An enthusiastic dog that can overcome obstacles and progress will be a lot more rewarding to develop . . . and a heck of a lot more fun. Remember that it is supposed to be fun to train your dog. Trying to train a genetically inferior dog will give a new definition to the word "work."

Many genetically gifted dogs can prove to be difficult students, but the fault usually lies with the trainers. If a pup remains isolated during the critical first few months following whelping, trainers will never be able to bring out that dog's full potential. At the other extreme, rushing a dog in an attempt to produce the youngest retriever ever is also a mistake.

Following is a fundamental guide for developing a good retriever. Keep in mind that I believe that the conditioned, or forced, retrieve is the foundation for advanced work. Teaching the forced retrieve, proper marking, taking straight lines, and whistle and hand signals requires an enthusiastic student with a good attitude. Recognizing that there are exceptions to many rules, I recommend teaching the forced retrieve when the dog is roughly eight to 10 months old. Again, I believe the forced retrieve is the foundation for developing the complete waterfowl hunting dog capable of performing stellar retrieves and exhibiting total cooperation.

As for the fundamental "dos and don'ts" during the pup's first eight to 10 months, it is foremost important to monitor the pup's health. Remember that you are training an athlete. Always make sure that there is fresh water available, and keep vaccines up to date. Don't forget the heartworm preventative, and administer Frontline as a first-line defense against tick -borne diseases. A healthy pup will be much better able to handle the stresses of new environments and situations. As a trainer, one of your most important objectives is to develop trust in your student. A dog's confusion or apprehension is often created by a lack of trust. If a dog does not understand why it is being corrected, it likely will become unsure of itself and its trainer. You need to respect your dog and look at things' from its perspective. Never expect a dog to perform anything it hasn't been taught to do. You must first show the youngster what you eventually expect of it-and in so doing become a trusted mentor, not a harsh disciplinarian

The other day at the vet's office I observed a lady talking to her dog. "Sit," she commanded. The dog did not respond. "Put your rear down." Still no response. "Hey, I am not going to tell you again!" The woman then slapped the dog on top of the head. The dog still did not sit, but it did immediately tuck its tail, roll over on its back and pee all over its belly. The dog had no idea why it had been hit. Naturally, this dog was apprehensive and confused.
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