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We would not rely on the things they do at field trials or hunt tests, as a model for preparation for shooting over decoys. Field trial judges in particular usually throw out one or two decoys in some obscure corner in order to comply with the rule book. The hunt tests we have attended have been somewhat less guilty of this shortcoming.

A sensible preliminary to working a dog through decoys is to spread a few out on the grass and walk your dog among them on lead with a training stick in hand. When she offers to so much as sniff a decoy, bat her on the nose lightly, saying "No, leave it." Then throw some bumpers or dead birds among the decoys for her to retrieve. Follow this up with a few obvious marks past a few decoys in the water. If your dog hangs up in the decoys, do not reprimand her, just rethrow the mark until she gets the picture. After this preliminary exposure to decoys she will pay little attention to them. We have had some individuals at training clinics who have shown an uncontrollable desire to go after decoys,
biting at them and punching them full of holes. This is aggravating and expensive, and can usually be prevented by a little advance work. Most dogs exhibit an uncanny ability to distinguish between a decoy, no matter how realistic, and a bird or retrieving dummy.

If you are sure you are going to shoot over a dozen or so decoys, you will need to train your dog through only a few decoys, but if you will be shooting over a big spread, you’d better have a good-sized flock out there - 50 or more. Setting up like this is time-consuming, but it will payoff on the opening day with a professional piece of work from your dog. Other types of decoys, wind sock geese, and field decoys of various types should be introduced according to the likelihood of your hunting under those conditions. Because a dog’s natural tendency to interpret a change in conditions as a boundary she must not cross, practice retrieves through the entire spread and into the open water beyond.

Duck calls are another accouterment of hunting which are easily introduced. Blowing a call once or twice in training while requiring your dog to sit should suffice to prevent a startled reaction that might flare incoming birds. If you plan to run retriever hunt tests in which duck calls are used to herald a throw, usually from a hidden position, it is worthwhile to practice that in a few of your training sessions. Once your dog has learned to look in the direction of the call in anticipation of a mark, however, you do not need to continually practice with duck calls. It is preferable to work with a shot alone most of the time, maintaining the skill of locating the mark by the sound of the shot.

One may argue that blowing the duck call alerts the dog to incoming birds. Generally, a good dog learns to detect arriving waterfowl before the hunter does, being blessed with acute hearing and excellent vision.

From The 10-Minute Retriever, by John & Amy Dahl; Reprinted by permission of Willow Creek Press, Inc.. 800-850-9453,
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