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Preparing a Retriever for Duck Hunting

by John Riggle

It’s never good when someone takes a young retriever duck hunting for the first time and then doesn’t understand why their pride and joy is picking up sticks in the water and grabbing the decoys and bringing them back instead of retrieving ducks. If that dog has never been in a duck blind before, it’s understandable to me, but hunters are always asking themselves, "Why isn’t my brand new well-bred, super expensive retriever sitting there like he’s supposed to, and retrieving like he’s supposed to; heck, he does it perfectly in the backyard."

Often, the reason the dog is not performing up to an owner’s standards on the first hunt is that he never exposed the dog to actual hunting conditions before he took it into the field.

The easiest way to prepare a dog not to pay attention to a floating decoy is to condition the dog before the hunt to leave decoys alone. For starters, take the dog out after you have set out a small spread of decoys -- let’s say five to seven of them -- on the lawn and walk the dog through them. Let the dog know you don’t want it to pick up these decoys. They are taboo.

After we make the dog comfortable around the decoys where he’s not picking them up, then we can start throwing the training dummy into the decoys and have him retrieve the dummy out of the decoys until he’s very comfortable. You must also be careful here that you don’t make the dog afraid of the decoys (for example, by applying collar stimulation when you shouldn’t). You want to make sure the dog is very comfortable moving around in the decoys and not trying to retrieve them for you.

If you know you’re hunting out of a particular boat be sure to load the dog in and out of the boat a few times so he’s comfortable in the boat. If you can work it out, take the boat to a lake or pond and let the dog make some short retrieves so he knows where he’s supposed to sit, and where he’s supposed to enter and exit out of the boat. After you have done some of that initial work it’s time to take the dog out to a pond. Spread out six or seven floating decoys and make sure the dog will retrieve through the decoys.

Always make sure when you put your decoys out that you keep the anchor strings as short as possible or the dog will get tangled in your decoy spread and be dragging them around. A young dog can become afraid of a floating decoy if he has become tangled in the anchor string and the decoys bumps him a few times. We don’t want that.

Many dogs don’t hear a duck or goose call until the first time they hunt, then they don’t know what all that noise is and it gets them excited and confused. You need to condition your dogs to the call. Use the call while you’re training them to retrieve and then they will get used to it on the hunt.

Many dogs have never been shot over prior to their first hunt. You have to train the dog to react positively to a shotgun going off right over the top of them.

In training, start out shooting away from the dog and slowly adjust until you are shooting right over the dog and then it won’t be afraid during actual hunting. You want the dog to remain perfectly still as the gun is going off.

What I do when training is blow the call for awhile, shoot the gun, and throw the dummy bird to retrieve. Then the dog will get used to the scenario. He’ll become more efficient when he’s not surprised and will perform properly that first time in a duck blind or in the boat.
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