Sep 2, 2022

Canine Corner: Your Get-Ready-For-Fall retriever checklist

By SportDOG ® Brand Sr. ProStaff Lyle Steinman

Presented by SportDOG® Brand 

(Originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of California Waterfowl.)

The best way to assess whether you and your dog are prepared for fall is to do an honest assessment of last year’s season. Photo by Lee Thomas Kjos of Kjos Outdoors

Hunting season will be upon us faster than we think. I don’t know about you, but it seems there’s always “just one more thing” I wish I had done in the weeks leading up to opening day to ensure that my dogs are ready when that first flock of October mallards sets its wings and drops into the decoys.

Being ready for the excitement of duck season may mean different things to hunters with retrievers, depending on their circumstances. Is this your young dog’s first season, or will it be business as usual for your more veteran dog? Are you going to hunt the same way and in the same places as last year, or are you striking out for some new territory this season?

Regardless of which dog is going to the blind with me or where we’re going to hunt, I keep a mental note of the 101 things we need to prepare for.

Experience has taught me that spending some time planning and prepping now will pay off handsomely later. Here’s a basic checklist I suggest you use as a guide to prepping for the new season as we count down the days to the opener.

  1. Crate/vehicle manners – Does your dog ride quietly in your vehicle? He should be used to traveling in the backseat or, preferably in my opinion, in a crate. If you haven’t done a lot of traveling with your dog, start taking him along on short trips and errands to reinforce that the crate is his home when he’s not at work. Tip: If you regularly crate your dog at home (for example at night or when he’s unsupervised), traveling becomes a whole lot easier.
  2. Decoy familiarity – Make sure you’ve set up at least a few training drills in a way that your dog has to run or swim through decoys to pick up the bumper. This can be as simple as tossing a half-dozen dekes on the lawn in your backyard and then doing some simple retrieves in and around them until he learns that plastic is something he can ignore.
  3. Steadiness – There’s no such thing as a retriever that’s too steady. No matter how steady and obedient your dog is during training, the excitement of duck calls and shooting during actual hunting can prove to be too much for your dog to bear, and the result is that he jumps out of the boat or blind before you want him to. Countless hunters have learned this the hard way. If you have any doubts about Rover staying put until you send him to retrieve, consider letting your buddies do the shooting on the first few outings while you hang onto your leashed dog to make sure he can’t break.
  4. Dog stands/ground blinds – Related to No. 3 above, if you haven’t learned this additional point about steadiness, you certainly will: It’s a lot easier to reinforce steadiness when your dog is at heel than when he is some distance away. Therefore, if your dog is going to be stationed on a stand in a marsh or in a ground blind during a field hunt, you had better be doing some training using that gear. Work on marking drills where you’re sending your dog from his stand or blind from a few feet away, and then work up to longer distances. The lesson he needs to understand is that stay put means stay put even when you’re not right there to correct him.
  5. Familiarity with hunting location – If you’re going out to do some scouting, take your dog along and set up some hunting scenarios. Really do it up with duck calls, a thrower using real birds, shotgun blasts and decoys. I hope you’ve done this type of thing during your summer training, but the difference here is to do it out at your favorite hunting spot. That way your dog has a chance to build some confidence when you get back out there for a real hunt.
  6. Boat rides – Speaking of getting ready for a real hunt, understand that an actual hunt is NOT the time for your dog’s first boat ride. Entering, exiting and riding in a boat can be stressful to a retriever. After all, it’s like nothing else in his everyday life. If there’s a chance you’ll be using a boat or canoe this fall, get out there now for some leisurely rides to teach your dog that everything about watercraft is positive.
  7. Health assessment – If your dog has put on some weight during the hot days of summer, hopefully you can fix that before the season starts with regular daily exercise and proper food portions, cutting back on calories if necessary. It’s also important to get to the vet for a pre-season checkup to make sure any past aggravations such as pulled muscles, tail injuries and the like are fully healed so your dog is ready to go. Your retriever needs an annual checkup and shots anyway. Rather than make two trips to the vet, try to schedule this visit right before hunting season so you have peace of mind that everything is in working order.

This list could go on and on because there’s no such thing as being “too ready” for waterfowl season. Your checklist might be longer or shorter or different than mine. Regardless, the best way to assess whether you and your dog are prepared for fall is to do an honest assessment of last year’s season. Have you addressed any issues that made last season difficult?

It’s easy to forget about problems such as whining in the blind, breaking when birds are circling, jumping around in the boat and other things that are just part of hunting with dogs as memories of last season fade away.

If you didn’t tackle these challenges earlier in the year, get to work now! You’ll be rewarded with a better hunting season for both you and your retriever.