Nov 28, 2022
Canine Corner: Late-season retriever tune-ups
By Charlie Jurney
Presented by SportDOG® Brand
(Originally published in Winter 2022 issue of California Waterfowl)
No matter how great your hunting season is going, it’s always good to pause and take an honest accounting of your retriever’s performance compared to your expectations. It’s not unusual for skills that started as excellent during the off-season to devolve as the season goes on.
This doesn’t happen because your stalwart hunting companion doesn’t want to work for you. It’s more a symptom of the fact that training season and hunting season are two different environments. Bad habits that you’d never let slip during summer sometimes fester so slowly that you don’t realize they’re a problem until one day in December you’re scratching your head and wondering, “What in the world got into this dog?”
Let me recount three of the most common issues I see crop up during the season. Maybe you’re not dealing with any of these. If that’s the case, I say congratulations and enjoy the rest of your outings. But if you think your dog is in need of a late-season tune-up, read on.
Breaking, or taking off for a retrieve before being sent, is the cardinal retriever sin in a duck blind. It happens to the best hunters, the main reason being that hunting is way more exciting than training and, secondly, that a dog knows when you’re not 100 percent focused on it. After all, you can’t shoot and pay attention to your dog at the same time.
If your dog is creeping forward when birds are circling, or if it’s jumping out of the boat or blind as soon as the first shot is fired, you need to correct this problem immediately. One obvious solution is to tether your dog to the side of the blind or boat or, if you’re field hunting, to stake it out. You need to reinforce the fact that what you want is more important than following its canine instincts. This is a temporary fix until you can work on steadiness drills, but at least you’ve put a Band-Aid on the problem to get you to the end of the season.
A better solution is some retroactive training that you can do during the hunt. The first step is for you and your hunting buddies to agree to only shoot one bird at a time. Multiple birds falling out of the air is exciting, but perhaps too exciting. And if you’re banging off three shells in a row along with the other hunters, you certainly aren’t paying attention to your dog. Let someone else take the shot on that decoying greenhead while you focus on correcting your dog if it breaks. Go back to the basics, just like you did when you started out training your young retriever and practiced on single marks.
Another issue that can result from too much of a good thing – that is to say, lots of good hunting days – is sloppy bird handling. If your hunting party is dropping three or four or more birds at a time, your retriever might start taking shortcuts. For example, in its eagerness to get out there after the next bird, it might drop the bird at the edge of the water instead of delivering it to hand.
The correction here, assuming your dog was properly force-fetched and reliably handles birds during the off-season, is to take a few minutes right there at the blind to redo what is commonly known as “walking fetch.”
Grab one of those ducks that your dog wasn’t handling properly. With your retriever leashed, make it pick up the bird and repeat the routine of fetch-hold-here-heel-sit multiple times. Praise generously each time your dog gets through the routine without dropping the bird.
Then, follow up with some more walking fetch when you get home using one of your fresh-killed birds. Really lay on the positive praise. Remember, this is supposed to be fun for both of you.
Ignoring handling commands
This one is a little tougher to explain without knowing what level of training you’ve achieved with your retriever. If your dog will “handle,” which means you can stop it at a distance and cast it toward a downed bird, that’s great. The rub is that, as in the first two issues I’ve covered here, sometimes the excitement of the hunt causes a dog to ignore your whistle to stop and/or refuse to take your cast, and instead go off on a joyride wherever its nose takes it.
If you have a dog that handles well during training but won’t follow the script while hunting, the best solution I can offer is to take a day off from hunting and go back to the basic “Double T” handling drill. If you followed best practices in your handling training, you should be familiar with this drill, which is used to develop crisp whistle-stops and forces the dog to really pay attention to which bird you’re sending it to, whether it be a left or right cast, or a hard-charging, straight “back” right down the center of the lane.
To get your dog back on track and paying attention to your whistle-stops, set up a Double T drill and line your dog down the middle to the deepest bird. But, for the purpose of reminding your dog it must obey your whistle, stop it multiple times. I’ve had cases where I stopped a dog 15 or more times on its way out. After all, repetition is what makes a good retriever, and you need to make sure that when you blow that whistle, there’s only one acceptable outcome, and that is to stop and stay stopped until you send the dog back, left or right.
Many dogs develop a preference for which way they turn when they take a “back” command. Then, during the excitement of the hunt they’ll revert to that preference regardless of which way you cast them. This is another item that can be addressed during the retroactive Double T drill. If your dog seems to like turning right, make sure you give plenty of left backs and vice versa. Keep working on this until, to use a sports analogy, your dog is adept at “dribbling with either hand.”
These three items certainly aren’t the only problems that can crop up during hunting season, but they’re the ones I’ve witnessed the most. Regardless of what issue you’re dealing with, you’ll notice there’s a common thread here: Don’t get so caught up in the hunt that you let little problems become big ones. A little time invested in going back into training mode during the hunting season will save you lots of frustration in the long run.