Many hunters have looked at the calendar and kicked themselves for not spending more time with their dogs over the summer. Nevertheless, you might be short on time, but you aren’t short on opportunity. With only a few weeks left before waterfowl seasons start to open across the country, here are what some of the best pro trainers suggest you work on.
“The first thing you’ve got to do for your dog is to get him in good enough shape where he’s not going to get hurt,” says Ashly Kite of Moss Bend Retrievers. “The slower you get them back in shape, the less apt you are to have injuries.”
“The second thing is obedience,” Kite adds. “Obedience is the foundation of everything. It’s mundane and not the most fun thing to work on, but without obedience you’ve got nothing to build on. With just a few weeks until season, you don’t want to throw everything at them at once. Start by slowly conditioning them, and incorporate obedience training.”
Bob Owens of Lone Duck Outfitters & Kennels reiterates Kite’s focus on conditioning and obedience, and suggests hunters go into the season with realistic expectations for their dogs.
“If you only have a couple of weeks, I would work on obedience and conditioning,” Owens says. “You are not going to be able to fully condition them in a short period of time, but anything is better than nothing. When you get home from work, don’t just go out to your backyard and start throwing bumpers. Take them to a soccer field or a state park and take them for a half-hour hike.”
For training, Owens thinks steadiness is extremely important, both for a successful hunt and for safety in the duck blind. “Just because your dog is steady when you are throwing bumpers in the backyard doesn’t mean it’s going to stay steady when they are watching birds circle the decoys for 10 minutes and then the action starts,” he says. “Create some excitement in your training to test their steadiness—blow a duck call, shoot a starter pistol—those are the types of things that will test a dog’s steadiness.”
When Opening Day arrives, Owens reminds hunters not to forget that their dog got a late start on training and conditioning. “If you are hunting with friends, I would even suggest just focusing on handling your dog on Opening Day. Concentrate on maintaining control of the dog and helping him succeed. Stay patient out in the field. If you haven’t worked them all summer, they are going to make mistakes. Help to correct them and stay patient. It’s supposed to be fun for you and the dog.”
Jeremy Criscoe, director of training and head trainer at Blue Cypress Kennels, has been breeding and training Labrador retrievers for professional gun-dog programs for nearly 20 years. He admits that a couple of weeks isn’t likely enough time to make a major improvement, but it’s a step in the right direction. “Create a training schedule for both you and the dog to get in better condition and prevent the dog from burning out in the field,” he advises. “If they are overweight, I highly suggest water work, because it takes the impact off their joints, and the early season is generally hot, so water work is both good exercise and it keeps them cool. If you don’t have access to water, the most important thing is getting the dog working on a daily basis, whether that’s going on walks or doing retrieving drills.”
Like Kite and Owens, Criscoe agrees that obedience is the foundation to a successful day in the field. “Start with obedience so you can control the dog. Commands like sit and heel, as well as kennel commands, are obviously very important in the field,” he says. “As you build obedience, get the dog retrieving and then introduce gun and bird work. If you have two dogs, create the realistic conditions they are going to see in the field by training with both dogs. Make them watch the other dog retrieve, and then trade off. That will get them good and steady.”
Whatever you decide to work on with your dog, sneaking in some training, even if it’s just a week, is better than trusting dumb luck on Opening Day. Be fair to your dog and get them started in the right direction with a refresher course. Set achievable goals that focus on basic obedience and steadiness, and you are well on your way to an enjoyable waterfowl season. And remember to get an earlier start on your training next year.