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Imagine crouching in a duck blind early in the morning. The early morning light is glistening over the lake and there's a cool breeze blowing off of the water. You wait patiently, your buddy, a faithful Labrador retriever, settled next to you. The two of you have been waiting for this moment together since he was a puppy. A flock of ducks is about to descend onto the lake. You whisper a command to your young dog. He trembles in excitement beside you, obediently holding the seated position. You point your gun and get a clean shot. The bird tumbles into the water, and you give your dog the cue, sending him rushing forward. He practically dives into the water, swimming vigorously toward his prize. After retrieving the bird, he proudly walks up to you and presents you with his prize. You smile at him broadly, and think of all the hunts you will go on together in the future, now that you have your very own duck hunting partner.
Duck hunting involves many different advanced skills and abilities for your dog. These range from swimming, natural retrieving instincts, obedience skills, marking abilities, confidence around birds and loud noises, and quietness. Because hunting involves many different skills, expect it to take between five and twenty-four months to train your dog as a hunting dog. Many experienced hunters spend most of their dogs' lives improving their skills. For many hunters, their love of duck hunting extends to their love of dog training also.
Be patient with your dog while training him. It's important to prevent fear during training, and equally as important to work on your dog's current skills before moving on to harder tasks. Expect your pup's training to be ongoing as well. Depending on your goals for him, you can teach him just the basics that he needs to be a safe retrieving partner on hunts, or you can move on to even harder skills that involve directional commands, upland retrievals, better control, and honoring another dog's retrieve.
To get started, you will need a fifty-foot drag leash, an open area such as a field, an assistant, bumpers, a shotgun, blank bullets for the gun, water for swimming introduction, a variety of locations to practice retrievals in, and fresh or previously frozen dead ducks. If you are using the 'instinct' method, then you will also need a bird wing. With all of the methods, you will need patience, time, commitment, good timing, and a love for the training process as well as your pup's accomplishments.
The Instinct Method
Get a bird wing
To begin, you will need the wing of a pheasant, pigeon, duck, quail, or similar type of bird. You will also need a quiet location and a long, lightweight leash. As your pup improves, you will need a frozen dead duck, a duck call, an assistant, a field, and a gun to make noise, preferably with blank bullets in it.
Throw the wing
Call your pup over to you and get his attention with the bird wing. While he is looking, toss the wing about four feet away from him and then encourage him to explore it and carry it around.
Spend time with the wing
For at least two months spend lots of time getting your puppy used to the wing. Encourage him to pick it up, carry it around, and bring it over to you.
Take your puppy to the shoreline of calm, open bodies of water, and encourage him to get in by tossing toys into the water or getting in yourself. Spend time around water often to help him become familiar with it. Do not scare him or toss him in before he is ready while you are doing this. Encourage him to swim back and forth, but make sure that he paces himself and does not get overly tired.
Move onto a bird
When your pup is very comfortable with the wing, utilize an entire frozen bird. Recruit an assistant and go to an open, grassy area with your puppy. Stand in the grassy field and have your assistant stand forty to fifty feet away. Have them blow a duck call and when your puppy looks towards the noise, have them toss the bird out onto the field in sight. Encourage your puppy to go get the bird.
Throw the real thing
As soon as your puppy picks up the bird, call him to you and run away from him so that he will chase you. When he arrives, let him keep the bird while you praise him, and then distract him with something else so that you can take the bird. Practice the entire thing again. If your puppy will not come back to you, then use a a leash to gently reel him in after he picks up the bird.
Introduce gunshot noises
When your pup is very excited about birds, then introduce the sound of a gunshot from a distance. Only create the sound while your puppy is focused on something else. Watch him carefully for any signs of fear, and if he seems undisturbed by the noise, then gradually decrease the distance between him and the sound until he is comfortable hearing the noise at a close range.
Work on formal obedience
Practice with dead birds for a few more months and when your puppy will enthusiastically pick up and retrieve the bird on the long leash, substitute the bird for a training bumper. Work on your puppy's formal obedience skills. Do this until he can 'sit', 'come', 'heel', and 'stay' even with distractions.
Move on to live birds
When your puppy has both the drive for duck hunting and the obedience skills to keep him safe, as well as confidence around water and the sound of gunfire, then you are ready to start him on easy duck retrievals while hunting. When you first transition him to real hunts, bring a friend along so that you can focus on your pup while your friend hunts and your pup gets used to the real thing..
The Structure Method
To train your pup, you will need a fifty foot drag leash, an open area such as a field, a duck call, frozen ducks, bumpers, a location with water for swimming, an assistant, a shotgun, and blank bullets for your gun.
As early as possible, begin to teach your puppy a solid 'sit' command that he is not allowed to get up from until you tell him 'okay', 'free', or another command. You should also teach him 'heel', 'come', 'focus', and what the various whistle signals mean. For example, you can teach him that one long blow means 'sit' and two long blows mean 'come'.
Introduce a bird
Get your pup familiar with birds by introducing him to a dead duck. You can use a fresh dead duck or one that has been frozen and thawed, but make sure that it still has its feathers. Encourage your puppy to investigate, pick it up, and carry it around, but do not let him eat it or that can create bad habits later on. Practice with ducks regularly while you are still working on his obedience.
Take your puppy to a safe swimming area and gently encourage him to explore the water. Do this by tossing toys into the water. As he becomes comfortable enough to get in himself and starts to swim, then gently help him learn to lift his bottom up by placing your hand on his abdomen and lifting him up until he is in the horizontal position. This can prevent his rear from sinking.
Go to an open field and have an assistant stand one hundred yards away with a shotgun. Toss a bird for your puppy and encourage him to bring it back. Keep your dog's focus. While you do this, have your assistant fire the gun occasionally. Watch your puppy carefully for fear and nervousness. As he becomes more comfortable, gradually decrease the distance between your pup and the noise.
Put it all together
When your puppy has learned his obedience skills well, is completely comfortable around water and gunfire, and loves ducks, then practice retrievals regularly in water, on land, and in brush areas. Practice mostly with bumpers, but occasionally, use real dead ducks. Only allow him to have bumpers during training times so that he will remain excited about them and not form a bad chewing habit.
When your puppy has mastered all the previous steps, introduce him to the real thing by taking him on his first duck hunt. Recruit another hunter to go with you so that he can shoot the ducks while you focus on your dog. Remind your pup of the rules and skills that he practiced during training and be sure to praise him enthusiastically when he retrieves for you!
The Marking Method
To begin, attach a fifty foot, lightweight drag leash on your puppy. Get him excited about bumpers by playing with him with the bumper and then tossing it a little ways away from you. As soon as he picks it up, excitedly call him back to yourself and clap your hands softy to encourage him over.
Trade the bumper
When your puppy arrives with the bumper, gently grab hold of it and show your pup a second bumper. Tell him to 'drop' the first bumper and entice him with the second one by wiggling it around. When he drops the first bumper, immediately throw the second one for him while commanding him to 'fetch'.
Repeat this game regularly with him, only letting him play with the bumpers during training times. Put the bumpers away while you are not practicing retrievals to prevent bad chewing habits.
Add new locations
When your pup is very excited about bumpers, start to practice retrievals with him in new locations while he is on the leash. Practice in fields, around water, and in the woods. When you take him to places with water, encourage him to get into the water by tossing the bumper into the shallow end of water first and by even getting into the water yourself.
When your puppy is comfortable, help him develop his marking skills by practicing his retrievals in a field with grass that is high enough to obscure the bumper from view. Start with short throws first and as he improves, increase the distance. When your throws get further away, recruit an assistant and have them blow a duck call while you toss the bumper.
Focus on obedience
When your pup is doing well, work on his obedience skills more by teaching him to 'heel', 'come', and 'sit'. Start to enforce these skills during training. You can also begin to teach him to respond to whistle commands by adding in different whistles with each command. Choose what your whistle commands will be for each command and be consistent with it.
Recruit an assistant to fire blanks with a shotgun in a safe location while you practice retrievals with your pup. Keep the gunfire one hundred yards away at first. As he improves and ignores the sound, gradually decrease the distance between the gunfire and your pup. Do not proceed with decreasing the distance until he is completely comfortable with each interval.
When your puppy is retrieving the bumpers well, introduce him to either a freshly killed duck or a thawed out frozen duck with the feathers on. Allow him to sniff, hold, and carry the duck around. When he is comfortable with it, practice retrievals until he will reliably bring the duck to you.
Try it out
When your dog is comfortable with real birds, gunshot fire, and water, and his obedience skills are reliable, go on a real duck hunt with him. The first time that you take him on a hunt with you, bring a friend who can do the hunting while you focus on your dog and let him practice his retrievals. Enjoy your new furry hunting partner!
By Caitlin Crittenden
Published: 05/22/2018, edited: 01/08/2021