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Have you ever gone hunting with a friend and his well trained dog? You watch in admiration as the dog races toward the lake and makes his way right to the bird floating in the water. He retrieves duck after duck with a look of sheer joy on his face, all while you remain dry in your duck blind, happily watching the dog perform his job with great enthusiasm. A hunting dog is a partner in a hunt, right by your side, helping you, and keeping you company.
Wouldn't you like to have your own partner when you go hunting? A hunting dog can be a furry companion who can assist you and enjoy the long hours of those early morning hunts with you. Training a hunting dog requires a lot of time and effort, but for those who love to hunt, the sport is well worth the effort. Many hunters also discover that they are trainers at heart and that they enjoy working with their dogs almost as much as they do hunting.
Before your dog can be a safe asset on your hunts, he needs to learn obedience skills, confidence around water, birds, and gunfire, and he needs to have a natural instinct to retrieve and to want to work. The amount of time that it takes will largely depend on your dog's temperament, your own skills and investment of time as a trainer, and the level of excellence that you are desiring in your pup. On average, you can expect it to take between six and twenty-four months to generally prepare your dog to be a safe and helpful hunting companion.
Which method is best for your pup will depend on his temperament and instincts as well as your own preferences. If your dog is more timid and needs encouragement around birds, then the 'Birds' method might be best for him. If your pup is very enthusiastic but tends to lack self-control, then the 'Obedience' method can help you lay a solid foundation and boundaries for him. The 'Bumper' method is a middle ground between the other two methods, emphasizing both obedience and natural drive fairly equally.
To get started, you will need a shotgun, blank bullets for your gun, an assistant who can safely handle a gun, a friend who duck hunts if your assistant does not, a spacious and calm location to practice at, and a location with an open body of water, such as a lake. You will also need dead ducks that are fully intact with their feathers on. If you are using the 'Birds' method, you will also need a long drag leash, a duck call, and bird wings. If you are using the 'Bumper' method or the 'Obedience' method, then you will also need several bumpers, including some that float in water. With all of the methods, you will need perseverance, patience, hard work, and a willingness to grow and learn as a trainer.
The Birds Method
Introduce a wing
To begin, introduce your pup to a bird wing with the feathers still on. Show the wing to your dog and let him sniff it, attach a long leash to your pup, and throw the wing a few feet away. Encourage your dog to investigate it, pick it up, carry it around, and bring it back to you if he wants to. Do not let him tear it up and chew on it though. Practice with the wing regularly.
Throw the wing
When your dog is excited about it, practice having him bring the wing back to you. Toss the wing for him and encourage him to bring it over to you by acting exciting and telling him 'Fetch' or 'Come'. If he does not come, then gently reel him in with the long leash. Gently take the wing from him after a moment and immediately toss it again when he releases it. Practice with the wing until he will reliably bring it back to you.
When your pup is doing well, teach him the 'Sit' command. Right before you throw the wing, tell him to 'Sit'. Make him wait to get up until you give him a release command. Teach him the 'Drop' command and practice having him drop the wing into your hand, rather than you having to take it from him. Practice all of this until he can 'Sit', 'Fetch', and 'Drop' the wing reliably.
Add a bird
When your buddy is excited about retrieving the wing, replace the wing with a dead duck. Make sure that the duck still contains the head and feathers.
Practice with ducks
Practice retrievals with dead ducks until your pup can 'Sit', 'Fetch', and 'Drop' when you tell him to while retrieving ducks.
Recruit an assistant to help you introduce gunfire. Go to a location that is safe for shooting guns, and have your assistant fire a shotgun with blanks in it a hundred yards away. Only fire guns around him when you are doing something extremely rewarding with him, like throwing ducks. When he seems completely comfortable around the noise, very gradually decrease the amount of distance between him and the gun over the course of a month or more, until you can fire off the gun close by right before you throw a duck.
When your pup is used to birds and gunfire, regularly take him to calm swimming areas and help him to get comfortable with water by getting into the water yourself, throwing toys into the water for him to retrieve, and letting him watch other dogs swim. When he will get into the water himself and is comfortable swimming, practice retrievals with a bird wing in the water. When he can retrieve a wing well, then practice with dead ducks until he masters that also.
Work on marking ability
Recruit an assistant to help you teach your pup how to mark. Have your assistant walk thirty feet away in an area with tall grass. Have your assistant blow a duck call and then toss a duck into the air. Let your dog watch the duck fall while he is seated, and once the duck is out of sight, release your dog with his release command. Practice this until he is able to go directly to the fallen bird. When he can easily find the bird, then gradually have your assistant move further and further away as your pup improves.
Take him for a spin
Take your dog hunting with you. The first time that you take him, bring a hunting friend along and let your friend do all of the hunting while you instruct your dog on his obedience and retrievals. Practice your training as if this is a session, and enjoy your new furry hunting buddy's skills.
The Bumper Method
To begin, teach buddy how to retrieve a bumper and practice retrievals regularly. End each session while he is still having fun. Reserve bumpers only for training sessions and do not let him chew on the bumpers. Practice with bumpers until he absolutely loves them.
When your pup is very enthusiastic about bumpers, work on his formal obedience skills. Teach him 'Sit' and practice having him sit while you throw a bumper, staying in place until you give him a release command. Teach him 'Heel' and have him heel while walking to and from your practice location. Teach him 'Come' or 'Here' and work on his immediate response during retrievals. Finally, teach him 'Drop' and work on him delivering a bumper to your hand.
Spend time getting your dog familiar with water. Take him to calm locations with open bodies of water. Make a game of it and encourage him to get in by getting in yourself, by throwing toys or bumpers in the water, or by letting other dogs get in and tempt him. When he is comfortable swimming, practice water retrievals with the bumpers.
When your pup is doing well retrieving the bumper, introduce him to real dead ducks. Make sure that the duck is whole and contains the feathers. At first, let your pup sniff the bird and explore the bird. Let him practice picking it up and bringing it to you and then practice retrievals, where you or an assistant throw the bird for you dog. Have your dog sit during these throws.
Recruit an assistant and have that assistant fire a shotgun with blank bullets in it from a hundred yards away while you practice retrievals with birds or bumpers with your dog. Keep things fun and throw your bumper or bird right after the shotgun goes off so that your pup will learn to connect the gunfire with fun retrievals. When he is completely comfortable with the sound of the gunfire, gradually have your gunman move closer overtime. Do this until the gun can be shot from nearby without frightening your dog.
When your pup is comfortable, go hunting together! The first time that you go hunting, be sure to bring a hunting buddy along. Have your friend do all of the hunting so that you can focus on your dog. Enforce your training during the hunt so that your pup will not form bad habits and remember to tell your furry buddy just how proud of him you are.
The Obedience Method
To begin, teach Fido obedience skills. Teach him how to 'Sit' and automatically stay until he is told to get up with a release command. Teach him to 'Heel' around distractions. Teach him to 'Come' around lots of distractions, even while he is in the middle of running in the opposite direction. Teach him to 'Drop' something when you tell him to and teach him to pay attention to his name.
Introduce a bumper
Have him 'Sit' while you throw the bumper, then go get it and bring it back. Ensure that he brings the bumper back to you by acting exciting and by utilizing a long drag leash to reel him in if he gets sidetracked. When he returns with the bumper, let him hold onto it for a minute, and then tell him to 'Drop' it. Do all of this regularly, until your pup loves retrieving bumpers and can perform all of his obedience skills during retrieval sessions.
Spend time getting your pup used to water. Take him to calm, open bodies of water, and encourage him to explore the water. When he is comfortable swimming, begin to practice retrievals with the bumper in the water. When you practice the retrievals, enforce his training commands just like you do while you practice on land.
Introduce him to gunfire noise. Go to a location where it is safe to fire a gun. Have your assistant go a hundred yards away and shoot the shotgun. At the same time, practice retrieving with your dog while the gun is going off. Practice at that distance from the gunfire until he is completely unaffected by the noise. When he is comfortable, gradually decrease the distance of the noise overtime. Do not decrease the distance too fast however.
Practice the real thing
When your buddy is comfortable around gunfire, water, and birds, take him on a real hunt with you. Have another hunter accompany you on your first hunt and let her do all of the shooting while you focus on instructing your dog. Practice and enforce his obedience and retrievals as if he were in a training session still. Enjoy duck hunting with your new four legged hunting partner!
By Caitlin Crittenden
Published: 05/30/2018, edited: 01/08/2021