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Imagine that you own a fantastic English Springer Spaniel. He is your spunky sidekick who goes everywhere with you. He was also your loyal pheasant hunting buddy, but you have recently moved and longer go hunt pheasant. A new friend recently introduced you to duck hunting! You decide that your spunky Spaniel could do the job of retrieving ducks just as well. After months of hard work, you join your friend and his retrievers on your first hunt of the season, and to your delight, your Spaniel keeps up with the big dogs and looks absolutely stunning and proud of himself while he does it.
With their propensity for birds, their energy, intelligence, willingness to please, and desire to work, Spaniels make great hunting dogs. Their small size means that they take up less room than bigger dogs and eat less food every month. Although they are traditionally used as upland flushing dogs, many springer spaniels also do well retrieving birds such as ducks. Your energetic Springer is undeniably eager and up for the challenge.
Training a dog to retrieve ducks involves more than just bringing you a bird if you want him to accompany you. Your pup must be responsive to your commands, comfortable in the water, confident around gunfire, able to remember where a bird has fallen, and able to retrieve a bird. It will take time to teach your pooch all of this.
When choosing a check cord, choose something that can slide through the grass easily without getting caught. The basic difference between a long leash and a check cord is that check cords are designed to be worn as drag leashes and therefore do not contain handles on the end and are typically woven or made out of fabric that can slide easily along the ground. You can also purchase check cords that are made out of polyurethane and will float, but be careful while using any type of confinement in the water. You have to be vigilant not to let the rope get caught on anything and potentially drown you or your dog.
To get started, you will need an assistant, a friend who hunts if your assistant does not, an open body of water, a shotgun and blank bullets, and whole dead ducks with their feathers still intact. If you are using the 'Reel In' method, then you will also need a thirty foot check cord. If you are using the 'Reel In' or 'Bumper to Birds' methods, then you will also need several bumpers, including some that float in water. If you are using the 'Birdy' method, you will need a fifteen foot check cord and bird wings. Above all else, you will also need good timing, patience, consistency, and a willingness to learn.
The Reel In Method
Get set up
To begin, grab several medium sized bumpers, attach a thirty foot check cord to your pup, and go to a calm location with him where you can focus without distractions.
Introduce a bumper
Toss the bumper a few feet away while you excitedly tell your dog to 'Fetch!'. As soon as he picks up the bumper, then excitedly call his name and tell him 'Here!' while you reel him in with the check cord if needed. When he arrives, praise him and make a big fuss over him, then gently take the bumper from him and toss it for him again.
Practice with the bumper
Practice retrievals with the bumper until he will bring it back to you reliably without having to reel him in. Always end the training session while your dog is still wanting to retrieve, and put the bumper away where your dog cannot access it between sessions. The bumper should be a special item that your pup only sees during training sessions.
When your dog is doing well retrieving on land, introduce your dog to the water. Take your pup to a location with an open body of water, such as a lake. Encourage him to get in by tossing toys into the water, by getting into the water yourself, and by letting him watch other dogs swim around. When he is comfortable swimming, practice retrievals in the water with a bumper that floats.
Add more obedience
Work on your dog's formal obedience. Teach him to 'Heel' and have him 'Heel' to and from your training grounds. Teach him 'Sit' and teach him to remain seated until he is given a release command.Have him sit before you throw the bumper and wait until you tell him to 'Fetch' before he gets up. Encourage him to respond well to his own name.
Introduce the real thing
Introduce him to real dead birds. Make sure that they are whole and their feathers are still attached. Encourage your dog to sniff it, explore it, and take it into his mouth, but do not let him eat it, and keep the check cord on him so that he cannot run off with the bird. When he is comfortable with it, then practice your retrievals with it while your pup is on the long check cord.
Introduce the sound of gunfire. To do this recruit another hunter with a shotgun to fire blank bullets from his gun from a hundred yards away while you practice retrievals with a bird with your dog. Watch him carefully for any signs of fear or nervousness. Over the coming weeks or months, gradually decrease the distance between the noise and him. Do this until your friend can fire the gun nearby while you practice retrievals with your dog with no reaction.
Teach your dog how to mark where a bird has fallen by having a friend toss a bird for him from thirty feet away. Have your friend toss the bird into a grassy area while your dog is watching. Release him to find the bird after he watches it fall, and help him find it if he cannot location it within five minutes. Practice these types of retrievals until he can go straight to a fallen bird.
When your pup has mastered all of the above steps, then go hunting with another hunter and bring your dog along. For this first hunt with your pup, have the other hunter do all of the shooting while you take care of your dog and enforce his training commands. Treat this hunt just like any other training session and remind your pup of his obedience and let him know when he is doing a great job!
The Birdy Method
Start with a wing
To begin, you will need a bird wing with the feathers still attached, a fifteen foot check cord, and a calm location. For the bird wing you can either use a pigeon, a duck, a pheasant, or a quail wing.
Toss the wing
Attach the check cord to your dog's collar, show him the wing, and let him sniff it and explore it. Toss it a few feet away. If he picks it up, then call his name in an excited tone of voice, tell him 'Here!' and run away from him playfully. If he runs after you with the wing, then praise him enthusiastically, and after he has held it for a moment, distract him with something else and gently take the wing from him.
Make it move
If he does not pick up the wing when you throw it, go over to it and move it along the ground until he grabs it. You can also tie a thick string to it and use that to make it move. If your pup will not chase after you with the wing in his mouth, then excitedly call him and reel him in with the check cord. Praise him enthusiastically when he arrives.
Practice retrievals with the wing until your pup will bring the wing to you every time that you throw it when you tell him 'Here'.
Add in obedience
When your pup is very comfortable around the wing and will bring it back to you reliably, then introduce new commands and practice them during retrievals also. Teach your pup to 'Heel', to 'Sit', and to automatically stay seated while you throw a bird until you release him with a release command, such as 'Okay', 'Free', or 'Fetch'.
Spend time introducing your pup to water and to gunfire to prepare him for hunting trips later on. Make the experience as fun and rewarding as possible for your dog and watch him carefully for any signs of fear. Introduce him to water by throwing fun toys into a calm body of water that gradually gets deeper, by getting into the water yourself where you can touch and by having other dogs get into the water to tempt your pup.
Transition to real birds
When your pooch is doing well with the wing, his obedience skills, gunfire, and water, then substitute the wings for entire dead birds. Practice the retrievals with the birds like you did before with the wings. As your pup improves, add in a duck call noise right before you toss the bird for him and substitute the smaller birds for full sized dead ducks. Continue to enforce his obedience, including the 'Sit' command.
Have a friend stand thirty feet away and throw a bird into grass that is tall enough to slightly cover the bird when it lands. If your pooch becomes confused, then help him find the bird after a couple of minutes of searching. Practice this until he can make his way directly to the bird after it lands. Make the terrain gradually more difficult by choose areas with taller grass, water, or other plant life.
Transition your pup to actual duck hunts by pairing up with another hunting buddy the first time that you take him. Have the other hunter do all of the shooting so that you can focus on your dog during this hunt. Enforce your pup's training commands like you did during training sessions and be sure to let him know when he is doing a great job!
The Bumper to Birds Method
To begin, you will need some bumpers, a fenced in area, and a six to ten foot check cord. Later on, you will also need a duck call, an assistant, dead ducks with their feathers still attached, a shotgun and blank bullets, a spacious location where you can fire off the gun, a field, an open body of water, and a friend who hunts if your first assistant does not.
Attach the check cord to your dog and go to the fenced in area with a couple of bumpers. Show a bumper to him. When he is interested in it, throw it just a few feet away and encourage him to run after it. When he picks it up, excitedly call his name, tell him 'Here!', and run away from him. When he catches up with you, then step on the check cord, show him your other bumper and command him to 'Drop' the first one.
Practice retrievals with the bumpers until your puppy will bring the bumper to you when you say 'Here', without you having to run away from him, until he will drop it when you say 'Drop', without you having to show him the other bumper first or take it out of his mouth, and until he is excited about retrieving bumpers. If your pup tries to run off with the bumper, then calmly go over to him, step on the check cord, and gently take the bumper out of his mouth. Do not run after him or act excited or that will encourage him even more to run away.
When your buddy is excited about retrievals, then work on his formal obedience more. Teach him to 'Heel', to 'Sit' and to automatically stay until he is released with a command, and practice having him sit before you throw a bumper and wait to retrieve it until he is released. Continue to practice the 'Drop' and 'Here' commands while you are doing this.
Next, get your pup comfortable around water by taking him to a calm location with an open body of water and encouraging him to get in by tossing toys into the water, by getting in yourself, or by letting him watch other dogs swim around. When he is comfortable swimming, practice retrievals with the bumper in the water.
Go to a spacious location with grass that is one to two feet tall. Tell your dog to 'Sit', have your assistant blow a duck call, and then have him toss a bumper into the air so that it falls into the tall grass while your dog is watching it. Release your dog and allow him to search for the bumper on his own for three to five minutes. Practice this until your pup is able to go straight to the bumper when it is thrown. When he can do that, then gradually increase how far away your assistant is.
Next, introduce your pup to real birds. Make sure that the ducks still contain their feathers and their heads. First, show the duck to your pup and let him sniff it. Encourage him to carry it and explore it, but do not let him eat it. When he is comfortable around ducks, then practice retrievals with the ducks on land and in water.
Go to a spacious location where it is safe to fire off the gun. Have your assistant go a hundred yards away and fire off the gun while you practice bumper or bird retrievals with your pup. Make the experience as fun for your pup as possible. When he is completely comfortable around the sound, gradually decrease the distance between him and the noise over the span of several weeks. Do this until you can fire the gun close by and your pup will ignore the sound.
When your dog is comfortable around gunfire, water, and birds, and when he can reliably retrieve and obey your commands, then it's take to take him on a real hunt. The first time that you take him go with another hunter, and let the other hunter do all of the shooting, so that you can focus on your dog. Enforce all of your pup's training commands like you did during practice sessions, and remember to give him plenty of praise when he is doing well.
By Caitlin Crittenden
Published: 06/06/2018, edited: 01/08/2021