Training a duck dog can be both the most rewarding, and challenging project to take on as a hunter. To do it correctly, one must be able to anticipate potential hunting scenarios, and then recreate them in a controlled environment.
Note from the author: Every dog is different from the next, and a dog’s bloodline no-doubt plays a large role when it comes to natural born hunting instincts. Some dogs will simply pick it all up, and be ready to hunt sooner than others. In the end, as long as you have the time and patience, (you’re going to need plenty of it) and avoid these eight common mistakes, you too can develop a reliable gun dog.
Your dog’s first lesson must be taught only after developing a firm grip on basic obedience training (sit, stay, come, heel). Once you have built that solid foundation up, it’s time to start on some more advanced training.
However, be cautious about moving onto the next steps here. Rushing, or attempting to force a dog to become a champion waterfowl hunter can really ruin your gun dog.
Here are 8 of the most common mistakes a duck-dog owner will make and how you can avoid them:
1. Make Him Gun Shy
Every hunting dog needs to be properly introduced to gunfire, and there’s no faster way to ruin a dog than rushing this step. You need to provide tons of positive reinforcement, and gradual exposure to gunshots. Don’t plan on blasting your favorite shotgun around your dog the very first time out. Instead, start with a .22 and shoot it from a distance. Eventually, you’re dog will be totally accustomed to shots being fired in close range.
2. Force Him in the Water
Fortunately, most dogs love the water. In fact, you might struggle more getting him to exit rather than enter, but there are some dogs who show a little apprehension to the idea of swimming, especially young pups. Patience is key here. Take your dog to a shallow pond or lake and coax him in no further than belly-deep. Let him build confidence on his own, and before you know it, he’ll be doing blind retrieves right before your eyes!
3. Fake Him Out on Dekes
This one is somewhat self explanatory.
Just about every duck hunter I’ve come across uses decoys, and just about every new duck hunter always asks, “how does your dog know not to retrieve the fake ones?” It doesn’t come natural for dogs to know what a decoy is, so it just takes a little introduction for them to get to know that the dummies aren’t as fun to retrieve as the real ones. Run through a quick decoy walkthrough on land first, then toss a dummy into the mix. You will eventually get the feeling that your dog is aware of your spread and can now move the decoys out to your desired location.
4. Let Him Rock the Boat
This one goes back to moving your dog through his training too quickly. Remember, we said the advanced lessons start only after your dog displays some basic manners, and if you skip that step, you could end up with a fidgety, over-eager hunting partner. There’s nothing worse than that!
5. Allow Him to Break
Steadiness to shot is the name of the game, and this can often be the hardest lesson for your gun dog to master. It goes back to the simple “stay” command, but with all the commotion and birds hitting the water, your dog will want to launch itself from your blind and do its job. It’s important to nail this step down quickly so that your dog will only release when you say so. Trust me, this will save a lot of headaches when greenheads start flying overhead.
6. Make Sure Your Dog is Ready for the Unexpected
Some birds will dive or try to swim away after hitting the water, so it’s important your dog is aware of this before he’s in the field doing it for real – a better prepared dog is a better performing dog.
7. Surprise Him with a Follow-up Shot
Since we’re on the topic of crippled waterfowl, it’s not always enough to have a dog that can cruise through water and chase down a swimmer. It’s also important that your dog knows you may shoot over him while he’s swimming to retrieve a lively bird, and that when you do he needs to stay on task.
8. Send Him to Retrieve a Fully Grown Goose Before He’s Ready
Sending your gun dog to retrieve a full-sized goose should only be done after he’s had some practice. He needs to learn how to handle a bigger bird that might even put up a fight on the way in. Practice retrieves with a big dummy and watch. If your dog still struggles to deal with a full-sized dummy, he’s not ready to tangle with a live honker. Keep honing his skills, stay positive with him, and soon he will turn into that magical duck dog you’ve always dreamed of hunting with.