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How to Train the Dual-Purpose Retriever

The secrets to strategically train your upland bird and waterfowl hunting dog.

How to Train the Dual-Purpose Retriever

One of the beautiful things about retrievers is how versatile they are. (GUN DOG photo)

One of the biggest reasons why those of us who live for both upland and waterfowl hunting tend to lean pretty heavily on retrievers for our outdoor pursuits, is their versatility. Of course, being versatile in description is a far cry from an actual dog that knows how to perform in both types of settings. Getting to that point takes a lot of training and an understanding of how different the ask is for both types of hunts.

They are, essentially, opposites to one another. An upland retriever will be cut loose to range its way through the right cover in search of hot scent, and hopefully, some close flushes. That same dog in the duck blind is supposed to ignore all of its instincts to run and swim, until it is given the opportunity to retrieve a downed bird.

To give a retriever a fair shot at mastering both styles, we as handlers have to cater our drills to specific tasks that encourage steadiness, which is the lynchpin that holds the whole dual-purpose thing together.


Slow and Steady

For every retriever I’ve ever met, which is quite a few at this point, the process of going from the duck blind to the upland fields is much easier than going the other way. This is kind of like when elementary-age kids go from math class to recess, which is vastly different from when they come in from the playground and are supposed to sit quietly at their desks.

Knowing this, it’s extremely important to acknowledge what will be the dual-purpose dog’s greatest challenge: Steadiness. Duck hunting is often portrayed as an action-packed style of hunting where you nearly need an umbrella to keep from getting hit by falling ducks. In reality, it’s mostly an exercise in patience that is disrupted by random bouts of excitement.

dog trainer shooting a shotgun next to a black labrador dog training on pond
A dual-purpose dog that is tasked with handling upland and waterfowl duties in the same week will be prone to breaking in the duck blind—but this is something you can work on during training sessions and while you’re actually hunting. (GUN DOG photo)

Between those moments, and actually during them, a good dog needs to be able to quell his urge to break. I encourage this by first asking my dogs to wait on a retrieve. The timing will depend on the dog’s age and maturity level, but the goal is to make the dog wait long enough that they learn that just because a dummy is tossed (or a duck hits the water) they aren’t in control of when they go. You are.

For young dogs, that might only be an extra few seconds at first, but for seasoned dogs it might be five minutes or more. To further drive this point home, I will also occasionally not send my retriever during a drill. Sometimes I’ll mix it up by making him wait, and then walking out to pick up the bumper myself. That solidifies the lesson that he is not in control of the retrieves until he is specifically told to go.

pheasant hunter in field with two black labrador retrievers
Tasks can be trained incrementally and reinforced appropriately by experience. (GUN DOG photo)

Hunt Lessons

Backyard training drills are important, but the real test comes when you take your upland dog into the duck blind. If he has been hunting the CRP at all, he’s very likely to want to break. Scratch that, he’s very likely to break. This is reality for a lot of dual-purpose retriever owners come October.

Knowing this, I often test my dogs while I’m in the blind. When I’m confident we are in a dead stretch, I’ll let my hunting partners know I’m about to stand up and shoot. The goal is to see if my dog is going to break as soon as I surprise him with this move. Most dogs will lose it even though there clearly aren’t any ducks falling from the sky. They’ll break the moment you stand up and shoot, which means you’ve got to be prepared to issue a correction immediately. If you miss your window, the lesson doesn’t matter.


If you time your correction correctly, this drill usually only has to happen a few times before the dog will start to get the picture. If you’re worried about the timing of your correction and you’ve got a buddy with you, you can have him be the shooter. This way you can watch your dog and correct the instant he starts to break.

Now, I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will anyway—this is a drill meant for a seasoned dog. A first-year pup that is just learning the ropes of duck hunting and the whole steadiness thing is going to fail this test and you know that. It’s also important that you don’t try this test when someone actually shoots a duck, because that can lead to a regretful situation where you’re not sure if you should call a dog off of an actual retrieve (you shouldn’t).

While this is a good move to test your dog’s steadiness as he transitions back and forth from the uplands to the wetlands, it’s also a good drill in the pre-season or the days between hunts. As long as you have training ground where you can shoot, you can take the dog out and sit on a bucket or blind chair and run through this scenario.

duck hunter with black labrador sitting in duck blind
Much of waterfowl hunting is an exercise in patience. (Photo By: Mike Clingan)

Sit To Flush? 

Some folks think the answer to this problem of steadiness in dual-purpose dogs is to train them to sit on the flush. In theory, that sounds like a pretty good idea. In reality, it’s extremely difficult to train most dogs if you don’t have an ample supply of live birds. Most amateur handlers just don’t, so the attempts to really drive home this behavior often fall way short. This might be somewhat evident in training sessions but will definitely be evident in the field when the adrenaline and excitement kick in, and the wild birds start to get up.

A better bet is to allow your dog to be an upland flusher, while teaching him that his role is different when you’re sitting next to the water (or on it) at first light. There, he needs to learn that the desire to run, chase, and find something to retrieve has to be suppressed. That seems like it’s asking a lot of a dog, but it’s really not.

A well-bred retriever that is led through the proper steadiness drills and given enough opportunity to learn about his roles, will understand the difference in due time. There might be some slippage when you get into the season and the different hunts are happening in the same week, or even the same day, but that’s to be expected. The best you can do is keep working on that steadiness mentality, and keep training both at home, and whenever you can in the blind.

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