How well your retriever behaves in a boat — especially a small one — is more than a question of manners; it can keep you from taking a potentially deadly swim. To put things in perspective, let's start with, say, a narrow-beamed 14-foot john boat, and a typical 70-pound Lab. When that dog launches himself over the gunwales for a duck, your skinny little john is going to skid sideways like a rug on a waxed wood floor — picture the consequences.
But it doesn't have to be that way. You can train your dog to sit waiting for your command to retrieve; you can teach him not to pace and knock things over; you can assign him a safe place in the boat and know that he'll stay there. All that's required is time and a specific set of training drills.
For a rundown on these techniques, I spoke with David Wolcott of Hillcrest Retrievers in Woodbine, Md. Wolcott's experience with dogs and boats goes way back; he cut his teeth hunting divers on Lake Champlain in Vermont using both car-top skiffs and Barnegat Bay sneak boats. And he's been a pro retriever trainer for well over a decade.
There's plenty that can go wrong with an untrained dog in a crowded duck boat, Wolcott says. "If the dog doesn't have the experience, he'll pop up or break. That can upset the boat, and it's dangerous, you know? You're rockin' and rollin' out there on the water, and with a firearm and all the excitement of shooting, they can bolt. If the dog's not steady, if they're not trained, you're going to have an issue."
But that's not the extent of it. "The next problem, opposite to that, is a dog that won't get in the water," he says. "They're not used to it, it's kind of scary for them, and they won't go in. Meanwhile, the bird's drifting off, or if it's a cripple, it's swimming off. So you've got two potential problems with an untrained dog: they bolt or they won't go in at all."
Acclimating a dog to hunting out of a boat starts early, but it's important not to skimp on basic obedience skills.
"First, you need to collar condition them, get them up to speed on obedience work, force fetching, and casting drills, and finally get them to where they can handle marks on both land and water," he says. Then you're ready for official boat training. Wolcott suggests making it easy for the dog, at least at first.
"When we start, we keep the boat on dry land or on the very edge of the water, where it's pretty stable," he says. "Even if you're training an older dog with some experience you should start with a stable boat; they're going to need to relearn how to get in and out of it if it's been 10 months since the last time you took them hunting."
Climb On In
Wolcott likes to start his newbies out easy by throwing a few bumpers while the dog is sitting in the boat. That's where the obedience you've already drilled into him comes into play: If he's steady on land, he should be steady in the boat, too. But it doesn't always work out that way. So Wolcott suggests keeping the initial sessions simple and easy so your pup builds confidence. "Dogs need to get used to launching off the boat in a set-up where it's not dangerous," he says. "You don't want to scare them."
When they're retrieving bumpers and reliably steady, he starts teaching the dog to climb back into the boat, which is done while it's anchored in shallow water. "Get your waders on and get out there in the water with your dog, and lead him or make him swim to the stern — the most stable part of the boat — and then give the kennel command," he says. "A lot of people are thinking about concealment from the ducks and not how their poor dog is going to get in and out. But most dogs, if they can get their front paws over the boat — you can apply some downward pressure on their shoulders and they'll be able to climb back in on their own."
For boats that have gunwales too high above the waterline for the dog to clamber over, Wolcott suggests loading ramps. They can be mounted anywhere on the boat that's convenient, but once you choose a location, keep it there. Then train the dog to swim to that location in the same way you trained him to swim to the stern.
By now the dog should be up to speed on basic boat manners. It's time for him to get some real world experience with decoys in deep water.
"You have to teach the dog to hunt off of decoys," Wolcott says. "So anchor your boat downwind of them, so the dog won't get tangled up in the anchor lines, then throw it some bumpers with the same commands. Make the dog sit, throw your bumper, then send him for a retrieve.
"If you haven't already done it, now is the time to add gunfire, which can be a big distraction. On the way back, make sure he swims to the stern or your loading ramp to get in. You want to progress incrementally, one small step at a time."
Now your dog is ready for an actual hunting trip. How you handle the first few hunts with a young dog is critical, Wolcott says.
"Try to get the dog out in a situation where you're not out there with a whole lot of hunters, a firing line type of thing, where your dog isn't going to end up in somebody else's way," he says. "Try to pick your spot that, if you can't drop the duck in the decoys every time, you're at least not going to set the dog up with a 300-yard cripple. So use some judgment. If you're killing a lot of birds, don't shoot the one that's going to sail downwind a couple hundred yards; try to kill them as close as you can."
With the excitement of live birds, men shooting and yelling, and perhaps other dogs in other blinds, even well-trained dogs can forget their manners. Some handlers, perhaps more interested in shooting birds than steadying up their dog, will tie their dog to the boat to keep it from breaking, but it's not a suggestion Wolcott recommends.
"I've seen people do that," he says, "but to me that means the dog just needs more work. If it comes to that, then it's time to put your gun down and handle the dog. It might be an hour or two, but you'll see it when the dog starts to come around, especially if you're in open water where you can see the ducks coming in from a long ways off. Dogs that are tied down can sometimes panic and really start tugging at their tie or even get aggressive."
Wolcott has a few final suggestions that can make a huge difference in a dog's comfort. "What a lot of people don't think about is, it might be warm to you in your Gore-Tex jacket, but it's not to your dog. Cold water will burn calories off a dog like nothing. It's fun to watch a dog dive off a boat and swim after a cripple, and it's fun to show off your dog in front of your buddies.
"He may be able to swim a hundred yards for a cripple in cold water, but don't make him do that. If he gets cold, take him to shore and let him run around a little bit. Sure, that's probably when a flight of birds will go by, but letting him run around will warm him up, and it's just a lot better for him."
Finally, don't be in a hurry. Wolcott doesn't rush things; getting a dog from basic obedience through steadiness in a boat, and then successfully through its first few actual hunts, is a matter of months, not weeks. Start early enough in the summer that your dog will be ready by fall.
It's hard to go wrong with too much training, but too little is always a mistake. The more preparation work you put in, the less upfront corrections you'll have to make on the water. That will make you — and your dog — a lot easier to live with.