A lot of the bird-dog focus during the preseason is centered on physical conditioning. We want our retrievers to enter dove and duck season, and later a litany of upland seasons, in peak physical shape. This is a good goal, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you work on with your dog.
Steadiness should be a priority as well. In fact, I’d say that the number-one issue most bird dogs have is with breaking. This can be annoying during certain upland hunts, but devolve into something infuriating during dove or waterfowl hunts where a dog is expected to stay until he’s sent.
What’s worse is that a dog that is prone to breaking might also invite a correction while he’s doing what he thinks he is supposed to do, which is go get the birds you shoot. That can lead to a loss of confidence and cause confusion on the dog’s part, neither of which are something you want to instill in your dog. Instead, head off the breaking issues now before it’s too late.
I realize that most of us have limited dog-training time in our daily lives, so this can be difficult to get into, but hear me out. When you toss a dummy in the backyard for your retriever, make him wait before you send him. If he’s a young dog, this might only be 10 seconds. If he’s six years old and knows exactly what he’s doing, this might be five minutes.
The goal is to get the dog to start understanding that a retrieve doesn’t immediately happen just because a dummy hits the dirt or water. You want to gauge your dog’s body language to see when the tension dissipates and he relaxes. You’ll know it when you see it, and that is a good thing because it shows your dog is starting to understand that you’re in control of the retrieve timing, and that it will happen when you decide—not him.
This is especially important with high-drive dogs, because they are going to want to go, and if they can’t wait during a backyard drill, they aren’t going to be able to contain themselves when a greenhead falls into the drink during the first hunt of the season. It’s also important with medium-drive dogs as well, but with those retrievers you also want to be careful to not make them wait so long that they lose interest.
This goes for pups, too. A young dog needs to learn to wait, but you don’t want to torture them by making them wait too long and allowing their interest in the task to disappear. Pay close attention to your dog’s body language, so you know when you’re in danger of losing them during a drill.
As you progress through these backyard sessions, start changing locations and adding in more and more real elements of a hunt. This should include calls, a shotgun, decoys, and anything that can get your dog closer to the real deal. With each new addition, your dog will have the potential for breaking, which means you can work on it step by step.
The first hunts of the season, even for veteran retrievers, always involve a little behavior refresher. Just like how you might miss an easy shot—or three—when the first ducks cup their wings and try to settle into your spread, your dog is going to forget some of the finer points of being a well-behaved duck fetcher.
This is why I like to hunt with a small group, or one other person, during the first few duck and dove hunts. I want absolute control of my dog, and I don’t want a bevy of distractions or other dogs thrown into the mix. I want my retriever to succeed, and to do that I’ve got to construct a situation where he has every chance in the world to get things right.
To do this, I need to focus more on handling, and less on shooting. If I don’t, I could end up with a dog that is so excited about potential retrieves that he jumps into the water as the ducks approach, which will predictably flare the birds and cause all two-legged hunters’ tempers to redline.
A consistent training regimen that is followed up by a controlled hunting environment will reduce your dog’s chances of wanting to break. This is good, but it’s important to note that you also need to pay attention to the birds. If you or your hunting partner dumps a wood duck that falls with his head up and his faculties about him, you’re not going to want your dog to wait 10 minutes for the retrieve. Send him immediately, because your new responsibility is with a quick recovery, not a training lesson on patience.
Steadiness is the foundation of all good bird dogs, and it’s something all retrievers should possess. It’s a necessary skill for doves, ducks, and just about any hunting scenario where you want to ensure safety for your dog, and enjoyment for all involved. The good news is that this is something you can shore up right now.