Multitasking dogs are more common than ever, which means that the retriever that used to be dedicated to upland hunting might now spend a fair amount of time each fall in a duck blind. This is something I fully encourage for anyone interested, but not without a note of caution—especially when it comes to goose hunting.
Waterfowl hunting in general is a vastly different pursuit than coursing the big woods for ruffed grouse, or the CRP for roosters. When you add in blinds, boats, calls, decoys, and a host of other duck-hunting elements that aren’t found in the upland world, you invite confusion on your dog’s part without proper introductions.
In other words, it’s best to—through training—introduce your dog to all of the elements of waterfowling before actually going hunting. As this pertains to geese, there is a special consideration given their size, and occasional nastiness, when they have been knocked out of the sky but not out of their lives.
Dead Ducks, Then Geese
It’s not advisable to take an upland dog and start him on geese without first working with ducks. The scent of waterfowl is different from upland birds, and a lot of dogs are hesitant about ducks when they first encounter them. To address this, get your hands on a dead duck to start this process, and then get your dog excited to retrieve it.
Toss the duck and pay attention to your dog’s body language. If he runs out, looks at it, but won’t pick it up, don’t fret. That’s common. Take the dead duck to the water and toss it in. A dog in this situation is going to want to get the duck back so it can check it out, but he won’t have any option to accomplish that without retrieving it. This is a little victory, but it’s important.
Eventually, you should be able to introduce your dog to a tethered, live duck, if at all possible. Most dogs with a developed prey drive will see this as a good opportunity for a retrieve, so pay attention. If your dog reacts positively to a duck that can’t fly but can flop or maybe walk, you’re on your way to having a dog that will handle a goose.
You can certainly introduce an older dog to the task of retrieving geese through various steps, but I like to start with young dogs if there is any chance of goose hunting later in life. To do this, I take a zippered throw pillow and use it as a retrieving tool. You can do this with dogs as young as 12 weeks, and what it teaches them to do is carry something big and bulky.
Young dogs usually figure out pretty quickly how to carry the pillow without tripping over it, which is important. Over time, because the pillow has a zipper, I like to add weight to it so that the dog learns to carry a heavier object. This starts preparing them for a 10- or 12-pound honker in manageable increments, that increase not only as they get used to carrying the weighted pillow, but with their age (and size).
A weighted pillow teaches a dog to carry its head high while retrieving, which is exactly how they’ll have to carry a dead goose. This is also why I designed my DeadFowl Trainer Canada Goose with a body that is too big to hold, but a neck that is perfectly sized for a dog to grip.
If you watch any goose hunting videos, or get to witness a retriever that has a lot of experience with honkers, you’ll see a very consistent grip from dog to dog and goose to goose. This isn’t a coincidence. Retrievers need to learn how to grab a goose in such a way that the bird is manageable during any type of retrieve. And that pretty much means it had better get its teeth around the bird’s collar.
Now, normally in this step of the bird-introduction process, I’d recommend you go out and get a dead or a live bird. This isn’t such an easy proposition when it comes to geese, so you’ll have to settle for some on-the-job training with your dog.
To do this, forget about being the hunter when the first geese commit to your spread on those first few hunts. Have a buddy be the shooter while you handle your dog, so you can watch how he conducts himself through the shot and (hopefully) the retrieve. But before you send your retriever on his first honker mission, make sure you’re sending him after a dead bird. A great way to sour dogs on goose hunting is to ask them to tangle with a live, angry goose their first time out. Some dogs are aggressive enough to overcome this, but most aren’t, so don’t risk it.
Watch your dog on that first goose. He’ll most likely run to it, hit the brakes, and then give you a “what now” look. If he doesn’t pick it up after you issue the “fetch” command, don’t worry. This is a pretty common scenario, and all it means is you have to build up your dog’s confidence a bit more.
Pick up the goose and get it so you can give your dog a short toss in the water. The dead honker will float, which means your dog won’t have to support its weight while retrieving it. And even if he only drags it to shore and then drops it, you’ve got a win, because the whole idea is to get the dog to believe that he can retrieve any goose.
Over time, and with enough experience like this, not only will your dog not hesitate to retrieve dead geese, he will also learn to deal with live ones, because he’ll have all of the confidence he needs.