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Training Your Gun Dog for Waterfowl Hunting

Waterfowl hunting requires a certain skillset out of our gun dogs; here are three tasks to master before hitting the duck blind.

Training Your Gun Dog for Waterfowl Hunting

All training drills should start out simply on land, but eventually will need to move to the water for the conditions in which your dog will do their waterfowl work. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

In some ways, training an upland dog and a waterfowl dog is pretty similar. After all, without a rock-solid foundation of obedience, neither is going to be all that much fun in the field or on the water. There are many skills that transcend hunting styles, locations and ultimately, desired quarry.

There are also obvious differences between upland and waterfowl hunting that require specifics out of your retriever. A retriever in the northwoods looking to nose up some ruffs or woodcock has a vastly different job than he’d have while sitting in a blind waiting on some greenheads to swing through and cup up. This means that if you’re going to take your upland dog duck hunting, you’re going to want to train to the task.

Below are three key skills a waterfowl dog should have, and how you can set up easy training drills for each.


There is no good duck dog that doesn’t have a handle on steadiness. The ability to quietly sit tight and wait, is the secret sauce to all retrievers that are a real pleasure to hunt with. Conversely, a dog that breaks and doesn’t understand the game is just not fun to be around in a boat or a blind. And worse, often puts himself in danger by anticipating the shot and jumping out too early. This is bad news. It’s also preventable.

I like to address steadiness by thinking about how I can get a dog to relax and not nervously, or over-excitedly, focus solely on the exact second he gets to retrieve. To do this, I’ll take as many as six bumpers into the backyard and tell the dog to sit. I’ll toss the dummies and then instead of sending the dog, I’ll go get them myself.

This is not how normal retrieving drills usually go, which is the point. Normally, dogs know that as soon as the dummy is tossed, or it hits the ground, they get to go do their favorite thing. When you take that away from them through this drill, they usually start to relax, and you can see a palpable change in their body language.

Eventually, you can periodically (randomly) send the dog for a retrieve to give him a reward and solidify the message that it’s your call when he gets to go. This drill, especially when you work up to a shotgun, or duck calls, really gets the dog in the frame of mind you want for steadiness. Make sure to take this drill from the backyard to the water, as well, to round out your dog’s education. And if you need to, reinforce steadiness throughout your daily life by making your dog wait to go through the door or having him sit and wait to be released before he gets to eat.

Handler working on steadiness with Labrador retriever
Steadiness drills are crucial to developing a quality duck dog. These drills should eventually incorporate blank guns, shotguns, and duck calls to truly prepare your retriever for staying calm. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

These little drills can really set a dog on the right path to being a much better companion during duck hunts.

Singles & Multiples 

Depending on what you hunt, who you hunt with, and how often you go, your upland retriever might rarely, if ever, encounter a situation where he’ll have to retrieve more than one bird at a time. With waterfowl, it’s almost a given. This means you’ll want to train your dog to understand how to retrieve doubles and triples.

I start this out by heading out to the backyard, once again, and then tossing one dummy while making the dog wait. As soon as I toss the first, I turn 180 degrees in the opposite direction and throw the second. The dog then gets released on the last dummy.

Because I’m directly between the first and second retrieve, the dog has to go right to me to get both of them. This is by design and allows me to work and send the dog in a way that ensures he’ll get both bumpers in the order I want him to without deviating from the most direct lines.

Labrador retriever swimming with dummy
Use training dummies to help your retriever learn to handle the double and triple retrieves they're likely to encounter in the duck blind. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Not only does this start to get the dog to understand his job isn’t always over when he’s retrieved one bird, it also helps him use his memory. This is something we don’t address much in the dog space, but I think it’s really important for waterfowl retrievers.

If your dog handles the doubles drill easily, you’ll be able to move on to triples and then eventually, take the drills to the water’s edge. The goal is to get your dog in the right headspace where he’ll clearly understand that his job of going out and retrieving birds isn’t over until you say it is, no matter the environment. This is a skill that is a must for duck dogs, but also spills over into certain upland situations as well.

Hand Signals 

If you’ve got a dog that is highly trained and can handle a lot, you might want to incorporate hand signals into the mix. Odds are, he’s already learned what it means if you point to your left, or right, or hold your hand straight up to signal he hasn’t gone far enough. This is probably the most important hand signal because it’s extremely common for dogs to undershoot the distance to the retrieve. Ducks are good at sailing after they’ve been hit, and they often have a good tailwind to help them along before they hit the drink. A dog that learns to keep going back as far as you tell him is a dog that will return to the blind with more cripples and dead birds.

If you have trained in hand signals, but haven’t used them for a while, the immediate preseason is the time to brush up on those skills. This might require putting dummies out (on land) and then flagging them so you and the dog know where they are. Remember to pay attention to your whistle work throughout this stage as well, so your dog knows that one toot on the whistle means he needs to sit down and look to you for direction.

Hand signal training with duck dog
Hand signals are tied to blind retrieves, which requires a high level of training. Seasoned duck dogs should understand these as well as the associated whistle work. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

If your dog gets right back into the groove and doesn’t seem to need the flags, pull them and keep working. Take it from the land to the water, while working on direction and distance of retrieves. This skill might not seem to have its place in the upland world, but if you hunt thick cover like cattails where your dog is going to have a tough time visually marking downed birds, it can come in handy. Either way, it’s a necessity for duck dogs that are ready for this level of training.

While you’re going through these three waterfowl essentials, pay attention to your dog’s abilities. If he’s struggling, or you’re struggling to keep him in control, then it might be time to take a step back and make things simpler, or address obedience issues. None of the things I’m suggesting will go very well if there are holes in his foundation game. If there aren’t, then these drills will help your dog become a duck hunting—and retrieving machine.  

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