Making the switch from training to hunting.
For September transitional training/hunting, you need to have your buddy do all the shooting while you handle your dog.
Try as you may, you can't keep your retriever from noticing the differences between hunting and training. Field trialers and hunt testers have a similar problem, in that a "trial-wise" or "test-wise" dog knows he can safely perpetrate "felonies" under judgment that would bring heavy penalties in training sessions.
Retriever clubs frequently conduct unofficial "practice" trials and tests, with judges, go-fers, crowds of people, loud speakers, and so on, specifically to allow members to correct their dogs under trial and test conditions, thereby convincing them, at least temporarily, that the rules for proper decorum apply under judgment as well as in training sessions.
They can simulate trials and tests, which are necessarily artificial to a greater or lesser degree, with similar training sessions, which are also necessarily artificial. Not so actual hunting, which is 100 percent natural. You can't simulate hunting in training sessions well enough to fool your dog, because hunting differs from training in too many non-simulate-able ways: the weather; the isolation and quiet, the long waits between brief periods of intense action; the general surroundings; the subtle excitement; the boss' permissive inattentiveness; the absence of human scent on birds retrieved; and so on.
However, you can turn September dove and early-duck hunting into a "transitional training period," in which you focus more on training than hunting. This will give you opportunities to convince your beastie that he must behave in hunting just as he does in training.
Later in September, you can point an empty gun, but you should still let your hunting buddy do the shooting so you can watch your dog.
To make it possible for you to focus on your dog's deportment during September hunting, you must have a hunting buddy to do the shooting. In addition to being a safe gun handler and a good shot, he needs to be cool-headed and interested in helping you improve your dog. During the day, you may want him to pass up certain shots or even miss certain birds. For example, you may want to give your dog a missed fly-away before running him on a set-up blind retrieve. An impulsive shooter wouldn't be able to resist knocking such a bird out of the sky.
Then, too, you may ask him to shoot an extra shot in the air after downing a bird to tempt your dog to break. If your buddy has no interest in your dog's advancement, he may object to this because it delays the retrieve of his just-shot bird, especially if your dog does break.
Frankly, in the ideal arrangement, you and one of your training buddies will hunt together, rotating your two dogs equitably, either by hour or by day, while you take turns shooting for each other. Since you train together, you're both knowledgeable trainers interested in one another's dogs.
Incidentally, you and your training buddy should resist the urge to work both dogs simultaneously, at least until late in the month, after each dog has had plenty of solo time.
If your dog breaks, do all you can to prevent him from getting to the bird, for a retrieve would reward the break and thereby encourage more breaking.
Even then, you should take turns shooting. If you both start shooting, your focus will drift away from transitional training.
That brings us to another requirement for successful transitional training, namely, your attitude. If you go into this half-heartedly, you won't persist. You must convince yourself that the agony you suffer from passing up shots will be more than amply rewarded by your dog's improved hunting performance. Leave your shells in your vehicle and carry an empty shotgun.
At first, to help you focus on your dog, you shouldn't even shoulder your empty gun.
Later, you'll shoulder and swing it while still watching your dog. Toward the end of the month, you should shoot occasionally, but not at every bird. Let your buddy do most of the shooting even then.
What are the most common faults committed by retrievers while hunting? Breaking, creeping, whining, barking, whistle and cast refusals, and sundry mouth problems. You can address each of these during your transitional September training, but only if you focus on your dog and not on shooting.
Line Manner Problems
Breaking and creeping are related problems. Granted, the totally impulsive retrieving maniac will break without preliminary creeping. Granted also, some antsy animals creep habitually without ever breaking. However, most dogs that break will have the decency to creep first, thereby giving you enough warning to prevent his premature departure.
Creeping is much easier to correct than breaking. If your dog creeps before the shot, your buddy should hold his fire, and you should correct your dog appropriately before repositioning him to await the next bird. If he creeps after the shot and fall, correct him and insist that he return to the exact spot whence he crept. Then have your buddy fire a shot in the air. If your dog remains in place, wait a few seconds before sending him to retrieve. If you have a chronic creeper, make him sit and watch while you retrieve the bird about half the time.
Whenever your dog breaks, don't let him retrieve the bird, which would only encourage more breaking. If he breaks before the shot, your buddy shouldn't shoot, and you should administer a vigorous, perhaps electrifying correction, before repositioning him.
If he breaks after the shot, don't let him reach the downed bird. Zap him! Tackle him! Do whatever it takes to keep from wrapping his maw around the bird! Then bring him back to his assigned position and let him watch while you retrieve the bird. If safety suggests that you should use a boat, do yourself a favor by having one available.
On the next bird after a break, tempt your dog to break even more strongly. After the bird is down, wait a few s
econds, and then have your buddy fire another shot or two in the air.
If your dog breaks, correct him again with all possible vigor.
On every trip, give your dog a few set-up blind retrieves sufficiently challenging to make handling necessary.
You should correct whining and barking immediately and vigorously, ideally with an e-collar, whenever it occurs. Further, you should never reward a whining or barking dog with a retrieve. You or your buddy should retriever the bird.
Whistle and Cast Refusals
Give your dog a few blind retrieves on each September hunting trip. Clearly, you can't rely on getting real blind retrieves that adequately test your dog's responses, so while he's busy making a retrieve, have your buddy plant a bird or dummy in a more challenging location. After your dog delivers the bird he's retrieving, set him up and send him for the blind.
If you've selected a good place for it, you'll get to stop him and cast him a few times. If he needs no corrections, perhaps you didn't make the test sufficiently challenging!
Toughen the next one up enough to tempt him to slip whistles or ignore casts, so you can correct him under hunting conditions. To facilitate the transferring of his training behaviors into hunting behaviors, whenever he errs, correct him exactly as in training.
Sundry Mouth Problems
Among the various mouth problems, sloppy-mouthed retrieving, that is, unnecessarily dropping and picking up a bird, especially after emerging from water, pops up most frequently in hunting. If you've dealt with this in training by commanding "Hold" or "Fetch" when your dog is about to drop a bird, and then by sending him an abbreviated e-collar message if he does indeed drop it, you should do the same during these September hunts. Above all, don't let it slide during hunting lest you teach him that this behavior is forbidden only in training.
If your dog tends to stick or freeze on birds, correct him in hunting just as you do in training. Fortunately, you can't let this problem slide, because you won't get the bird from his mouth until you administer an appropriate correction.
If your dog tends to be hardmouthed, you should have completely corrected this problem before taking him hunting. If it pops up again while hunting, you should drop the curtain on hunting immediately and go through the steps of the cure again, right there in the field.
You don't dare let this problem slide, for if left unattended it becomes incurable very quickly, especially under hunting conditions.
If you use these September dove and early-duck hunts to transfer your retriever's training session manners into hunting manners, by October you'll be able to concentrate more on hunting and less on training-while-hunting. Your dog's general decorum will be delightfully, refreshingly proper. Sure, he'll need an occasional correction, which you'll administer almost automatically. His respectful responses will repay you beyond all dreams for your September self-denial.
Jim Spencer's books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows, Retriever Training Tests, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way, POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog, and the Gun Dog video, Duck Dog.