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Upland to Waterfowl: Dual-Purpose Retrievers

Developing your gun dog in the off-season

Upland to Waterfowl: Dual-Purpose Retrievers
Photo Credit: Tony J. Peterson

At our kennels, we are seeing a rise in the number of customers who contact us about training their Labrador or other retriever only for upland hunting. I always ask them if they ever plan to hunt ducks, because the reality is that some of them will end up wanting to waterfowl hunt and it’s much easier to introduce a dog to many of the aspects of a duck hunt as early as possible.

The thing that seems to happen quite a bit is that while someone may want a Lab solely for a family pet and for pheasant hunting or maybe grouse, they eventually realize that there are more opportunities out there for bird hunting than just the upland variety. In fact, you can double your bird-hunting chances in a lot of places by becoming a waterfowl hunter, and it won’t take away anything from your upland endeavors.

That’s the best of both worlds in my opinion, and it’s entirely possible with a good retriever. It’s also something that demands an eye toward two different types of training, which is a great off-season project.

The Waterfowler’s World

The thing about upland hunting, especially with a flusher, is that it usually happens in wide open spaces and as long as you can control your dog and he’ll retrieve, you’re good. That’s a simplified version, I know, but in reality upland hunting is a simplified type of hunting when compared to the average pursuit of ducks. That’s one of the many reasons we love upland hunting so much, considering it requires so little in the form of equipment to have a great day afield.

This isn’t the case with waterfowl hunting. Even an hour-long, sunrise hunt for wood ducks or early-season mallards on a small pond will consist of some sort of blind, decoys and a call or two. All of those things have to be introduced long before your hunt.

If you’re going to use a boat, that needs to be introduced as well. Not only does your dog need to be comfortable with all of these elements of a duck hunt, you need to use the off-season to reinforce that comfort and bolster his confidence around each.

And then you’ll need to address steadiness.

Should I Stay or Should I Go

The hardest part of any retriever’s life is to go from actively hunting up and flushing birds to sitting patiently while birds fly overhead and are occasionally shot. Duck retrieving is entirely natural to most dogs, but duck hunting isn’t. Having to sit and watch exciting things unfold while waiting for the release to retrieve is not easy for most dogs, but it is 100 percent necessary.

The “stay” or “place” command is probably the most important command in a duck dog’s life, and it’s something that is ideal for off-season work. When you’ve got nine or 10 months of downtime between now and next season, you’ve got a lot of time to teach your retriever when it’s the situation where he can go and hunt up birds, or when he should sit tight and follow your lead.

Welcome Water Work

When we talk about water-based retrieves, we usually only think of waterfowl. Obviously a duck dog that is scared of the drink isn’t much good to anyone besides a field hunter, but water work is good for all dogs. It doesn’t matter if you’ll never hunt ducks, if you occasionally hunt ducks, or you’re a diehard mallard junky—your dog needs to spend plenty of time in the off-season working dummies in the waves.

This is something I bump into a lot with people who only plan to hunt upland birds, and I always explain to them that while you may never fire a load of steel at a cruising green-wing in your life, you will probably at least hunt upland birds around water. Pheasants love cattail sloughs, and a rooster on the edge of the water might end up in a pond. It’s not much fun to end up in that situation when your dog will barely dip a paw into the water.

Spend the off-season, at least the parts where the water around you isn’t frozen solid, working in the water. This is a great way to work on steadiness for all dogs, get them quality low-impact exercise, and mold a retriever into an all-situation hunting machine.

Intro to Quackers

I understand why people who are more into upland opportunities don’t expose their dogs to dead and live ducks during training drills, but I can’t wrap my head around a waterfowler skipping this step. If you’re going to hunt ducks, you’ve got to introduce your dog to ducks—it’s that simple.

You can start by using some wax-based duck scent on your dog’s favorite dummy, and then eventually taping some duck wings to it. After a week or two, you’ll need to introduce some dead ducks, and then some live birds.

A dog that will retrieve a pheasant without hesitation might not want a duck in his mouth; it happens all of the time. You want to know that long before you’re sitting lake-side staring at skeins of mallards swinging in from Canada.

If you don’t know where to find live ducks for training purposes, do a little research. Usually a quick internet search will reveal a supplier, and if not, consult a professional dog trainer in your area. They’ll be able to help you out.


Long, hunt-free months are almost in front of us, and if you want to make the most out of next season you should start working on your waterfowl training now. Develop a plan, even if you’re primarily an upland hunter, so that your dog is as well-rounded as possible and as steady as can be when the next duck season rolls around.

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