July 26, 2016
Training an upland sporting dog involves plenty of work on dry land, as it should. Pheasant, quail and grouse dogs spend most of their time hunting birds where it's dry, so training for those conditions is a no-brainer.
There are, however, times when the upland birds we target spend their days in places more conducive to wildfowl.
This seems to be common when it comes to pheasants. In quite of a few of the states where roosters call home, the best cover is gone. This pushes the remnant populations into marginal cover, which tends to be the type of ground that can't be tilled.
In other words, cattail sloughs, marshes and other low spots are prime areas to target ringnecks. Those spots may or may not hold actual surface water, but if they do then you had better have your dog willing to swim.
And it's not just the pheasants that can lead you to the water's edge. Last year, for example, I spent five days grouse hunting in north-central Wisconsin. One of the very first birds my Lab flushed sailed into a tamarack swamp, but not until after I had clipped him with my second shot.
It sounded like a herd of frolicking hippos when my dog disappeared into that swamp and it ended up being one heck of a retrieve that involved plenty of swimming. This is not a common occurrence, but several inches of rain had fallen when it should have been snow, and at that time of year it tends to pool up in the low spots and stick around a while.
We actually had to wade through some of our best grouse cover.
A dog that is timid around water won't be much of an asset in those types of situations, so it's best to train for what you might run into.
As I mentioned, I'm currently running a Lab for all of my upland hunting. Water has never been much of an issue with her, but I also spent some time with her when she was a puppy introducing her to water correctly. My previous dog, a golden retriever, wasn't as keen on the drink and she took far more time to get comfortable with swimming.
It really doesn't matter what breed you're hunting with, because you should consider a proper water introduction and then an integration of water work throughout their training so it's not an issue when it comes time to hunt.
Water introduction doesn't carry the same weight as gunfire introduction, but it is still important. A pup needs to feel confident wading into water (warm water at first), and not ever be pressured to swim. Let the dog paw around in the shallows (with a hard bottom), and when the time is right your dog will let you lead him into water where he has to swim.
Some dogs take to this the first time, some don't. Either way, don't push it. Let it happen naturally for the puppy because if you cause them to lose confidence around water, gaining it back is an uphill climb that may never be fully reached.
If your dog has been properly introduced to water and shows no timidity around it, then you're well on your way to being able to ramp up the drills.
Throughout the summer I spend plenty of time tossing dummies into our backyard pond or one of the neighborhood lakes. This is simple stuff and always a good idea when it's too hot for dry drills. It also gets kind of boring for the dog, and for me.
This is when I start to mix things up. I like to have my dog sit where she cannot see me toss the dummy, and then I'll head to the water's edge and toss it. Sometimes I make sure it lands where it will be visible, but oftentimes I want it to land in vegetation so it's hidden. In this case, I always use a wax-based scent on the dummy.
When I send my dog, she now has to swim to where the bird might be and should take my cues through hand signals. This type of drill is more common for waterfowl hunters, but can help upland hunters as well. A dog that has to navigate several challenges during a single, fun retrieve will grow confident quickly. If we break it down further, we see that the dog has to exhibit steadiness at the beginning of the retrieve, and steadiness training is always a good idea.
Then the dog has to get into the water and try to use the wind to locate the dummy. A good dog during this drill, will check back with you for direction (another plus). If your dog understands hand signals, you'll be able to direct him closer to the dummy. The dog might have to navigate cattails, lilypads, or just thick water-side vegetation to use its nose to finally locate the dummy.
After that, it's another return trip across the pond to deliver the dummy to hand. A dog that can cruise through that drill deserves a change of pace, like moving or larger water. Keep it interesting and always achievable for you dog so that their confidence keeps building.
An upland dog that can master complicated water retrieves is a dog that will impress you all fall, no matter what conditions you encounter. Who wouldn't want that?