January 13, 2021
It’s a brisk, clear winter morning. A glimmer of light peeks over the horizon, the dank smell of marsh fills the air and your ears are greeted by the sound of…a whining dog? That’s not how it’s supposed to be this late in the season.
You’ve hunted for months, your dog’s retrieved dozens of ducks and geese, but this morning he’s pacing the blind, spilling your coffee and barking in frustration at high flyers. Your buddy is glaring, the ducks are flaring. It’s gonna be a long morning.
You mutter that your retriever is earnest and hard-working, only now he’s leaning against your hunting partner, mooching snacks and getting underfoot when you stand for a shot.
Here’s the bad news: It’s your fault. The good news is you can put the polish back on your dog’s performance before season’s end.
He already knows what to do because you’ve trained him well. But even in the blind, dogs never stop learning. All season they’ve been sussing out your tolerance to slips and slop, disobedience and laziness. While you’re high-fiving after dunking a hard crosser, your dog is backsliding. Let’s be honest: We’ve all let our expectations plummet along with the temperature on a frosty morning in the marsh.
There is no 12-step program for those of us who relax our standards late in the season—nobody’s built a meeting room large enough. But some discipline on the part of both ourselves and our retrievers can avert the three top mid-season dog disasters and their variations.
1. Blind Manners and Unsteadiness
Your dog has mastered the fine points of obedience, but all bets are off once wings are cupped.
"Focus on the dog, not the ducks," says outfitter Aaron Phillip Schroder of Double A Outfitting and Gun Dogs in, Lyons, Neb. "Let someone else do the shooting if necessary. Make blind manners the priority and correct quickly."
When was the last time you actually gave a command to your dog in the blind? Sure, it’s hard when greenheads are dropping into your spread, but it’s worth it later in the season, especially if you follow through and expect compliance to basic commands.
Guide and pro trainer Jeremy Criscoe of Blue Cypress Kennels in Okeechobee, Fla., suggests denying him some retrieves. "Once a dog understands every shot bird isn’t his, he will become a steadier dog," he says. "Train between hunts to reinforce that, simulating all aspects of a duck coming to decoys—the shot, the fall and the denied retrieve."
Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss., recalls with horror a driven shoot where several dogs went off the rails among hundreds of falling birds. They quickly became "self-employed," ignoring whistles, not honoring, barking and whining. His recommendation? Give the self-employed dog several days of hunt-like, back-to-basics drills, including denying and delaying retrieves and honoring other dogs’ retrieves, while the real boss (you) gives the orders.
2. Sloppy Retrieves
These come in many forms, and Criscoe places some of the blame on the wariness of late-season waterfowl.
"Early in the season, unsuspecting birds come close and drop into the decoy spread when shot. Dogs get spoiled by leisurely retrieves a short swim away among the dekes," he says.
Once the snow flies, waterfowl are less likely to get that close. If you hit one, it’ll likely drop beyond the farthest decoy. Many dogs refuse to swim that far, even when robustly handled.
"Take the dog out of the blind and to the bank where it’s a straight shot to the bird, skirting the decoy spread," he says.
Evan Graham, developer of the "Smartwork" system (evan-graham.net), says we owners abandon the fundamentals. Obedience is the foundation, and compliance to basic commands often lags—with our implicit blessing—as calendar pages turn. Mouth issues like hard mouth, playing with birds on return and games of catch-me-if-you-can become common.
Graham suggests pre-empting emerging bad habits by not hunting your dog the following weekend.
"Go back to the basics and drill, drill, drill," he says.
Once the desired behavior becomes habit again, put the crate back in your truck. Graham cites mentor and renowned trainer Rex Carr: "Maintenance of basic obedience is critical all season long." I would add that that applies to both dogs and owners.
3. Communication Breakdowns
When the shooting is hot, communication breakdowns become common and can lead to any number of canine goofs.
"Hand signals tend to go out the window," says British trial judge and pro trainer Robin Watson of Tibea Gundogs in High Point, N.C. "However, as reinforcement for verbal or whistle commands in the field, they can be the difference between compliance and embarrassment. Owners should incorporate all the communication tools their dog is accustomed to seeing and hearing."
All of these remedies are easier said than done, but an ounce of prevention in the middle of the season is worth a pound of remedial training next spring. That’s why, right out of the crate, my dog is subjected to a short obedience tutorial: walk at heel, sit, come, a thrown bumper (and denial, if you’re working on that). It sets the stage for the entire day and signals that this is business, not doggy day care.
We drill, condition, practice, test and trial, then climb into the pit where our memories fade. Sure, we’re human, unsurprised and tolerant when our dog misbehaves. But we’re human, so it’s up to us to respect all the hard work our dogs put in before opening day by setting a higher standard all throughout the season.
If only the dogs could train us.
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