If there is one thing you can count on during an early season teal hunt, it’s mosquitoes, swarms of them. Even with a coating of bug spray and a ThermaCell hanging from the blind, the bloodsuckers still managed to find their way to exposed skin. So instead of scanning the dim skyline for wings at first light, five of us were busy swatting, slapping and cursing teal-sized bugs as an eerie whine pierced the gray sky.
If there is one more thing you can count on during a teal hunt, it’s that the little birds will catch you off guard. They always do. So when a flock of teal swooped up above the decoys just minutes after legal shooting time, nobody gave the call to shoot. There wasn’t time, but it wasn’t necessary. The birds swung wide, banked and then came straight at us over the decoys. In unison, we raised our guns, swung on the flock and started shooting. Four birds splashed down.
Kirk Wichman’s black Lab, Jax, waited for a command to dash through the shallow water to find and retrieve the birds scattered around us. For the next three hours, we plucked a dozen more teal out of big and small flocks that zipped over the decoys. And like a fine-tuned machine, Jax sat rock-steady until Wichman sent him to pick up the birds after each volley. Shooting teal may be a thrill, but watching a well-trained retriever is equally rewarding.
It helps that Wichman is a guide and full-time retriever trainer. Not only does his dog see hundreds of ducks fall onto the water every season, Wichman doesn’t wait until a few weeks before the season to start working his dog.
“I work him almost every day of the year,” said Wichman, owner of Hidden Lake Retrievers. “Dogs can develop some bad habits if you don’t stay on top of them.”
Those bad habits don’t necessarily develop over a few months of post-season down time. Instead, they emerge during the season itself. That’s when many retriever handlers are willing to overlook minor flaws in their dog’s performance.
“I’m guilty of that myself,” said Wichman, a D.T. Systems pro-staffer. “When the birds are really flying good and everything is getting crazy, I want my dog back in the blind as quickly as possible, so I might not worry about some little details. Now is the time to correct any bad habits that may have developed over the course of the season. The longer you wait, the harder they might be to fix.”
STAY IN SHAPE
First take a look at your dog. Has he put on a few post-season pounds? Maybe a lot of post-season pounds? A few months of lethargy can do that to even the fittest retrievers.
“People bring me their dogs for a pre-season tune-up, but I end up spending the first week or so just getting the dog in good enough condition to work with,” said Wichman. “They are overweight and out of shape. A healthy dog has a lot more stamina and can spend more time actually training.”
In other words, brief daily training sessions are vital, but so is a regular conditioning regimen. When birds are pouring into the decoys, shooting can be fast. After a couple of long retrieves, an overweight, underworked dog might be nothing more than a liability in the blind.
The first step to avoiding an unhealthy dog is to prevent it from getting unhealthy in the first place. What makes people fat — excess food and a lack of physical activity — can also make dogs overweight. Wichman recommends four to five cups of high-quality dog food per day, preferably at a single meal in the evening. He’s a fan of Purina Pro Plan Sport. Dividing that into a morning and evening meal is also acceptable.
“Cheap dog food is cheap for a reason. It’s loaded with fillers and your dog just has to eat more of it to get the nutrition it needs. That, combined with a lack of regular activity, can lead to overweight and unhealthy dogs,” said Wichman.
A few extra pounds isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not for dogs that hunt in extreme cold, says professional trainer Dan Ihrke. A layer of fat can keep a dog warmer between retrieves in the winter, but he acknowledges that cold isn’t an issue during early teal season or when it’s warm during the regular season.
The best way to avoid a fat, lazy retriever? Keep him moving. A daily exercise routine can not only help him hunt better, it can prevent long-term damage to joints and bones. Run your dog throughout the spring and summer and right up to hunting season. A morning workout not only benefits your dog, it will keep you in shape, if you participate. Remember how much you struggled to get across that flooded rice field last season?
Wichman recommends avoiding the hottest part of the day, but if you don’t have a choice, pay close attention to signs of heat-related problems. Keep midday runs brief and your dog (and yourself) hydrated.
If a retriever comes to Wichman in good shape, he will go straight into a training routine, starting with some typical drills while reinforcing basic obedience. Simple blind retrieves, T-pattern retrieves and wagon wheel drills are a few of his favorites. Dogs don’t necessarily forget what they learned, but they can get rusty.
“I’ll throw a half-dozen marks, making sure the dog doesn’t break. If he does, or if he shows any other obedience issues, I will correct him,” Wichman said. “Younger dogs tend to have more trouble sitting still, but that’s to be expected. The more you work on that, the less of a problem it will be later.”
Ihrke typically starts with standard obedience drills like sit-stay, heel and call-backs. To him, nothing is more important than basic obedience, whether in the home or the blind. A dog that won’t remain still during a hunt can be more of a burden than an asset. That’s why Ihrke’s standard daily regimen typically consists of more obedience than actual retrieving drills, with about 10 or 15 minutes focused on obedience and just five or 10 minutes of actual retrieving.
Wichman’s training sessions are also short, typically lasting just 10 to 15 minutes per day for well-trained dogs and a bit longer for retrievers with some bad habits. He relies on his D.T. Systems training collar to correct any mistakes his dogs make.
“They learn best with short but intense training sessions,” said Ihrke, who also uses a D.T. collar. “Make sure you end each session on a positive note. Give him the opportunity to get it right and give him lots of praise when he does so he will want to do it again. That really builds confidence. Whatever you do, don’t reward your dog for bad behavior.”
Training on a manicured lawn is perfectly fine if that is all you have. Doing something, even if it is in your back yard, is better than nothing.
Ihrke agrees, but he says it is possible to recreate hunting situations in your own yard, no matter the size. He’ll put dogs on a platform a few inches off the ground and just large enough for the animal to sit on. That prevents the retriever from moving too much. He also likes to use a crate with a blanket draped over it to simulate other hunting situations.
However, there’s no better practice environment than the field. The next time you visit your favorite marsh to brush or repair blinds, make sure to bring your dog with you. Throw some marks between work sessions. Wichman says that is also the time to introduce a young dog to a new experience.
“If he’s never hunted on a treestand or from a blind box or something like that, get him acquainted with it during the off-season instead of when you are actually hunting,” said Wichman.
Take some bumpers and even some decoys and run through some real-world training right there in the marsh. Both trainers prefer to have an assistant help with long-distance retrieves, which is much more realistic than tossing bumpers yourself.
Ihrke likes to make his dogs wait a minute or two before sending them to find the bumper. That not only tests their obedience, but it also simulates a real hunt. He sometimes attaches a short leash to a stake if a dog keeps breaking before he is given a command.
“Try to distract your dog as you’re running him through retrieving drills. That’s good practice for what a dog might experience during a hunt,” Ihrke said.
Ihrke takes in-field training a step farther for young dogs or those that aren’t quite finished. Instead of actually hunting, he recommends dog owners leave their gun behind on the first hunt and instead focus on the dog.
“Turn it into a training session, but make sure you are with guys you trust and who can shoot,” Ihrke said. “Focusing on your dog and making sure he is doing everything right is the best thing you can do for the season.”