Waterfowl Lessons From a Hunt Dog's Perspective
November 23, 2018
Anyone withat least one season of waterfowling under his belt has witnessed a situation where a duck has hit the water and is plainly visible, and yet the dog struggles to find it. This can be frustrating, because while we stand up and look at the duck floating away, we can’t understand why our retrieving machine suddenly can’t complete the task at hand.
The natural reaction is to get angry, but you shouldn’t.
Consider what things look like from your dog’s perspective before you let emotion creep into the equation. If you’re of average height, and standing up in a blind or duck boat, you’re probably at least 5.5 feet higher up than the dog, whose eyes are about 4 inches above the water’s surface. Add in a bit of chop from a brisk, duck-pushing north wind and things get more difficult for the dog to visually lock onto his prize.
Many of the ducks we shoot and expect our dogs to retrieve fly through in the low light of early morning. For a color-blind dog, spotting a duck 10 minutes into shooting time might not be all that easy and can get worse if he has to swim directly toward a bright, rising sun.
Do yourself a favor and the next time you’re training your dog at the water’s edge, get down to his level and take a look. Or, the next time you go swimming, poke your head above water and keep your eyes just above the surface. Things will appear a lot different than how you normally see them. Then imagine having a lily pad bed in front of you or maybe a patch of pencil reeds or cattails.
Because this is the reality of where our dogs will be tasked with retrieves, and because we always want our dogs to succeed, I cater training drills to their vision.
It can be hard to wake up before sunrise in the off-season, but it’s a necessity in order to give your dog a similar experience when opening day rolls around. So, set an alarm to train your dog at first light, and stick to it. If mornings are full of rushing kids off to summer camp, go in the evening after the sun has set.
This is the time to use a white or light-colored dummy. Because of their color blindness, dogs can see white better in low light than any other color, and I want my dogs to have success with every retrieve (you should too). Same goes for training at dusk — use a white dummy. You might be tempted to use orange or neon yellow because it’s easier for you to see, but those colors don’t offer up as much of an advantage to our dogs.
Because of their color blindness, dogs can see white better in low light than any other color, and I want my dogs to have success with every retrieve.
When working low-light situations, consider the angle of the sun as well. I always try to get the sun at my back so the dog is working away from it and (theoretically) the dummy will almost pop with the light.
Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train when the sun is high in a cloudless sky, because you should. But when you do, leave the white dummy in your truck and toss a black one. This may seem counterproductive, but dogs see dark objects better in high, full light than they do a white dummy.
Anyone who fishes topwater lures for bass understands this concept. Most fishermen want something that looks just like a real frog or minnow because it’s visually appealing to us, but the reality is the fish are going to see the lure from below and if they are looking for a white-bellied lure against a bright sky it’s going to be hard to locate. A black lure, although it may not really look like a natural amphibian or baitfish, is much easier to see silhouetted against a bright sky.
A dog swimming out into a lake after a mid-day mark is going to have an easier time locating a dark dummy than anything else for similar reasons. And remember, even the most challenging training drills need to be designed for 100 percent success. It doesn’t prove anything to outsmart a dog and make it so they can’t complete a task. All that does is shake their confidence, which is never beneficial to hound or handler.
THE BIG & LONG OF IT
This attention to a dog’s vision is important in all water drills, particularly when you’re working in big water or conducting long retrieves. Big water is susceptible to waves and chop, and a dog needs to have the best chance to locate a dummy in those conditions when it might only be visible as it rides up the crest of a wave.
This goes for long-distance retrieves as well. Most of the problems I see with lost ducks involve a dog that simply doesn’t know he should swim farther out to look for a dead bird. This is our fault because we tend to condition them to retrieve as far as we can throw a dummy, which isn’t far enough.
- Training starts with a fit dog. A daily exercise routine keeps dogs in hunt-ready shape, which can prevent long-term damage to joints and bones.
I’ll just say this: 300 yards isn’t too far. I like to train for at least twice as far as my dog is likely to have to retrieve a duck, so that’s a good distance. What makes this process easier as you stretch out their effective range is to use a dummy that they can easily see because even a hi-vis dummy is going to seem like a tiny speck to them (at best) at that distance.
So instead of getting frustrated with a dog that is having a bit of trouble spotting a dummy or a dead duck, train so that the odds of that happening lessen with each drill. While they do use their noses for water retrieves, their main asset is their eyes, so consider that with every toss of the dummy.