So, it’s time to finally get yourself a waterfowl pup. Talk about a major lifestyle decision—especially if you don’t know anything about pedigrees or how to train, feed and accommodate the little fuzzball. The first thing to under- stand is that the purchase of a retriever is just the beginning of a 10- to 14-year undertaking, with lots of turns in the road. And since every dog is different, there is no rigid schedule in dog training. Here’s how to get your puppy journey off to a good start.
Before you buy
If you live near a retriever club, attend a training session to see if dog owner- ship is really for you. Examine the dif- ferent breeds and watch the handlers. You’ll notice that each breed has dis- tinct features. Some are bred for show— they’ve got good looks in the ring—and others are better in the field, with the brains and strength needed to handle the muck, ice and long swims of a hunt. If you’re not able to make it to a retriever club, the Canadian Kennel Club is also a good resource for learning about breeds and breeders.
Picking a breed
For a true waterfowl-hunting machine, trim your search list to include only Labrador, Chesapeake Bay and golden retrievers. I’ve got four Labs, but Chessies and goldens will also get the job done. Once you’ve selected a breed, determine your price range and start gathering information on the relevant sporting dog breeders.
Avoid $100 newspaper pups. Instead, you’re probably looking at $1,000-plus for a well-bred pup, so think of the pur- chase as an investment. When research- ing breeders, check out the pedigrees of the sires and dams, looking for titles such as Master Hunter, Field Trial Champion and Hunting Retriever Champion.
Once you settle on a breeder and choose a puppy, ensure the parents are clear of any health issues, such as exercise-induced collapse and eye or hip problems. You also want to ask about the dam’s temperament, hunt test or field trial participation, the success or failure of previous breedings, and how well she socializes with other dogs and people.
Finally, ask if the retriever is guaranteed and what services are included in the purchase price, such as the removal of dewclaws and vaccinations. Once a deal is struck, arrange to take your dog home when it’s around seven weeks old—the ideal time, according to many handlers, to start the bonding process.
The first six months
Although you may have been told you should let your puppy be a puppy for the first year, that’s a big mistake. Instead, start training the day you bring it home by throwing canvas puppy bumpers down your hallway twice in the morning and twice at night. But don’t overwork your pup at this stage—all you want is for it to bring the bumper back, and certainly not to hand. If the pup starts making detours on its return, attach a long rope to its collar to guide it back.
Throughout this time, let others, especially young children, play with your puppy. Puppies bond well with noisy, busy youngsters, aiding in that crucial step of socializing the dog. And if possible, join a retriever club so you can get some hands-on assistance when you need it. Having someone to consult or help you train your dog is vital. Books and online resources can also be useful.
At around three months, the dog should begin to know its name and be partially trained to understand the “sit” command. At four months, you should be able to put the pup’s food at its feet and have the dog wait until you call its name before it begins eating. Then by five months, you should be spending time with the puppy every day, even if it’s an evening walk around the block.
Use a choke collar on the dog, but consult an experienced trainer or other resource first to ensure you put it on properly. And be patient during your heeling walks, as the pup will try to pull you along as it checks out the smells and other diversions along the way. You need to be firm, but don’t yank on the leash. Instead, tug on it to get the pup heeling at your side.
From the get-go, I also train my dogs to be comfortable walking on either side of me, which makes them more adapt- able in the hunting blind. Think about it:If your partner’s dog will only sit on the left side, you can put yours on the right. And with a dog at either end of the blind, there’ll be fewer retrieval problems.
The next six months
When your pup has its final teeth at around six months of age, it’s time for the most unpleasant task in its train- ing—the force fetch, when the dog is conditioned to retrieve by repetition using mild negative reinforcement along with a lot of positive reinforcement.
It’s important to pass this training milestone. Otherwise, every time a mallard is dropped in a lake or marsh, your dog may make an impressive swim to the bird and return with it to the shoreline, but then drop the bird, have a shake and plod happily back to the blind. It’ll then be your job to fetch the duck the rest of the way. Think of force fetch as the foundation of your pup’s training. Find someone in your club to help you with this project or track down relevant information from another resource.
Around eight or nine months, start simulating your set-ups as much as possible to resemble an actual hunt. Make the sessions exciting and realistic with the use of duck and goose calls, starter pistols and shotguns with blanks; do this any earlier than eight months, however, and you risk making your dog gun shy. And don’t position the gun too closely to the dog. Some trainers use bird/bumper launchers, which fire a .209 primer with the launch to simulate a shotgun blast. The launchers are gradually moved in closer and closer until they’re beside the dog.
One of the benefits of joining a recognized retriever club is you’ll be able to access dead ducks for training purposes. The club can store 200 wild ducks, which are then used in hunt tests or field trials, as well as for train- ing. Having such a resource in the off- season is important for progressing your duck dog.
After 14 months
If your experience in a hunting blind is anything like mine, your dog won’t always see the birds that drop in weedy cattails. But it should be able to “run blinds,” meaning it should be able to use its nose and follow whistle and arm signals to find the birds it didn’t see drop, then retrieve them to hand. For that to happen, the dog must first be trained to “handle”—that is, fol- low commands directing it to the bird. This is the final hurdle to having a fully trained hunting partner.
Training your dog to handle should take place between 14 and 18 months of age, when it’s steady and has a com- prehensive understanding of vocabu- lary. As with teaching the dog to force fetch, you may need some homework assignments from an experienced retriever trainer. There are a num- ber of drills you must patiently com- plete, some of which will take up to two weeks before the dog is ready to advance to the next level.
Hopefully, you have a cooperative fel- low club member to guide you through this lengthy finale of your dog’s educa- tion. If you don’t have access to an expe- rienced trainer, however, I recommend Mike Lardy’s Total Retriever Training DVD. Whatever the case, once you’re finished with the handling, you and your dog are ready for action.