The “Oops“ of Dog Training: Where We Go Wrong in Preparing for Hunting Season

By Ryan Eder

It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of hunting with your young dog for the first time that we tend to overshadow the “to do list” that we must follow to fully prepare for our dog’s first hunting season. Whether you pay a professional to work with your dog or follow a training program yourself there are still plenty of steps that need to be accounted for prior to opening day. In retriever training especially, it is all too common to let yard work and basic drills “trick” us into thinking our dog is ready for the duck blind. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

Training is not hunting.
I don’t care if your dog can retrieve bumpers better than any other dog out there, it is not a duck. Better yet, it is not a goose, which is a very large bird and difficult for most retrievers the first few encounters. Try to train with birds and get your dog accustomed to marking and retrieving the real thing. Geese are hard to find for training, so chances are you’ll have to use real hunting scenarios to gain experience for your dog. Keep a bird or two in the freezer if you can, and work with them in the yard with a goose. Every year I hear someone complain about how well their dog does in training, or how much they spent on a pro trainer yet the dog didn’t retrieve a goose. My first question is “have they seen a goose before?” It is a logical question; is it reasonable to expect a perfect retrieve when a dog hasn’t ever seen a bird that big?

Another point regarding marking (the ability to watch birds fall and accurately get to the fall, make the retrieve and come back); keep in mind that training usually consists of driving to a training field, getting the dog off the truck and throwing them marks (either using help from a gunner or using a launcher of some kind). The dog grows accustomed to getting off the truck, and seeing birds right away. While this is common for most everyone, try to work on patience and sitting for extended periods of time before your dog sees a bird or an opportunity to retrieve. As much as we all hope it happens, it is rare that we get to the blind and start shooting minutes later! An impatient dog in the blind can be tough to deal with, so try to get them used to sitting still long before opening day.

Marking is also quite different in most hunting situations than the training field. In training, the dog is sitting at our side with a clear view of the field or water in front of them. They get to watch each fall carefully. When we hunt, the dog may have reduced visibility from the blind, and the birds do not always fall individually. Marking can be much more chaotic in a hunting scenario with multiple gun shots, calling and birds falling all at once. This is hard to simulate in training, so keep in mind that a dog needs experience to be a proficient marker in hunting situations. For younger or inexperienced hunting dogs, try to maximize their success by keeping their perspective and vision in mind. Minimal obstructions are ideal!

Is your dog comfortable on a platform, or on a boat? Can you send them on a retrieve when they are not sitting right next to you (otherwise known as a “remote send”)? Like many of us, these considerations are not in our minds during the spring and summer when we train, but in the fall we expect our dogs to hunt in these types of locations proficiently. Never underestimate having your dog train with a steadiness platform, or dog stand product in the yard or training field time to time. It is also great to try and work from a boat of some kind if applicable. A dog that is not comfortable will not perform to the maximum of their ability (which is completely fair to say about people as well). Give them the best chance for success by introducing them to these concepts sooner than opening day.

Like all things in life, experience is where we become comfortable and reliable performers. Our hunting dogs are no different. Picking up bumpers in the yard is a great way to work with our dogs but it does not prepare them for a day in the boat or blind necessarily.

Failure to properly prepare our dogs for the field can actually compound issues and have other problems manifest because we as handlers become frustrated and take it out on the dog. The fun and success of the hunt can also be compromised and overall it is not a good situation. We always need to think to ourselves as dog handlers “what is my dog going to see in the field and how is their perspective different from mine?” Always account for your dog’s view in the situation and prepare them for success. Even a dog that has spent a year at a professional trainer still needs experience in the blind to be a great hunting dog!