Each duck season I end up in some duck camp with people that have their retrievers with them. There is nothing about duck hunting more satisfying than having a great dog to go and bring your ducks back to you. But, each year I see that most people keep their dogs in such poor shape it is sad. Many of these dogs have the training to do some very impressive things but they are unable due to them being badly out of shape. To me, having a dog too fat isn’t any different than starving a dog to skin, hair, and bones. This is most especially true when one expects this dog to perform physical activities. Let’s face it, duck/goose dogs don’t exactly operate in favorable elements; its cold, currents are sometimes strong, and in my case the bay system is likely rough. Why would we send our dog into natures hell storm physically unprepared? I have two retrievers that hunt each and every day of the duck season. Of course, my dogs aren’t in prime optimum shape come early September. However, they are not very far from it because I have spent 10 or 15 minutes at least four days a week working them with tennis balls. I also have a measuring cup to measure their feed each time they are fed. For me, it is important to feed my dogs an exact amount and that amount is based on how they are used. Duck season rations double compared to the offseason. Keeping your retrievers in shape is paramount because a good dog will want to please. It takes a bad person to send an unprepared dog into action if the dog is unprepared.
While I am on the dog subject, I’d like to give my opinion on one other retriever related topic. There is nothing more frustrating on this earth than an unruly dog around the blind. No one wants to hunt with a dog that is walking around, knocking over shotguns, moving too much and scaring birds, and my personal pet peeve, breaking when the shotgun barrels move. I absolutely refuse to hunt with anyone if their dog behaves in this manner. When I go hunting, I take both of my dogs and hunt them side-by-side. Every gun in the blind can sound off and the sky can rain ducks with some falling literally three feet in front of both of my dogs. I’ll give anyone $500 dollars for each time that either of my retrievers moves a muscle. Let me be clear, I am not a man that trains retrievers; I don’t have the knowledge or the time to make a retriever like I expect one to be. My dogs come from Ace Berry in Kiln, Mississippi and frankly I’ve never dealt with anyone that more perfectly pairs dogs with hunters. Be that as it may, I do have a profound and thorough knowledge of how to train hounds.
Thus, I took my knowledge of hounds and applied it to my retrievers so that they always behave and are never a hindrance. Where hounds are concerned, one has to keep two things in mind, consistency in what you expect of them is paramount and behavior begins well before the hunt starts. When I turn my hounds out into an area to collar them before a hunt, I stand in one place and call them to me by name. What does this do? This begins the day by saying, “ Hey dog, you are listening to me, I am the one making the rules and you are the one following them.” This starts the day off on the right path. One must also consider that each and every dog has a unique personality. For example, I may have one dog that doesn’t come when I call his/her name the first time. Based on the dogs personality will dictate how demanding I become to attack this issue. Some dogs are hammer headed and need a more stern approach, others are soft and need a less loud and violent solution. My retrievers are no different. Molly is independent and if left unchecked will quickly start doing things her way. Soft-handed approaches where Molly is concerned have zero affect whatsoever; she will pay no attention to you at all. However, if I see the first glimmer of her starting to become deaf to my commands I climb on her like the world is ending. I am loud, I am forceful, and I make it obvious that what she is considering will cause great problems for her. This only takes one time for an entire waterfowl season. But, Molly would easily become useless and a huge pain if I didn’t do that. Mick on the other hand is built like a pit bull with a chest and head wider then any lab I’ve ever seen. His appearance is one of a dog that would make Molly look like a pushover. The truth is that Mick is more soft then my wife’s cocker spaniel. If Mick begins to behave in a bad way, I can simply raise my voice the slightest bit and create an aggressive posture and Mick melts like candle wax. Mick wants to do anything and everything you ask him to do, he is the kindest dog I have ever been around in my life. By not understanding different methods of reprimand based on the individual dog’s personality one can ruin what could be a wonderful hunting dog. As I stated before, I am not a trainer of retrievers, I leave that to Ace. I’ve also far too often called Ace and asked how I do this or that just so I have an expert opinion on things that I wish to accomplish. What I do outside of what Ace tells me is have a set of rules that I follow each and every day with Mick and Molly. For example, neither of my dogs is allowed to go through a door before me. In fact, neither of my dogs are allowed to pass through any gate or door without me saying the word “ok”. If I have a tennis ball in my hand, there are no rules of waiting to be told to go but if that changes to a bumper they best immediately sit when I stop walking. If my dogs are in the backseat of my truck and I open the door they best not jump out until I say that they can. The same thing is true about getting in the back seat. Each day when I feed my dogs they must sit and wait until I tell them that they can eat. In my mind, this isn’t me being mean this is a continued reminder that regardless what day it is or if we are hunting, I am the boss. Doing this when hunting season comes around and I am sitting in a duck blind with friend or clients I can say, “sit” and it happens. I’ve spent an entire offseason living each day as my lab’s leader, thus the duck-hunting opener isn’t any different. Simple daily habits default into hunting season solutions and stability. I hope each of you reading this has a great waterfowl season. I likewise hope that your dogs handle like dreams and you spend a little time preparing them before you ask them to work for you. God bless you all and good luck.