If you're worried about taking a short break from retriever training, you aren't alone! One of the most common questions we get about gundog training in general is how long is too long to take time off with your retriever. Hunting season can be tough on a dog, both physically and mentally! Most water dogs end the season a little behind, training-wise, where they began.
It can be helpful to give your duck hunting dog a little break once the season ends. Between the traveling, cold water, demanding hunts, etc., they've probably earned it! Besides, most of us duck hunters are pretty worn out ourselves. Taking a short break isn't going to be detrimental to yourself for your duck dog.
During your break from retriever training, however, it can be helpful to go ahead and come up with a dog training game plan for when you get back started. Think back over the season. What did your gun dog struggle with? What challenges do you remember being especially difficult? Were there any specific behaviors that surprised you, good or bad?
Once you have a solid assessment of the entire waterfowl season, you can begin to plan out your duck dog training path for the spring. It's always good to work through the key issues you faced and begin making progress for next season. Plan the timing of your first few training sessions based on weather and your schedule. Plan the location of your first session back based on the key issues you want to work on. Then, plan the drills based on skill level and desired outcome, but be flexible and willing to back-track!
This all depends on several important factors. If your schedule is busy, then don't sweat a few days or even a week or two off. Similarly, take account of the weather. When waterfowl season ends, a lot of the United States is still experiencing the heaviest parts of winter! If the ground is covered in snow, you're going to have a tough time running marks and drills. Weather can also impact a dog's attitude, as training is usually not as exciting as hunting. I never plan to train my dog in water if the water and air temperature cannot be added together to make ninety degrees (F).
Remember, attitude is incredibly important. If you are planning to train in the water with a dog who doesn't have a double-coat, such as an English Springer Spaniel or a Golden Retriever, you will need to make sure they don't get too cold. Even if you have a Labrador retriever or Chesapeake Bay retriever, cold water during training can be just as dangerous as cold water while hunting. I typically plan to get back after it when I see a mild day in the forecast and have fully caught up on all of the chores I neglected during waterfowl season. If the water temps are still cold, plan to train on land-only for a while.
Another thing to consider here is your dog's nutrition and overall health. Hopefully we are all able to maintain our dog's weight and muscle tone throughout the season with a healthy diet. That said, some dogs don't eat as much while traveling and other dogs tend to lose a little weight while working over-time. You will want to make sure your dog is well-rested and back to fighting weight before you dive into your spring training regimen.
If you have access to multiple locations, it Is always best to train a hunting dog somewhere familiar at first. This is especially true when you have taken time off. New locations always present a new challenge, so start somewhere familiar. Once you get back into the groove of making progress, you can check out some new spots to work on continued fluency and generalization.
You will also want to pick out places that have the terrain and features needed to accomplish your goals. If you are wanting to work on longer casting drills and marks, be sure you have plenty of space. If you want to work on land factors, such as hills or cover changes, you'll need something more than a flat, cut field. The cover-growth and natural features of the land should still mimic the way things were during waterfowl season, making it a good time to find similar places to your hunting spots and train your dog there.
This is where your assessment from last duck season will be crucial. Looking back, what were the most significant struggles your retriever had while out hunting? Your answers to this question will determine what you need to work on. Here are a few examples that may be helpful in planning your training sessions this spring.
A friend of mine had a Boykin Spaniel who was out for his second duck season this year. He's a steady dog with great obedience and no issues honoring other dogs. He also marked very well. His struggle was on running blind retrieves, specifically when the bird fell over the levy road across from their leased pit blind.
I told him the best thing to do, when he gets back to training this spring, is to find levies or areas where he could send the dog from water, across land, and back into water, and run all sorts of casting drills over them. He had used levies as a tool to teach his dog straight lines, which is a common method and not a bad idea! The result, however, was that the dog would hit a levy road and try to stay on it. His spring training plan is fairly simple - teach his dog to cross levies and re-enter water using walking baseball, pattern blinds, white bucket drills, and then cold blinds.
I had an issue with one of my advanced retrievers where he wanted to switch if he saw a downed bird on his way to another bird. Multiple times throughout the season I attempted to send him on a crippled duck that was out beyond the decoys, and either on his way out or on his way back he would try to swap to a bird that was dead in the decoys. This is a costly mistake as you can potential lose the crippled bird if it isn't retrieved right away.
My plan this spring is to run several drills, particularly in the water, where he has to go past high-value rewards (birds, dummies with feathers, etc.) to retrieve lower-value rewards (plastic dummies, canvas dummies without feathers, etc.), until I know he can reliable run diversion marks. I will set these up all sorts of ways, depending on the location, and work them until we have generalized the behavior.
Whatever the issues may be, you can get creative on working to specifically hone-in the skills needed to overcome them! The bad news is that hunting season is over, and we don't get to get back after birds until September. The good news is that we have seven months to continue building and shaping our retrievers into duck retriever machines! There is certainly no rush to get back after it. So, take your time, get a game plan together, and make sure your hunting retriever is even better next year than he was this season.
Gotta go? Stay around for a bit and check out the free preview. You can do that by clicking the button below.
If you must go now, we hope to see you back here soon! #buildfromhere