As much fun as it can be to hunt multiple retrievers, it is not without its challenges. The training required to prepare a dog to hunt with another dog is well beyond the retriever training required for only one dog on the hunt. Even though your gun dog might be well-advanced in training, we want to be sure you are prepared for the challenges you will face when two duck hunting dogs are in the blind at the same time.
There is something worth noting before we even get into the specifics. If the other dog who will be hunting alongside your dog is untrained, it may be best to leave your dog in the truck. An unsteady dog can be a really tough temptation on your own steady hunting dog. A dog who breaks, makes noise, does not promptly deliver to hand, etc. can be challenging to hunt alongside. If there is a major risk of creating bad habits, it is probably better to leave your dog at home.
It is also important to remember that hunting your water dog will almost always work against your retriever training progress. We are prone to let things slide on a hunt that we wouldn't normally ignore while training. Hunting usually leads to looseness with obedience work, and hunting multiple dogs can escalate this quite a bit.
This is an important question to know the answer to prior to being in the field with another dog. There are some major skills that should be generalized before you take your dog hunting with another dog. The first and most important is absolute steadiness. You need to be sure that both dogs don't go after the same bird, and if either dog breaks then you will run into some further problems.
Its also important to know that your dog is socialized around other dogs. If your dog hasn't been around other dogs, you'll need to go back and socialize in a controlled environment. Hunting with multiple dogs can create serious jealousy amongst retrievers, and you'll want to be sure that your dog knows how to behave around another dog without being aggressive or jealous.
One dog's energy will feed off another dog's energy. No matter the breed, whether you have Golden Retrievers or Boykin spaniels hunting alongside British Labs or American Labs, they all feed off of one another. This energy can often lead to unexpected levels of excitement. When you combine that with live birds on a real hunt, you can expect some things to get a little crazy.
The best thing to do is look for ways to maintain control of the situation. Communicate with the other dog handler to be sure you don't both send your dogs at the same time. Have a system in place for deciding who is going to send their dog for each bird. Is one dog more proficient at blind retrieves? If so, send the other dog for the easier marks and then send the second dog for the more difficult retrieves.
Another important step is being sure your dogs are properly set up to mark. If you're hunting a larger group, make sure you have space for each dog to sit and mark. If you're sending one dog on the left and one dog on the right, be sure to set each one up for success by giving them a clear view of the ducks falling on their side.
In these situations, communication is key! Be open and honest with the handler of the other dog. Communicate your dog's training level and what you expect him or her to do on the hunt. Don't be afraid to voice concerns, and have a game plan in place for every scenario!
One of the worst things that can happen when hunting multiple dogs is one dog taking the bird from another dog's mouth. I actually had this happen on an upland hunt recently. I sent my dog, a British Labrador retriever, for a clear marked retrieve on our side of the field. On the way back, a German Shorthaired Pointer with a lot more enthusiasm than training absolutely smashed into my dog and took the pheasant from his mouth. This created a good bit of anxiety in my dog, as he perceived the other dog's action as pressure. This is a situation you want to avoid at all cost!
Another major issue you want to avoid is whining. If you can teach your dog to sit still and remain quiet with a lot of action going on around him, you will be better off in these situations. The jealousy between two dogs can create a noise problem with dogs who have a propensity to make noise or even dogs who have never made noise.
The obvious answer here is to train your dog alongside other dogs. Inside our Complete Academy there is a module for Group Training specifically. You need to spend time working your dog in non-hunting scenarios alongside other dogs of various training levels prior to hunting your dog with another dog.
When doing group training, there are some important things to focus on. Only reward your dog with a retrieve, in a group setting, if he is steady and quiet. This type of positive reinforcement will go a long way in teaching patience. If your dog creeps, breaks, or whines, then never reward that behavior with a retrieve. Instead, back a little further off the line and repeat the marks or drills until your dog is steady and quiet.
Finally, try to run some drills where multiple dogs are sent into the field at the same time. This can be a tricky drill to accomplish, but it is important to teach each dog not to take birds or dummies from another dog's mouth. Start by running a wide set of marks and sending one dog to the left, waiting a few seconds, then sending the second dog to the right. Over time, you can narrow the angle of the marks so that each dog is passing one another in the field.
To do this successfully, you need to have a dog who has been all the way through hold-conditioning and will stop quickly on a whistle. If your dog goes for the other dog's dummy or bird, blow a whistle-stop and have him sit until the first dog passes, then cast back to the bird you are after. If your dog is approached by another dog trying to take the bird, blow the recall whistle and give the "hold" command. Remember, it is important to do these drills in a controlled training scenario prior to an actual hunt.
Stuff happens in the field that is often unexpected and uncontrollable. If you are hunting your dog alongside another retriever and things start to go south, simply back your dog up on his stand or, if that is not possible, offer to take your dog back to the kennel at the vehicles. It is far better to remove your dog from a potentially detrimental situation than to push on for a couple retrieves. Make a point to clearly communicate with your hunting partners, then do what is best for the future of your dog.
If you are on a guided hunt, be sure to communicate with the guide service about your dog expectations prior to the hunt. Guide dogs are often great but aren't always used to being with another dog. The default decision is always to keep from developing bad habits with your dog by pushing it with just one hunt!
I hope these tips are helpful to handling your dog in the field this season or next! For more information on how to best prepare your retriever for the field, click the link below.
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