Duck dogs also referred to as gun dogs, are trained to assist hunters in waterfowl hunting. Certain breeds of dogs make the most successful duck dogs, and dogs can be trained at various levels to assist in multiple types and complexities of duck hunting.
What is a duck dog training? Duck dog training is the methodology of teaching a dog to find, flush, and retrieve waterfowl during hunting. The dog needs to have excellent basic training before it can be taught to perform these complex tasks, often together with other gun dogs.
History of Duck Hunting and Using Dogs
Duck hunting can be traced back thousands of years, first existing as an important source of food. There are cave paintings depicting hunting of waterfowl that are estimated to date back to the Ice Age as well as some within Egyptian tombs that are dated around 4000 years ago. In the United States, Native Americans probably began duck hunting about 2000 years ago.
Native American duck hunting was observed by European settlers in the 1600s. Their practice mimicked foxes, which would hunt ducks in pairs with one silently waiting for the moment to pounce and the other running along the shoreline to attract the ducks’ interest.
The Native Americans copied this by dragging a fox skin across the shoreline to entice the ducks and then shooting them with a bow and arrow once they got closer (source).
European explorers watched this practice and adapted it by training fox-colored dogs to run along the shoreline retrieving a stick. When the ducks were lured closer to the bank by the running dogs, the hunters would shoot the ducks.
These dogs were called tolling dogs after the old English word “tolling” which means “to seduce.” They sometimes set up three camouflaged shelters (known as blinds): hunters in the first blind shot the ducks that came close to the water’s edge, the second blind shot just afterward and slightly higher to catch ducks that jumped upwards and the third blind would shoot higher after that, catching further fleeing ducks (source).
As this practice evolved, more hunters began to train and use dogs. These days some hunters still use “tolling dogs”, although the chief use of the dog in duck hunting is now to retrieve birds that have been shot.
Advantages to Using Dogs in Duck Hunting
There are many advantages for the hunter in using duck dogs:
- Dogs can more comfortably and more safely enter cold water to retrieve ducks.
- Dogs can recover wounded birds that might escape.
- Dogs’ sense of smell helps them to locate wounded birds.
- More ducks are retrieved with the help of dogs, and therefore there is less wastage.
Disadvantages to Using Dogs in Duck Hunting
It is largely advantageous to use dogs in duck hunting. However, there are the following disadvantages:
- Dogs that are not sufficiently trained to sit still can disrupt a hunt.
- Dogs can threaten their own safety by running too close to gunfire.
What is the Best Duck Hunting Dog?
There are many breeds that can be effectively used for duck hunting, and most hunters will have strong opinions on which are the best. It’s also important to choose a dog with a temperament that matches that of the owner because the two will have to work closely together.
The five most popular breeds used in duck hunting are listed below. All of these are known for their intelligence, their ability to be trained, and their energetic nature.
The Labrador Retriever is the most popular duck hunting dog in the US. Labs, as they are affectionately known, are most commonly black but can also be found in yellow or chocolate varieties and all are equally good hunting companions. They have a very friendly nature and are eager to please their owners.
Labs are extremely capable in water, with their webbed toes and “otter” tail strengthening their swimming ability. Their short, water-resistant coat is also an advantage.
They are energetic and athletic and very enthusiastic learners with a gentle, mellow disposition that makes them a favorite as both a gun dog and a family pet.
The Golden Retriever is similar in temperament to the Labrador Retriever. Besides being extremely attractive looking dogs, “Goldies” also has a water-resistant double coat that works well in cold, wet conditions.
They are excellent swimmers and generally very athletic dogs with a keen nose, and most have a drive to hunt, especially if they come from a hunting line. They have a mild nature and are very popular family pets.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is known to be extremely tough, with notable strength and stamina. “Chessies” also have webbed toes, making them strong swimmers, and their dark, water-resistant double coat makes them well suited for cold winter hunts. They have an outstanding nose for hunting and are very protective, devoted hunting companions with high intelligence.
German Shorthaired Pointer
The German Shorthaired Pointer is a highly energetic and extremely loyal medium-sized dog. “GSP”s have a strong hunting drive and are known for their exceptional nose. They are relatively easy to train, with a natural ability to retrieve and track prey. They have a practical short coat and are lean, muscular and alert.
The Boykin Spaniel is the state dog of South Carolina, where the breed was developed. They are medium-sized, usually weighing less than 40 pounds, and are excellent swimmers and retrievers. They are loving and devoted pets with a rugged build beneath their beautiful wavy coats.
Choosing a Breed
The five breeds listed above are the most popular used in duck hunting, but there are many others that can be successfully trained to support their owners on the hunt. These include the English Springer Spaniel, the Cocker Spaniel, the English Setter, and the German Wirehaired Pointer.
When choosing a puppy that is going to be trained for duck hunting, most people will be influenced by their own experience and loyalty to certain breeds.
It’s also important to ascertain what lines the pup comes from because a strong hunting line is important in selecting the best hunting companion. In making a choice, potential duck dog owners should consider the following (source):
- The type of hunting and terrain the dog will be trained for
- The best match for your temperament and environment
- The look of the dog that matches your hunting aspirations
- Reputable breeders who know what makes a good hunting dog
When to Start Training a Duck Dog
A duck dog can usually begin its training at around four to six months. It’s very important that the pup has been socialized before any formal training begins. This would include habituating him to loud noises, other dogs, water and tall grass so that he is not nervous around any of these.
Once the pup has been well socialized, he can begin basic obedience training. This is a very important foundation for any further hunting training and needs to be thoroughly bedded down. He needs to be able to perform the following on your command.
These commands must be given in a calm, quiet voice, which is important because you won’t be able to shout when out on the hunt. Once these obedience drills can be performed both on and off-leash, then your pup is ready for the next phase of training.
Here are some more tips about duck dog training:
Many experts agree that a crate-trained dog makes the best gun dog, and this is a skill learned from very young. The pup should be placed in a crate in your room from the first night and returned to the crate after every housetraining visit outside during the night.
The puppy can be verbally consoled if it is unsettled but should never be removed from the crate.
As the puppy gets accustomed to the crate, it can be used during the day when you need to answer a call, greet somebody at the gate, etc. The time periods should be very short in the beginning and can gradually extend.
The crate can be used when traveling to keep the dog safe and should be made comfortable. The crate simulates a “den” for your dog and should be a safe and secure place. It should never be used as a punishment and there should always be positive reinforcement when your pup responds to a command to stay in his crate.
Duck Dog Training
Once basic training is in place, there are many varied techniques used in training duck dogs. Most of them proceed through the following basic steps to training a started hunting dog. A finished hunting dog will take significantly more time, experience, and training.
In this first step of training, the goal is to teach your pup to hold a dummy (known as a “bumper”) in his mouth and not damage or drop it. The pup needs to learn to retrieve the bumper and hold it until he is told to drop it. For this step to be complete, your pup needs to deliver the bumper to your hand every time.
In this next step, you will need another person to assist in throwing bumpers. Your puppy will start sitting at heel while the assistant, standing about 40 yards away, throws the bumper towards the pup. You will then command him to fetch the bumper, return to heel and allow you to take it from his mouth.
This exercise needs to be repeated until the pup is proficient, with the distance gradually increasing until the assistant is further than 100 yards away.
Some duck dogs will retrieve at 200 – 300 yards away so you need to train your pup for your needs. You will also start to practice this drill in short grass and gradually move to heavier cover and areas around water.
Your pup will next be introduced to duck decoys and taught to ignore them. After exploring them, he can learn to retrieve a bumper from amongst these decoys in the yard and then do the same in water.
He can then be introduced to hunting blinds and boats so that he is familiar with the duck hunting environment. You can then set up mock hunting trials with bumpers being thrown into the air (without the dog seeing the thrower).
Once the puppies retrieving is solid, he can be introduced to working around guns. Here, when the bumpers are thrown, they are accompanied by a starter pistol sound.
The thrower must gradually get closer to the pup, repeating the shooting process every time and increasing the distance again if the noise makes the pup nervous. Once he is comfortable with this process, it can be repeated with a real shotgun.
Duck Dog Training Checklist
While some dogs rise to a level of exceptional ability, and adequately trained duck dog should be able to perform the following tasks proficiently:
Retrieve Seen Falls
The dog should retrieve a bird that he has seen hit the water’s surface. With experience, most hunting dogs are able to remember several seen falls, with Chessies particularly excelling at this task.
This skill involves leading the dog to an area where there is a bird that the dog did not see fall and commanding him to “hunt dead”. Ideally, the dog should be able to follow his handler’s hand signals to indicate the unseen fall, but the basic requirement is that he is able to hunt dead.
Retrieve to Hand
The dog should bring every bird back to his master’s hands. Dropping the bird halfway back to the blind is problematic, especially if the bird is injured and not dead.
It’s important that your dog does not return with a decoy. This should be eliminated with adequate pre-season training and exposure to decoys.
The dog should display steady behavior, waiting for a command before retrieving. Some trainers use e-collars and check cords to curb this tendency in impatient pups. Dogs that run out before being commanded can pose safety issues and ruin a hunt.
Good Manners in the Blind
This involves sitting still in the blind, not jumping on other hunters or knocking over gear. Ideally, a well-trained duck dog would also shake off before entering the blind and would go to his assigned place once commanded (source).
Duck Dog Training Supplies
There are countless supplies available for training duck dogs and even more for hunting with them. Depending on your budget, there is a wide range of available equipment. However, most experts agree on the following necessary training supplies (source):
- Dowel stick: can be used as a first “dummy” when training to retrieve and drop
- Treats: small treats to be used as rewards during training
- Bumpers: puppy-sized bumpers and dummies to be used in training
- Crate: A sturdy crate that is big enough for your dog to turn around in
- Leash: essential training aid
- Check cord: a strong cord or leash that can be used in teaching your dog to heel
- Glove: heavy glove to protect the trainer from the pup’s sharp teeth
- Low stool: useful for teaching a puppy to stay in a place
Once the dog is joining you on hunts, it is essential to invest in a reflective vest or life jacket and to always carry a pet first aid kit. Some dogs also like to use dog boots, which protect their feet when traversing rough terrain.
It’s also essential to ensure that your dog is being fed an appropriate diet for a sporting dog that has sufficient protein and fat to sustain energy and ensure his best performance.
Duck Dog Training Challenges
There are various challenges that are regularly experienced while training duck dogs. The most common are listed below:
- No natural inclination to retrieve the dummy
- Dog loses interest in the dummy
- Dog won’t release the dummy
- Dog forgets to bring dummy back
Although frustrating, these are part of the training process and are usually surmountable with little patience and focused training sessions. It is important to ensure that training breaks down the tasks into small steps and is not overwhelming for the dog.
Also, training should only take place when the owner is relaxed and not projecting any stress onto the puppy. Sometimes, the help of a professional trainer is useful when a problem is not easily overcome.
Duck dogs have a rich history and are an essential part of hunting culture. Training any animal requires a huge amount of work but training a gun dog elevates training to another level.
With the right approach, these beautiful animals can be trained to be an essential aid during a duck hunt with the ability to point, retrieve and flush birds during a hunt. At the same time, their loyalty and discipline will make them a treasured member of the family.