Jul 27, 2012, 1:03 AM EDT
By Jerry Sather
There used to be a time when “early” waterfowl seasons began in few select, mostly southern states with the mid-September opportunity to hunt teal and wood ducks. These seasons make for sporty shooting and have become nearly as traditional as dove hunting in the South, but the regions and the number of hunters who got the chance at these early starts were very limited. All that’s changed today because the earliest fall seasons for waterfowl now begin on September 1 and focus on the biggest commonly hunted waterfowl – Canada Geese. States and metropolitan areas across nearly every part of the country offer early seasons on resident, largely non-migratory goose population.
Geese – especially big Canada Geese – represent a special challenge to retrievers. Even dogs of smallest stature are capable of retrieving birds that can weigh 20 pounds, but they have to be conditioned to do it. And once they are, they’ll need reconditioning after coming off months of working only with smaller birds and dummies. It’s just not practical to train year-round with goose-sized birds or dummies.
As we’ve covered in this blog before, for a retriever to reach advanced or even intermediate stages, it has to be taught to retrieve. This is most commonly called “force fetching.” This process is the only way to give you the control you need to teach the dog handling, and in this case, to pick up big birds.
In the force fetching process, we start with very small dummies for the dog to hold in its mouth. I begin with a simple, light wooden dowel less than an inch in diameter. We teach the dog to take this dowel in its mouth on command and how to hold it and grip it properly. Only when it’s doing so perfectly do we move up to a small-diameter dummy, then a larger dummy, then an even larger dummy. Only when it’s performing perfectly on dummies do we introduce real birds … and feathers. Again we start small with quail or pigeons. We work up through partridge and on to pheasants and finally big ducks.
If you’ll expect your dog to retrieve geese, then eventually you need to move up to objects the size of a goose. The most practical thing to use are Dokken Deadfowl Trainers that replicate geese including big honkers. These dummies are built to look like geese and have their size and approximate weight. In the training the conditioned retrieve (force fetching) you just keep going and introduce these big dummies. Again, keep repeating until your dog is gripping and holding these big “birds” to perfection.
So once your dog is force fetched and has a season or two of experience, all it should require in the 6-8 weeks before hunting season is a reintroduction to these big birds via some field training sessions with the Dokken Deadfowl geese. Work them into your regular reinforcement sessions. The dog make balk a bit at first, but should quickly regain its ability to grab these big birds on the gallop.
If this coming goose season will be your retrievers first real hunting experience with the big birds, use some caution. Like everything else in training the retriever, you need to try to set the dog up for success and ensure first experiences are positive ones. Most important, control which particular birds you send your dog after. Make sure those first field retrieves of geese are on stone dead birds. If possible try to make them on juvenile birds or smaller subspecies. DO NOT send your young dog into the thick cover after a wing-tipped Giant Canada! That one experience could result in a bird-shy dog… and it would be your fault.
You might even consider just “dog handling” on those first hunts rather than shooting yourself. It’s so much easier to concentrate on exactly what the dog is doing, praising good behavior and instantly correcting bad behavior when you’re not trying to shoot birds yourself. While it make cost you the chance for a few birds yourself, it will pay huge dividends in the development and progress of your retriever which is definitely worth it!
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