The black Labrador retriever intently peers into the morning haze, a whine escaping as he shivers slightly despite a balmy morning of duck hunting.
“Get ready”, says Paul, his owner. There must be some ducks out there. The big boy doesn’t whine unless he’s got a duck in sight.”
We squint into the mist and a couple of black dots appear. Two mallards, a hen and a drake, begin to take shape. Heading straight for our large spread of decoys, the mallards cup their wings and lower the landing gear. Jake, the Lab, burns each splash into his brain and is ready to retrieve a dandy double. On command, he vaults from a platform on the bow of the boat and efficiently brings back the hen mallard, then the drake.
‘’Good boy,” says Paul softly. “Nice work.” The Lab glances over as if to say, “Well, what did you expect.”
Jake’s a two-year-old Lab that’s already retrieved a few dozen ducks in his first season in the duck boat and marsh blind. He’ a friendly sort, glad to have someone to scratch his thick coat as we loaded the shotguns and decoys, but in the duck boat he’s all business. The big dog doesn’t wander the boat or bark at seagulls. He knows his place on the bow and stays there all morning to scan the skies for ducks. More often than not, he marks incoming mallards, gadwall and mergansers well before our trio of hunters, who are usually busy chatting about the state of hunting in America.
Paul doesn’t have to be told that Jake is something special. He and the young dog have been inseparable and it shows. They are on the same page while duck hunting, roaming the grouse woods and in the back yard. The constant supervision and training has transformed Jake from a rambunctious pup to a calm, dedicated hunting companion.
The classic duck dog is a black Labrador retriever, such as Jake, although there are many breeds that excel in the marsh. The golden retriever has always been a favorite, and chocolate and yellow Labs have become as popular as their black cousins. The Chesapeake Bay retriever is a hardy performer in the coldest of weather. Flat and curly-coated retrievers are graceful on land and in the water.
Also, many of the pointing breeds, from English setters to German shorthaired pointers, make excellent retrievers. Some may not have the rugged coat that’s needed when there’s ice on the pond, but can sparkle in the early season. A friend of mine hunted waterfowl deep into the winter with a German wirehaired pointed, a breed blessed with a sturdy undercoat to thwart the frigid weather.
Because a dog retrieves well in the upland fields on a pheasant or partridge hunt, or scours the woodlots for a wounded grouse, does not mean it is ready for the marsh. Just ask Paul, who spent many weeks getting Jake tuned to the task of retrieving ducks and just importantly, long stretches of idleness in the duck blind.
It is important to teach Jake that he just sit quietly when the ducks are circling the decoys, trying to decide if it is safe to land. A whining, barking dog just will not do when a flock of Canada geese are heading toward a pit blind in a cornfield. Long periods of inactivity punctuated with short bursts of action are the nature of waterfowl hunting. It is the rare day when the sky is filled with ducks eager to drop in for a visit. It is much more likely that a water fowler will spend long hours scanning the skies and keeping his fingers crossed.
A hunting dog used to constant activity in the field is soon bored in the blind or on the duck boat. A retriever will lose sight of the task at hand and search for his own entertainment, much to the frustration of its owner. Getting a young retriever used to sitting still for long periods of time will not happen on a hunting trip or two. It is a year-round adventure, and can be exasperating for both the dog and its owner.
Fortunately, the training sessions can be fun. Paul enjoys summertime fishing. When he launches his small fishing boat, Jake is aboard. During the early trips, a short lead attached the young Lab to a cleat on the side of the boat, preventing the dog from roaming around the boat to sniff lures or bury his nose in the bait bucket.
When the dove hunting season arrives, a special rig is used to keep Jake from running amok while the pair waits on the edge of a plowed field for doves to zip past. An O-ring and small metal bucket are attached to a t-shaped steel rod, which is stuck in the ground. The dog’s short lead is attached to the O-ring and the bucket is filled with water, a must for keeping a dog cool when hunting on warm, sunny days.
When a dove is downed, Jake is released to retrieve it. Misses are common in the dove fields and the duck marsh, and the dog now understands it will not get a retrieve every time the shotgun is fired. It didn’t happen overnight and setbacks were common, but the young lab slowly but surely began to settle into a hunting mode and look to his master for instructions. The hunting lessons will continue, as Jake learns to follow voice and hand signals, but the foundation that has been built is a solid one.
For more than 20 years Steve has been training bird dogs for hunting and field trials. As the owner of Pine Haven Kennels, he provides a complete training program for dogs and their owners. Steve is the winner of numerous awards including: Ohio’s All-Breed Hunter Trial Championship in the premier All-Age Pointing Class in 1990, 1995 and 2003 and the Dog of the Day honors at the championship trial in 1995 and 2003.