by Mike Stewart
Wingshooters, especially waterfowlers, have lived this moment: a shot bird drops directly into moving water making a dramatic splash which attracts the total attention of the gundog on duty. With a prompt release, the trusty companion takes a direct heading to the marked fall only to discover the bird is no longer there. The current of the stream has intervened and carried the bird adrift. Totally convinced of the bird’s location, the dog ignores signals, whistles, and superlatives preferring to stay with the hunt at the point of “splash down.” All the while, the bird continues to drift out of sight. Overcoming this disappointing scenario involving a determined hunting dog will take a bit of specialized training on moving waters such as a creek, fast run off, or river. The conditioning will handily transfer to other types of water work such as birds down in high winds or picking a swimmer, a wounded bird making an escape on water by padding and diving.
The Wildrose Way is all about training for realistic field situations and the recovery of game. No bird left behind. Training on moving water addresses both goals. Here are the steps we take to acclimate retrievers to birds that fall into moving water.
Step 1: Watch
Lesson one is to teach the dog to watch a moving object on the water. I prefer a tennis ball or a small bumper that floats high on the surface. An easily seen, attractive target. With the dog sitting patiently at streamside, toss the object upstream making a splash. Allow the object to drift past your location, hopefully holding the dog’s total attention. As the target drifts downstream, release the dog for the retrieve. Gradually increase the distance and duration of the float.
- This is great steadying work.
- Do not look down at your dog. Your eyes/attention will attract the dog and disrupt its focus. Remain still and follow the movement of the object with your eyes.
- Release the dog by name or command, but do not line the dog. Your movement will break concentration. No physical movements on the part of the handler unless the dog has lost the object.
Step 2: Downstream Float
Toss a mark downstream causing a splash. Maintain your dog’s steadiness as the object begins its float away. Again your attention must be on the drifter. Release the dog for the chase before it loses concentration. Be prepared to assist initially by handling or tossing a few rocks to indicate direction. Success matters. Gradually extend distance, release time, and water speed.
- Do not attempt training on moving water for drifters until your dog is thoroughly trained on whistles and hand signals on water.
- Begin in shallow parts of the river where the dog can keep its footing and bound through the water. This will give the retriever a higher stance to see the object rather than swimming.
The dog learns to focus “eyes on the ball” scanning the water’s surface area rather than running to the mark and holding a hunting pattern. Moving water training is sight work.
Step 3: Upstream
Now the more challenging aspect of river training. A mark is tossed upstream, creating a splash. The object begins its downstream movement, yet our dog, upon release, again goes directly to the fall area. Now the dog must realize that all is not what it seems. The marked bird is on the move. Again, assistance may initially be in order for success, but quickly previous lessons pay off and the astute waterdog recognizes the current’s direction and scans the water’s surface. The dog has learned that birds will be moving downstream, so go with the flow.
Step IV: Extensions
Now real action may begin. Using a handheld launcher, fire a bumper up or downstream, dead center of the water source as the dog patiently watches. Release the dog for the mark to discover if the training has been successful. The aware dog will head to the fall area, recognize the current’s direction, and scan the surface for the moving object rather than hanging in the fall area. Now, we are training waterdogs!
Our final step will be to use cold game birds on moving water for a more realistic experience.
River training is an important step in finishing any gundog, upland or waterfowl. Wildrose accomplishes this type of experience at our two river facilities in Arkansas and Colorado. The exposure has paid huge dividends for our clients afield.
You never know when the occasion will arise that your dog faces the challenge of recovery of a drifter. Best advice, go prepared. These abilities may gain both you and your dog a round of admiration and compliments from fellow wingshooters. You picked the one that otherwise would have been lost.