It’s River Time

By Mike Stewart, Wildrose International

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It was the early years of Drake’s career on DU TV as the Ducks Unlimited mascot.  He was taken to the cold plains of Montana and handled by the show’s host on a winter duck hunting excursion along the banks of the warm water streams and rivers that remained open from freezing which was a first for young Drake.  The birds were plentiful, scenery spectacular and the “first experience” show was a success. As always, we trainers like to collect a field performance report on a young dog after their first hunts. Feedback is vital for continuous improvement in any training program.  Everything was said to be great with the exception of Drake’s lack of experience with working on moving rivers, both dealing with birds that splash down in the current which did not remain at the location of the “mark” and the skills necessary to cross swift-moving water to pick long falls well beyond the opposite bank of a fast-moving stream.  To this point in time, Drake’s young experience had been on the still waters of ponds, flooded timber and flooded fields.  When Drake hit the river, the current carried him well off the line to the birds. Negotiating moving water was certainly a new thing. Okay, it was time for new training techniques for all Wildrose gundogs.

In 2003, Wildrose purchased and began the development of the Wildrose river training facility.  The property was finally selected in Northwest Arkansas with two-thirds of a mile of river along the Little Buffalo, complete with both narrow and wide river sections.  These training grounds, Wildrose of the Ozarks, offered a new dimension to our training experiences – River Time.

The Process

Let’s walk through the steps we developed to make any water dog competent in negotiating retrieves across moving water.

Requirement 1:  Delivery

First, our student must be able to pick a bumper or bird with a solid “hold” and deliver to hand despite influences.  After the pick we want the dog to make a direct re-entry into the water with a solid grasp of the bird as fast currents are negotiated as well as rocks, weeds and icy banks followed by no dropping at the exit for a shake, all necessary to prevent a wounded bird’s escape or to avoid the current sweeping the dislodged recovery downstream.

We began preparing for this skill early in the training process during delivery-to-hand conditioning, (page 118, Sporting Dogs and Retriever Training, The Wildrose Way).  As a final step with each object being used in the delivery sequence, we have the dog hold while in shallow water then deliver with recall to the bank.  Next, reverse. Have the dog hold on the bank with the handler now in the shallows.  Call the dog into the water for delivery.  In effect, you are teaching direct water re-entry which should be successfully performed five times in five locations.

Requirement 2:  Handling

Do not attempt across-water retrieves until your dog handles well on land and water. Across-water retrieves will often require solid stops and casting to put the dog back to the correct area of the fall after being pulled off-course by a swift current.  Simply, until the dog perfects swimming hard into the current holding a reasonably accurate line to the fall area, handling will be required.

Some inexperienced dogs lose their handling focus when they feel a bit independent with a significant barrier between them and the handler.  This is a problem to avoid.  The dog must be easily controllable in taking directions BEFORE across-water retrieves are attempted.  As always, get it right on land before going to the water (Wildrose Law #8).

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Once the dog is proficient on hand signal exercises like switching on doubles (page 197-199 of Sporting Dogs and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way) and is accomplished at the same on open water, we incorporate land barriers between the dog and the handler (ditches, small shallow creeks, short hedgerows or mowed grass lanes). Here handling is perfected beyond the barrier where assistance and corrections may still be obtainable. Send the dog by memories or marks through the barrier.  Stop and handle for memories or unseens on the far side of the obstacle. Follow up with the more challenging across-water hunting opportunities once handling is proficient on land.

Requirement 3:  Hunting Cover on Command

When our hunting companion is across the water and handling to the correct location of the fall, his hunting cover skills then must take over.  This is handling to a stop and taking direction to hunt cover closely. Here the retriever earns his stripes holding to a tight pattern searching for scent.  Again, this skill is developed well before the dog is subjected to crossing waters to a far bank.

Requirement 4:  Get Over

First attempts to cross a water channel should be made on still water such as narrow backwaters of a lake, pond or shallow drainage creek.  The bumper is placed as a mark or memory on the far bank.  The object should be quite obvious at first… easily seen and close to the bank’s edge to provide a visual target and encourage immediate re-entry. From initial, simple marks, progress to trailing memories placing distance between the handler and the water’s edge at entry.  Slowly extend the distance to the banks both for entry going out and distance away from the far banks water’s edge to make the pick.  Once proficient on the shallow channels, it’s time for moving water exposure.

Again, begin close to the bank of the moving water and place the large, white bumper at water’s edge on the far bank.  Now we are introducing the effects of the current.   We are adding a distraction so keep the first retrieves simple.  The visibility of the bumper assists in keeping the dog moving toward the obvious target while learning to overcome the current.

Initial exercises are set up as marks and memories straight across with gradually increasing distance on both sides of the channel.  We follow with angle entries where the falls are both up and down river from the dog’s position.  When the dog takes the line to the fall, we want to see a direct water entry, not balking or running the bank’s edge.  Again, begin angle entry/exit retrieves at shorter distances close to both sides of the bank.  Learning to manage currents’ influences is accomplished first as a direct line across the moving water followed by angle entries. (pages 182 & 183 of Sporting Dogs and Retriever Training, The Wildrose Way)

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With progressive training, making haste slowly (Wildrose Law #5), the dog develops confidence and a trust of the handler to put him on the bird.  Remember, train don’t test (Wildrose Law #18).  Nothing is learned through failure.

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