By Charlie Jurney
In our excitement to build a retriever into a top-notch waterfowl dog, it’s easy to forget small but important details. For example, your dog might make you proud when he completes a long retrieve. But the first time you ask him to swim through four dozen decoys to retrieve a duck that fell 150 yards away, it could turn into a frustrating situation.
Decoys pose all sorts of potential problems for a dog that isn’t familiar with them. First of all, they are likely in the dog’s line of sight, so they could distract him from his mark. Secondly, he might try to retrieve a decoy. After all it’s right out there where he saw something fall, so who could blame him for such a mistake? Lastly, bumping into a decoy or getting tangled in the decoy line could spook him and make him hesitant to enter the water when decoys are bobbing around.
You can avoid all of these issues with some preseason work. Decoy introduction should occur when a pup is young. We keep decoys in the yard at our training kennel. The dogs see them everyday and quickly lose interest in them. This is passive introduction because the dogs run around the decoys each day while working on other skills.
Formal introduction starts with about a dozen decoys spread throughout the yard. Place your dog on a leash and walk him around the outer edge of the decoys. Pay attention to his attitude. As he relaxes, direct your walk into the decoy rig at a slow pace. Walk around all of the decoys, allowing him to smell and investigate the blocks if he chooses. Scold pup if he tries to pick one up or put a paw on it. Repeat the process until he’s totally relaxed while walking through the rig. This may take five minutes or five days; pup will tell you how long.
Now it’s time for your dog to learn to retrieve in the presence of decoys. First, he should be happily retrieving fun bumpers near the decoys. Initially, toss a few fun bumpers beside the decoy rig. Pour the praise on with each enthusiastic retrieve, letting pup know you’re happy with his actions. Gradually change your tosses so pup is required to run through the entire rig when making a retrieve. If he decides to run around the decoys instead of through them, position yourself among the decoys to receive the bumper. Repeat this until he runs through the decoys without hesitation and returns directly to you through them.
Next, you should throw the fun bumpers into the middle of the decoy spread. This should go well unless you had problems with the last step. Once again, repetition is the key to desensitizing your dog to decoys. If he tries to pick one up or stop and smell any of the blocks, quickly enter the rig yourself and tease pup with the bumper until it has his entire interest.
At this point, your dog should have no worries about decoys. Now it’s time to move the rig from land to water. An ideal piece of water would be shallow enough to be waded, in case you need to walk out into the water and reassure him. Start by throwing a few bumpers beside the decoys. When he is relaxed with this situation, move your tosses beyond the rig and then into the rig, just like you did on land.
It’s not uncommon for a dog to be worried or frightened by a decoy when he bumps into one. Let him know the plastic birds will not harm him by rewarding each retrieve with enthusiasm. Also, keep decoys lines short so your dog won’t become entangled in them.
Decoys should become a regular part of your training program. Your training fields and ponds should have decoys in them each time you go out to train. While some of this may seem like overkill, it will help ensure your dog doesn’t become known in your duck camp as the “world’s greatest decoy retriever.”