They don’t have webbed feet. They can’t swim. But doves may be the perfect bird for training your retriever. As the saying goes, timing is everything.
Admit it, you’ve already got the opening morning mapped out in your mind: you ask your Lab to sit quietly in the blind, calm in spite of shots, yells, falling birds, blats, and burbles from your buddy’s attempt at a highball. You expect your dog to follow and mark birds in the air and as they tumble, if you’re lucky. He is tasked with retrieving on command, in the order you want birds fetched even if he didn’t see them fall.
Why not backpedal six or eight weeks to September? Substitute a five-gallon bucket under a tree for a bench in a brushed-over blind, and there isn’t much difference. Sure, it’s hot and dry. Your camo pattern may be different, as will be your location. But the bones of the activity are strikingly similar and your training regimen just became as realistic as possible without the quack.
Dove hunting is the perfect tune-up for duck hunting. Look at it as the “dress rehearsal” where everything you’ve drilled, all the skills you’ve taught are put to the test, polished and refined, long before the curtain rises on duck season.
Many of the smart retriever trainers I know have been dove hunters for years, for good reason. If you’re not taking advantage of this golden opportunity, you should. Birds will likely fly over. The sheer number of hunters with which you share a dove field almost guarantees that birds will get shot. Somebody’s got to pick them up. There are blind retrieves, doubles, even triple marks. All the factors you wish-hope-pray for during training are right there waiting for you—and your retriever.
I understand there are protocols, traditions. So ask your shooting party if your retriever can work for them. If they’re dogless, it’s a no brainer. If temperatures are searing, other shooters’ dogs get a cooling break as they honor your dog’s retrieve and vice-versa. Trade shots, alternate retrieves, help each other with training situations. What’s not to like about that?
Picture those gray rockets as greenheads and start drilling your dog as you would any training scenario. But on a dove hunt you get a full meal deal: real birds, real shots, real retrieves, coupled with all the distractions from multiple shooters, to falling birds, to other dogs.
And while it may be the bane of dove hunters, those loose feathers and “funny” taste are good motivation for drilling your force-fetch training.
Your dog has to exhibit discipline and self-control but so do you. It doesn’t work as well if you’re shouldering your own shotgun. Going “hunting” and not shooting is never easy. You’ll endure the taunts of your hunting buddies. Your dog will look at you askance. You may have to hand over every retrieved bird for someone else’s barbecue. But you’ll have a stronger, better-trained retriever when you’re pulling on your waders for the first time come duck season.
Isn’t that what you both live for, anyway?