Transitioning an Experienced Waterfowl Retriever to the Uplands
By Casey SillPhotos by Daniel Sill
I was vehemently opposed to owning a lab until the day I brought one home.
I grew up with English setters, and while those particular dogs were more closely related to the accent pillows on my grandmother’s davenport than they were to actual working dogs, I developed a profound affection for the breed as a whole. When it came time for my first bird dog I immediately gravitated toward Llewellins, and assumed I would for the rest of my life.
I was opposed to Labradors in particular as an act of hipster defiance. I thought they were basic — the breed you owned if you lacked the ability for original thought. They were the Bud Light of the dog world. (There was probably a little bit of family influence there as well. My aunt is a retired veterinarian, and is fond of saying if she dies and goes to hell, it’ll just be a giant exam room filled with overweight, unneutered male labs.)
The issue with my prejudice, was I also loved to hunt ducks — and the thought of my setter dragging a mallard through a half frozen Wisconsin swamp in late November just wasn’t realistic. So, three years ago, I put a paper sack over my head, cut out some eyeholes and drove to Buffalo, Minn. to pick up a female black lab puppy.
Once we got her home, it took me all of about thirty seconds to completely change my tune on Labradors. In the years since, Bruly and I have hunted ducks and geese an average of 45 days per season. She earned her started NAHRA title last summer and we’re working on her intermediate title this year. But, since I still have my setter Loxley, I never bothered to train or hunt her on upland birds.
When I started at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever last fall, I got interested in changing that. This season I worked on transitioning Bruly from a strictly waterfowl centric dog to a more balanced hunter. We had some success and killed our first couple of roosters together, but the process was not without its challenges.
There are so many opposing fundamentals of upland training vs. waterfowl, first and foremost being steadiness. A delicate balance has to be struck between control and freedom, and I’m most certainly not a good enough trainer to explain that process on my own.
Making the switch
Josh Miller is the owner and lead trainer at River Stone Kennels in New Richmond, Wisc. He trains Labradors at the highest level for both the duck blind and the uplands, and often helps owners make the switch from one style to another.
Miller was a college baseball player before he started his career as a trainer, and his voice reflects the confidence of someone who used to crowd the plate just a touch. He speaks calmly and assertively, but without arrogance. Mixed with his confidence is a healthy dose of patience, and he said that’s the most important thing for trainers to remember when turning a duck dog loose in the uplands.
It’s always easier to loosen the reigns up, rather than trying to tighten them
“Take a three-year-old dog for example. For three years you’ve been telling that dog to stay at your side and not move. Now all of a sudden you’re encouraging them to move freely out in front of you,” he said. “You need to understand the patience that’s required to change that mindset. You’ve taught them that if they break, there’s going to be a repercussion for that, and now you’re flipping the script.”
Steadiness is one of the most basic principles of waterfowl training, and undoing that can be difficult for dogs. But Miller much prefers that to trying to teach an upland oriented lab how to sit still.
“It’s always easier to loosen the reigns up, rather than trying to tighten them,” he said. “When you have a dog that’s used to the go, go, go nature of upland hunting, it’s difficult to all of a sudden tell them they need to sit still for five hours. Look at it like this. Do you want the wild stallion that you’re now trying to harness, or a broke horse you’re giving just a little more reign to?”
When I started upland hunting with Bruly, she wouldn’t get more than about five feet away from me. When I finally did get her to venture out, she’d often hunt for a short time, then turn around, face me and sit down, looking for a cast. Training with live birds can help give a steady retriever the confidence to venture away from their handler, but most amateur trainers don’t have access to live birds on a regular basis. Miller believes the same principle can be taught just as successfully with a wing and a bumper.
“It’s important to have some kind of reward out there during your training sessions, whether that’s a live bird or just a bumper with a wing taped on it,” he said. “Something for that dog to find. The idea is that if we work as a team and you quarter in front of me — eventually we’re going to find what you’re looking for.”
During your training sessions, place a few bumpers in ankle high grass and turn the dog loose, patiently guiding them toward the reward. The more they find, the more they’ll understand that what they’re looking for is out on the landscape somewhere. The better they understand that, the more willing they’ll be to leave your side.
Back to basics
Once the reigns have been sufficiently loosened, it’s time to pump the breaks once again. A flushing dog that won’t leave your side is an issue, but a flushing dog that works at 150 yards is a much bigger issue. Miller uses a check chord to train quartering and distance.
“When we let them go, we need to teach them what the rules of this new game are. That’s why we go back to the check chord, and back to control,” he said. “Check chord work is the stuff everyone wants to get through and then never come back to. But it’s the foundation of everything. So even with an advanced retriever learning the upland world — put them back on a check chord.”
During training sessions, Miller will guide dogs back and forth through the field with the check chord, keeping them in shotgun range.
“I don’t like to talk to them a whole lot while I do this. You can communicate everything through that check chord,” he said. “If you’re walking north, just start going northeast and then northwest. Tap that chord, get them moving back and forth with you, and eventually that muscle memory starts to kick in.”
Miller likes to use ten-yard check chords for this process. Dogs will always extend their range a little bit once they’re in an active hunting situation, and training close keeps them in range later on.
“If you train at ten yards and then the dog works out to 20 yards when they’re actually hunting, they’re still well within shotgun range,” he said. “Where if you work your dog at 40 yards in training, when they hunt pretty soon they’re at 50 or 60 yards.”
All about balance
The key to all dog training, and possibly life in general, is balance. As you implement these upland drills into your training, it’s important to also keep working on waterfowl basics. Steadiness, casting, blind retrieves.
Regardless of what’s being taught, the proper application of time and patience will inevitably result in “aha” moments...
“The one thing I think can be forgotten in this process is if the dog is still going to hunt ducks, you don’t want to loosen the screws up all the way,” he said. “You need to keep training your waterfowl basics at the same time, otherwise you’re going to wind up with an out of control dog in the duck blind.”
The key to achieving that balance is time. The more time you spend training and the more consistently you implement that training, the greater the output from the dog. Regardless of what’s being taught, the proper application of time and patience will inevitably result in “aha” moments, when all the work pays off and the concept truly clicks. Miller makes his living training other people’s dogs, but still promotes putting in the time yourself whenever possible.
“I think there’s a huge benefit of people training their own dogs, because they get to see those moments,” he said. “They understand the work it takes to get to those moments and all the little steps that need to happen leading up to it. Most importantly they understand how to build off of that moment and keep that momentum going.”
Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever national headquarters in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at email@example.com.