To a waterfowl hunter there is nothing more beautiful than a misty morning with low overhanging cloud cover. It presents an opportunity for the hunter’s best friend and partner to do his stuff.

A dog trainer and self-described “driven waterfowl hunter,” Doug Johnson, Marion, IL, has some advice for the hunter seeking to make the experience better for both man and dog.

In choosing a dog, Johnson begins with the bloodline of the parents. He refers to it as picking the litter rather than picking a puppy. “I look for parent dogs that have all the traits that I desire and then try to get a puppy from the litter,” explains Johnson. “I don’t just pick a puppy, I pick the litter.”

At six weeks to 49-days he weans the puppy and takes it home. At home he plays with it, loves it, and teaches the meaning of no. He tries to teach it a little but does not go into any formal training. The idea is to try getting the pup to retrieve a bumper. If he will pick it up and drop it again that is alright with Doug. He wants the puppy to have fun and want to retrieve.

When it is six months of age, Johnson begins the puppy’s formal training. The first step is obedience because that is the cornerstone for the rest of the training. Next he moves to a formal fetch and hold that is referred to as forceful training or force break. The idea is to ingrain the picking up and holding of the bumper. It is not a natural thing for them to do but they need to learn to hold birds.

Force breaking is a difficult thing for the handler to learn. There are books available but professional help should be sought. Johnson is quick to state that amateurs have learned it and can learn it. But, it takes longer for them and they make mistakes. This results in the necessity to go back and fix the mistakes before moving on in the training. “It is just less problematic and develops fewer quirks in the dog to have it done professionally,” says Johnson.

Age 4 to 6 is really the optimum age for a hunting dog. It is when the hunter and dog spend more time hunting than dog training.

With younger dogs the hunter has to watch and make sure they are doing their job and further you have to pay attention to the dog’s stamina. After a day’s hunt the hunter may not notice it but the next morning the dog awakens stiff and sore. It is important that one watch older dogs for signs of weakness in stamina.

Reinforce training all year long. Often with older dogs the hunter has neglected his responsibility. “I have done a tune-up with older dogs about six weeks before the season begins,” explains Johnson. He begins with a short obedience, short fetching drills and then works on conditioning to get them in shape. That is followed by getting the dog to pay attention to the gun again. By way of explanation Doug describes it as, “a sort of Readers Digest version” of basic training.

During this “post-graduate” training he works on the weaknesses in the dog. He does reinforce the strong points but does not stay with it. Basically, he is teaching them to pay attention to what they already know. “We work on their weaknesses and get them in shape,” says Johnson. “A dog that is not in shape is not going to hunt well.

Once the dog is in shape, one can have a great day afield.

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