Duck hunting goes back a long time. Cave paintings from Europe provide evidence of waterfowl hunting some 12,000 years ago.
Humans started hunting with dogs around the same time. A study by archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen and University College London looks at animal bones found in a Neolithic settlement known as Shubayqa 6, established 11,500 years ago, in the Black Desert of northeast Jordan. The archeologists suggest the remains indicate that the dogs were helping humans to hunt small prey.
Man and dog make a great hunting team, so it’s no wonder that some of the best duck hunting is done over dogs.
Types of dogs
Many breeds of dogs are capable of helping hunters with duck hunting. The most common breed you will find in duck hunting is a retriever. Some of the more popular breeds are:
Chesapeake bay retriever
The Chessie is a purpose-bred duck dog. Bred to face the harsh waters of the Chesapeake shores, this dog knows no boundaries. They will happily swim through any conditions to bring back your bird. Their oily double coat helps them to repel water and keep them insulated in frigid temperatures.
This dog is a much-loved breed across the globe. This friendly breed is the most popular dog in the United States. Their success as duck hunters is well known. Labs have a dense coat and a strong tail they use as a rudder.
Nova scotia duck tolling retriever
This retriever was bred for a different type of hunting. The toller was used to attract attention from ducks by frolicking on the shoreline. The ducks would be curious, thinking maybe it’s a fox. Once the ducks were in range, the hunter would take the shot, then send the dog out to retrieve the downed bird.
Not all breeds you find in the field duck hunting are retrievers. Other breeds are successful duck hunters. Such as:
The springer spaniel is a flusher, but that doesn’t impair his ability to retrieve. The springer’s game drive and excellent nose assist them with their retrieving ability. Capable of finding downed birds in any situation make them a perfect choice for a duck hunter who likes to do upland also.
These small compact dogs arrived late on the scene. Bred in the 1900s, the Boykin was actually bred for duck and turkey hunting. The Boykin is renowned for duck retrieving, which is a great accomplishment for such a small flusher.
A what? Yes, you read that correctly. Poodles have been assisting hunters before guns were even invented. The poodle is a highly intelligent dog and not only makes a fine duck dog but is used with great success in upland hunting also.
Types of hunt
Puddle and divers
The majority of duck hunting is done over decoys, usually in lakes or marshland when ducks are coming to feed. This is where hunting dogs become particularly useful. Their ability to brave the cold water and bring back downed birds make them exemplary hunting partners. Many breeds also have natural camouflage coats. The Chesapeake bay retriever blends into the background seamlessly with its deadgrass coat, amongst others.
These ducks can also be found on rivers and streams. For this, you need a steady dog that will not run ahead and spook the birds.
These ducks are hunted over big water. The water can get rough and cold, and you need a strong dog with a thick coat, such as the Chessie.
Entire books have been written on training duck hunting dogs. For this article, we will just cover some tips.
Choosing a breeder
Picking a reputable breeder is the very first thing to set you up for success with your duck hunting dog. A good breeder will know everything there is to know about their breeds, and their dogs will come from strong hunting lines.
Many people overdog themselves on their first hunting dog. This is a recipe for disaster, and both human and dog end up frustrated. Then they have to pay for expensive trainers to break bad habits. This can all be prevented by finding a good breeder who cares where their dogs end up. The breeder will assess your abilities and see if they have a dog suitable for you.
Obedience is key
Duck dogs have a natural drive to retrieve. However, it’s essential to nurse that drive. This starts with obedience. The last thing any hunter wants is their dog breaking or fetching the bird but not bringing it back to hand.
A successful duck dog should be steady in the blind. Train the pup to sit and stay first before any retrieves or dummies are introduced. Once the pup learns to stay, you can introduce dummies but not allowing him to retrieve them all. If you pick up half of the dummies, then the dog won’t expect to pick up everything that drops.
Using a delayed retrieve is a great way to teach your dog steadiness. If you drop one or two birds on the water, leave them there for a half-hour or so before sending the dog out. This also is beneficial to training hand signals because the dog won’t remember where the birds are.
The main goal here is teaching the dog manners. An unruly dog will quickly spoil a hunt.
There is nothing more difficult than trying to unbreak a shy dog. Many times hunters are too eager to introduce their dog to water or, worse, introduce them to the gun.
I’ve seen hunters taking their 5-month-old pups on full duck hunts only later to complain they have a gun shy dog. This could have been prevented if they just slowed down and let the dogs’ natural inquisition take over.
To introduce a puppy to gunfire, start with a .22 and be 300 ft away. If the dog wasn’t bothered, you can gradually move closer. Do this for approximately two weeks before starting over again with a shotgun.
It’s also beneficial to use dummies during this stage. After the shot is fired, drop a dummy in front of the dog. This will keep them distracted and get them used to retrieve.
Another thing I see far too often is people forcing their dogs into the water. Dogs have a natural ability to swim, but if they are overcome by fear, you may never get them into the water.
The best way to introduce a pup to water is by finding a shallow pool with a hard bottom. This is best done on a summer’s day when the water is warm.
I like to take the opportunity to go swimming, and it’s not long before my pups are swimming out after me.
This is a common problem stemming from poor obedience training. Once the dog is well trained in obedience, it will be effortless to train recall. However, if you train them things in reverse, your ducks will do ten laps around you before you get it in your hand, or more likely dropped 5 feet in front of you.
Once you have obedience trained, a good way to introduce recall is with a long check lead. Tell the dog to sit and stay, walk away a couple of feet and call the pup to you. Most pups will be eager to come but give a little tug on the lead if not.
You can gradually introduce the distance and eventually remove the use of the lead.
Duck hunting and dogs go hand in hand. Any duck hunter will tell you the best tool in their arsenal is their dog.
Getting a duck dog is an exciting time. You will know no better companion. They will sit with you in the freezing cold and happily retrieve ducks for you time after time. Every time I hunt over my dogs is a special moment. They never cease to amaze me.
You owe it to your future companion to make sure you’re capable of training it and have the time to put in. Start slow and don’t rush things. You and your new best friend will enjoy plenty of hunting opportunities together as well as quality time at home.