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Morrison: Hunting dogs, handlers benefit from pro trainer

October of 1999 found my lab pup, Mercury, and I hidden on a small southern Minnesota slough awaiting the noon waterfowl opener.

It was a blazing hot day, the temps hovering in the mid-80s under clear skies. Outside our blind, a couple dozen decoys bobbed in the gentle breeze as if waiting for flights of ducks themselves.

At noon, shooting erupted around the lake, moving dozens of speeding ducks over our decoy spread. In mere minutes of furious action, I dropped a pair of woodies and a brace of blue-wing teal. As fast as it started, it stopped. Not another duck winged by for 2 hours.

After Mercury retrieved the initial four ducks, I sat back, nearly dozing off under the warm sun. I found myself in a daydream-like state, pondering an exit to clean ducks when I heard the unmistakable swoosh of fast-flying ducks.

I jolted upright and saw a flock of teal buzzing high above. Pushing my shotgun barrel well ahead of the lead duck, I touched off a shot and watched as the duck began to fold before regaining a glide and sailing off the lake and falling a few hundred yards away into a bean field.

I wasn’t sure if young Mercury had marked the fall, so we waded out of the blind and started for the opposite shore. When we arrived at the cattails, Mercury left my side, plowing through and bolting up a wooded hill on his way to the bean field. I dug for my whistle to call him back, but decided not to use it.

Instead, I busted through the weeds toward the woods. Once there, I could help Merc locate the bird as the wind was right in our faces.

Just as I exited the mass of cattails, Mercury appeared, tail slamming against the brush, a very much alive teal clamped gently in his snout. On his first duck hunt at only 11 months old, Mercury certainly made me proud. All his training had paid off, saving us perhaps hours of fruitless searching.

For serious gun dog owners, who are used to successful scenarios like that, summertime is for reinforcing or extending commands. Some others, who live and breathe all things dog, use summer months to polish their canine friends into elite bird dogs, competing on difficult canine hunting tests where dogs receive titles based on their achievements.

No matter which category dog trainers fall into, at some point a training problem will arise that may resist the handlers’ best efforts. When that happens, it’s not a bad idea to turn to an veteran pro-trainer who can diagnose and solve the problem.

Dog owners in the Mankato area are lucky to have bonafide gun dog trainer within easy driving distance.

Roger Hess, a cutting-edge trainer with four decades of experience, trains his clients’ hunting dogs, usually retrievers, on the sprawling grounds of the Caribou Gun Club near Le Sueur.

A few nights ago, I swung out to the club and talked retriever training with Roger. My first question involved how dog training had changed over the years he’d been in the business. His answer surprised me a bit.

While I figured it would be the training equipment involved, Roger said, “it’s the dogs that have changed the most. The breeding programs have been so streamlined that dogs who may have run long retrieves out to 200 yards are now tripling that distance.”

He also noted that the dogs have become physically faster, able to cover ground almost faster than a trainer can react to when a quick command needs to be sent.

Still, when it comes to the most vital hunting skills, Roger says it’s a must to lay a foundation of reliable obedience. Without that early work, everything after becomes more complex because, he says, “when training hunting dogs, you should only be teaching one skill at a time.”

Simple, but sage advice.

Electronic dog training collars are popular tools among dog enthusiasts and these days, nearly every trainer employs them. While we discussed electronic collars at length, I gleaned from Roger that not all collars are created equal in the way they deliver stimulation to a dog. Basically, you get what you pay for, so hunters should buy the very best they can afford.

I watched Roger put his remarkable lab, Briley, through several training scenarios and learned that while collars can deliver variable intensity levels of electronic stimulation, it’s the other modes that may be the most vital. In all his exercises, Roger guided the dog perfectly through complicated maneuvers with only the vibration mode selected.

Briley performed all the tasks with aplomb, her tail wagging the entire time, a sure sign of a well-managed and positive dog. It should be noted that anytime a dog’s tail drops and clamps down, the dog has become confused and ceased learning. Wagging, happy tails let trainers know their dogs understand what is being taught, and dogs who display that demeanor rapidly gain confidence necessary to carrying out more complex tasks.

A lot of die-hard retriever trainers form clubs and meet often to train their dogs. These clubs are usually comprised of serious amateurs who use each other’s experience and knowledge to advance their dog’s training. It’s a good model, one that Roger has improved upon by implementing his own Minnesota River Retriever Club.

The difference here is that Roger is present at all club training days, offering invaluable tips to trainers, thereby drastically shortening their learning curves and getting their dogs over training hurdles much faster. The price of admission works out to a paltry 5 bucks an outing, making it the best interactive training deal around.

The retriever club’s outings are managed in a way that is friendly to both inexperienced dogs, as well as grizzled retrievers. The simple act of having a young dog just sit and watch while 10 other dogs work can provide invaluable steadiness training for upcoming duck hunts.

I know this, when it’s time to begin training another lab pup, you can be sure I’ll join Roger’s group to abbreviate both the pup’s and my learning curve.

Mark Morrison is an avid hunter and fisherman who has been a freelance outdoors writer and photographer for more than 20 years. The Mankato resident since 1979 may be contacted at [email protected]