It takes patience and time, but there's a great payoff, one trainer said.
By BRENT FRAZEE
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- When Chris Akin was getting expelled from high school years ago, he received some advice from his principal that he still follows today.
"I missed 14 straight days of school during the duck season, and my principal finally had enough," Akin recalls. "He told me, 'Boy, unless you figure out a way to make a living killing ducks or training dogs, I suggest you get an education.' "
Well, Akin figured out a way.
He eventually turned his love of duck hunting into a full-time job, opening Web-Footed Kennels in Jonesboro, Ark. Today, he is the one doling out the education -- to waterfowl retrievers.
He relishes the challenge of taking a puppy with little discipline and turning it into a mature duck dog -- a training regimen that has fascinated him since his childhood.
"I was only 10 or 11 when I got my first Lab and trained it on my own," said Akin, 39. "I remember that I bought that dog for $53 -- the amount that the owner had in her for shots.
"He sold me the dog and a book he had written on training Labs. I trained her with a leash in one hand and a book in the other. But she did great.
"I ended up hunting with her for 10 years, from Canada to Mexico. We had some great hunts together."
Akin has trained dozens of retrievers since then, taking pride in seeing the finished product at work on the waterfowl marsh.
That's what he was doing on a recent afternoon. He was at the Cabela's store in Kansas City, Kan., representing Avery Team Waterdog, a team of well-known dog trainers, at the Grand Slam Waterfowl Classic. And at a pond, he and other trainers put on a show, displaying how efficient well-trained waterfowl dogs can be.
Time and time again, trainers Akin, Dan Heard of Raytown, and David Carrington of Memphis, Tenn., tossed dummies into the water and watched as their Labs bounded out to retrieve them.
"I think they would do this until they collapsed," said Carrington, who coordinates Team Waterdog, which is sponsored by Avery Outdoors, a leading manufacturer of waterfowl-hunting equipment. "They just love this."
Team Waterdog travels the country, putting on similar demonstrations and answering one question they hear over and over again: "How can I get my dog to act like that?"
The team provides a multipart answer, but one that has one core element -- plenty of training.
The trainers start the dogs young, teaching them basic obedience -- sit, stay, heel and "here." Heard also advises hunters to keep the puppies inside the house, where they are introduced to a variety of loud noises and commotion and get interaction with humans.
"Socialization is very important in the training of these dogs," he said.
Once the puppies reach 6 months of age, it's time for the hunting training to begin.
"People assume that just because they buy a web-footed dog [a Labrador retriever] that it's going to love the water, the sound of a 12-gauge and ducks," Akin said. "But that's not true.
"It takes training, and even then, some of them just aren't cut out for it."
What they're taught
Early on, the trainers work with the young dogs to teach them a "conditioned retrieve" -- fetch, hold and drop (the bird that is being retrieved). That can take repetition -- and the trainers have different methods for reaching that desired goal.
But the experts agree that many dogs can pick up the hunting basics in the first three or four months of training. Then they move on to more advanced training such as following hand signals and making double retrieves.
There are tricks that can be used along the way to make the training easier. For example, Akin recommends going to a taxidermy shop and buying a discarded duck carcass to use as a training tool.
"If the young dog spends all of its time retrieving plastic dummies, it won't know what it's supposed to be retrieving when it gets out to the marsh for the first time," he said.
And the big day -- that first hunt? Akin advises hunters to pick the situation carefully.
"Don't take them out for the first time when the weather is terrible -- real cold or raining," he said. "Pick a nice day.
"And control the situation. Get that dog out when there aren't going to be a lot of distractions from other hunters."