Bad Habits of Duck Hunt Dogs

Written by Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels; Photos by Katie Behnke

Cross-Fit is training the Wildrose Labrador – a superb gamefinder – to work simultaneously and in harmony with other sporting breeds: Pointers or Flushers, one complementing the other while avoiding interference or frolic. The training emphasizes teamwork, tapping each breed’s specific and best talents, then blending them into field performance in a workable collaboration of hunting, pointing, flushing and game recovery.  

The effort is to provide sporting enthusiasts with the ultimate in upland gundog experiences.

Training emphasizes working the Retriever or Spaniel in combination with the Pointer in several key areas:

– Wagon/strike dog

– Quartering and flushing

– Pointing and backing

– Game recovery

– Field obedience and control elements

At the outset it’s important to keep in mind that the upland hunting field can appear to a young gundog as quite chaotic, so train for the distractions.

Core Principles

Obedience and control in a group setting.

Here we are developing obedience and steadiness around other active dogs and people as well as the distractions of flushing birds and distant gunfire.  Our dogs work in group settings on basic obedience, walk-ups, short retrieves and steadying denials (including live birds).  The starter must learn to maintain focused composure despite distraction.


1. A Retriever hunting cover for a downed bird as a stylish Pointer slashes about the area. Will your Retriever stay on the hunt ignoring the distraction?

2. Will the Spaniel stay steady backing a Pointer as you approach to make the flush? Backing includes remaining steady to the flush and disregarding the Pointer’s actions afterward.  Backing is remote steadiness at its finest.

Focused Initiative – Interdependence

Cross-Fit requires a dog to focus on its individual sense of purpose despite the activities of other dogs.  The Pointer proceeds on the hunt even as the Retriever works to recover birds down. The Lab marks well and holds his line to the fall despite the activities of the Pointers running about after the flush or other dogs also searching for downed birds.

To initially train for this situation, get the starters in a group at heel.  Have a bumper in thick cover that will require a diligent search.  Send in one dog and monitor the other dog’s steadiness.

– Steady the group both at sit/whoa and on a walk-up to tethered flight birds.

– Have a dog continue to hunt cover as you send another for a short memory or mark.

– On the walk-up, as the Pointer hunts while others remain at heel, fire a shot and throw a mark simulating a flush. With all remaining steady, send one gundog from the pack to make the pick.

Remember Wildrose Law #7, “If it’s not right at heel (close proximity), it won’t be right in the field.”

Backing the Point

Our Cross-Fit Retrievers understand the “whoa” command just like their Pointing partners.  Have the Pointer locate a planted bird and hold steady as the Retriever or Spaniel approaches.  Give the stay or “whoa” command to the approaching dogs behind yet in sight of the point.  Walk in and make the flush while insuring our “back up” dog(s) holds their position without noise or creeping.  Backing a point/flush is premiere steadiness and the behavior must be rewarded profusely.  Do not call the backing dogs off position unless a speedy recovery of a runner is necessary.  Return to each steady dog and reward the steadiness then release.

Developing Bird Savvy

The nose knows and there is simply no substitute to training with scent. 

Include the following:

– Feather-laced bumpers (non-plastic)

– Cold game

– Live flushes

– Variety of cover to hunt

These variables offer different scents identifiable in the conditions you will be hunting under:  snow, wind, temperature variations, humidity, and types of cover.  Birds should be found in training in places where they will likely be found on the hunt.  Training as you will play. Today with the vast availability of preserve shooting grounds in most areas of the country, one can purchase birds for training or book an afternoon in the field on location for upland training purposes.


A “strike dog” is a flusher of upland birds from cover that have been located by Pointers.  The purpose is to roust birds airborne from cover rather than have them run about clinging to the ground.  The strike dog, either Retriever or Spaniel, is brought into position ahead of the point holding the birds.  On command, the striker blasts into cover to get birds airborne while remaining steady to flush and shot.  We practice this using planted birds only after both Pointer and Striker are steady to tossed bumpers with shots as they hunt cover.

Remember steady to flush is important for the dog’s safety (See 5-Option Drill on page 195 of Sporting Dog and Retriever Training, the Wildrose Way).

Finished upland Cross-Fit gundogs are a refined team of gamefinders:

– Steady to flush

– Excellent at game recovery

– Wise students of wind, scent detection and bird savvy

– Not distracted by the activities of other dogs afield

– Proficient markers by sight and by sound

– Controllable by whistles and hand signals

– Balanced to the pack with appropriate obedience behaviors

Cross-Fit trained gundog are sporting dogs of duality blended perfectly for the ultimate Gentleman’s Gundog upland experience, all achieved “The Wildrose Way.”

About Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels

With forty years of association with dogs, pointers, flushers, retrievers, as well as hounds and obedience companion dogs Mike Stewart developed the Wildrose facilities creating a comprehensive gundog-training program focused exclusively on the English Labrador, specifically for the wingshooter and outdoor enthusiasts. He developed the unique, positive, training methodology, “The Wildrose Way,” which is being recognized across the country. Over the past nine years, he has appeared in a variety of television programming featuring retriever training including “The World of Ducks,” with Drake and Deke, the Ducks Unlimited mascots, ” Benelli’s American Bird Hunter,” The American Sportsman,” and other sporting programs. He has produced a series of best-selling DVDs, for hunting dog training, “The Gentleman’s Gundog” series. Mike retired as Chief of Police, University of Mississippi in 2000 after a 25-year career in law enforcement, a graduate of the University of Mississippi with a BPA and MCJ, as well as the FBI National Academy in 1989. He retired from the US Navy Reserves as a Commander in 2005 with nine years as a NCIS credentialed agent.

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