How to Have a Successful Duck Trial

by ahba

One hears a lot of complaints about trialing on ducks. Blame is usually laid on the ducks themselves. While some trials do indeed have very bad ducks, most of the time the blame actually belongs to one or more of the following: the dog not working the ducks properly, the handler not understanding duck behavior, the course director having very bad set out practices or the facility owner having very bad holding pen locations, and/or too small arenas.

A successful duck trial first begins with the holding pens. The worst place to locate them is right next to the trial area. Sadly, the majority of trials have them so that they either share the same fence as the trial area or are parallel to the trial arena fence with just a very narrow alley separating them. The closer the ducks in the trial arena are to their buddies in the holding pens, the more they want to get back to them. When the holding pens are next to the arena fence, the ducks in that end of the arena become absolutely frantic to get back to their buddies that they can hear as being right there. They can become so frantic that their minds become absolute mush. The dogs are not able to communicate with the ducks their mental state is so bad. If the dogs can’t communicate with the ducks, then they can’t herd them no matter how hard they try to do so. Some dogs refuse to even try, because they know there is not point to it.

I’ve seen trials where the dogs were having an awful time getting ducks off the back fence in which the ducks were held in crates right next to the fence. When the holding crates were moved some distance away from the fence for the next day’s trial, the trial ran much smoother without the problems at the back fence. I’ve seen dogs struggle with ducks at the back fence. The dogs often barely agreeing to work the ducks at the back fence. But then when the somehow managed to get them away from the back fence, everything transformed. The dog was totally on with the ducks. This is because at the fence the dogs were sensing there was nothing there to communicate with. But once off the fence and away from the holding pens, the ducks’ minds cleared and the dogs found something they could communicate with. And so they went to work herding the ducks.

My observations given in the previous two paragraphs have convinced me of the necessity of having the duck holding pens well away from the arena if one is to have a successful duck trial. One can construct a long chute from the holding pens to the trial arena. X-pen chutes go up and down very quickly. Or one can bring sets down one at a time in crates when it is time for them to be run. No spare sets waiting right next to the arena to hurry things along as quickly as possible. But that’s ok because having only the set being worked anywhere near the trial arena actually speeds things up because the runs are more efficient when you’ve eliminated all the angsts caused by having the holding areas too close to the arenas. Holding ducks well away from the arena is critical to having a great duck trial. I strongly encourage all course directors to make sure the trial is set up this way.

It is a good idea for Ducks should spend happy time in the area prior to the trial. At the opposite of the end of the arena from the set out / exhaust, they should have a real happy place with sprinklers, wading pool, and food. Give them good memories of the arena rather than having them think of it as that dreadful place with those awful dogs.

Another thing that would help increase qualifying scores / smoothness of runs is to increase the size of the arenas. In a minimum sized 100 x 100 arena, a dog does not have much room to get off the birds. Often the room available is less than the flight zones of the fowl. This makes it hard to do free standing obstacles. The AKC A course cross drive especially suffers in this regard. The cross drive would go much smoother if both the length and the width were well above minimum. When a dog has room to work, he is able to control the stock much better. Thus, there is less loosing of stock and less “tour de courses.” So, even though the course length is longer, the ducks will end up actually covering much less ground. The ASCA C Course with all its obstacles off the fence is extremely difficult in a minimum arena.

There are many different ways to set out ducks. I will not go over them here as that is an article in itself. Instead, I’ll just cut to the bottom line: Ducks should never be set in a manner which results in stress to them or which gets them riled up.

When a course calls for ducks to be put at a set out point, such as in AKC A Course, they should be set out and not just dumped out the gate. I believe that when the arena is too small for dogs to get far enough out to be off contact on their out runs, the ducks should be held at the set out until the dog can get behind. Give the dog a chance to start his run off properly. To not hold them, means the ducks run to the home fence before even a wide running dog can get behind and taking ducks off a fence is far more difficult than trying to take sheep off a fence. Though if the holding areas are well away from the arena as I advised above, then this may become a non-issue.

Also important in success of the trial is choice of birds. The best birds are those used to being nicely worked by dogs and those that have had a lot of interaction with people. It is said that ducks don’t fetch well. And this is generally true because most ducks are very wary of people and don’t want to go anywhere near them. However, this is not because it is a basic behavior of ducks, but because most trial ducks have limited interaction with people. Those who were hand raised or whose owners have had a lot of interaction with them fetch very well. The worst ducks I ever worked had never really seen people. They had an auto waterer and the feed was just thrown over the fence. They would not go anywhere near people and were nearly impossible to get into the AKC B course pen with the handler required to stand there and hold the rope. On the other end of the spectrum, handraised, very people-friendly ducks are a bitch to shed.

Prior to the trial stock should have been dog broke and worked only in non-stressful manners. They should be worked mostly in the open, even when being prepared for a trial that is mostly along a fence line. They should be used to going into trial obstacles/pens. They should get enough regular exercise so that they are “legged-up” and have the endurance to hold up over several trial runs. They should not spend >99% of their time shut up in a small pen. Poorly conditioned ducks will quit from exhaustion in the all too common runs where they get ying yanged all over the course.

Breed of poultry can also make a difference. Indian runners are very commonly used in herding. Though they have great flocking instinct, they are extremely neurotic and easily frazzled. They are also the most fence clingy of all the common duck breeds. I just can’t understand why they are trialed on as much as they are. The other egg production breeds (Kaki Campbell, Welsh Harlequin) are all derived from the Runner and have all inherited its nervousness, though watered down just a bit. General purpose breeds are much calmer and less fence clingy and I wish they were used in trials much more than they are. Ancona and Blue Swedish are my favorites. Cayuga have taken a long time for me to dog break, but once broken work very well. Therefore, it would be a disaster to put unbroken or barely broken Cayuga in a trial. The Meat breeds (i.e. Peking) are very heavily built and don’t move very well and are therefore unsuitable for herding trials. Call ducks are the only common Bantam breed. I don’t have much experience with them, but folks in some areas seem to really like them especially the strain Joyce Norris developed especially for herding.

Geese are another option. For years, no one ran geese in trials despite it being allowed to substitute them for ducks. I think this was out of fear that they would be super aggressive and just terrible to work. When my Klaatu had earned all the AHBA titles available at the time except for geese, I bought twenty goslings, raised them up and started having goose trials. They worked wonderfully. So much calmer than ducks and no fence clinging. One friend described them as like ships sailing on water. Aggression in trials has been minimal and usually a response to being over harassed by the dog. (In fact, at one goose trial I was at, I predicted both times a goose turned on a dog.) Folks started kicking themselves for not having run geese before. There are now many facilities running geese in trials and loving it. Be sure to think tall run chutes, holding pens etc. for geese as geese can go over low barriers more easily than ducks. And use large pens in the trial as geese take up a lot more room than ducks.

The preceding is what the trial organizers can do to make the best trial possible. The remainder now falls on the handler being knowledgeable on the idiosyncrasies of ducks. Too many handlers block their way, give crook signals to the dogs that also effect the ducks, walk into ducks or allow their dogs to put too much pressure on the ducks. When handling in the duck arena, the person needs to be able to recognize when the dog is working inappropriately and then to immediately start handling to get the dog to work properly.

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