bird dog with owner

Can You Train Any Dog To Retrieve Ducks?

Having a duck dog on a hunt is a welcome addition for any hunter, as it improves the speed and accuracy of finding and retrieving ducks in marshy terrain. However, can any dog be trained to retrieve ducks?

bird dog with dog in mouth
Yellow labrador retrieving a ring necked pheasant.

Not all dogs and dog breeds can be trained to retrieve ducks; this is because duck dogs need to exhibit the following characteristics to be trained and reliable during duck hunts: 

  • Work ethic 
  • Intelligence
  • Emotional intelligence

The above characteristics will be explored in greater detail to determine why they are essential for duck dogs. Furthermore, the best breeds of duck dogs will be evaluated to determine which characteristics they exhibit.

What Characteristics Make A Good Duck Dog?

bird dog getting bird
English pointer with rooster pheasant flushing out of a grass field.

There are five characteristics that make a good duck dog.

1. Loyalty

Loyal duck dogs that are eager to please their owners are essential. The reason is that being a duck dog requires restraint, patience, and adhering to commands throughout a hunt. Consequently, duck dogs have to be enthusiastic about duck hunting, or they will quickly become distracted and disinterested.

2. Athleticism

Duck dogs need to be fit, healthy, adaptable, athletic, and good swimmers. The reason is that duck hunting requires dogs to retrieve ducks from all types of terrain, usually muddy, overgrown marshlands/wetlands.

Furthermore, the length of duck hunts and hunting seasons means that duck dogs need to couple their athleticism with stamina for long periods.

3. Work Ethic 

Training a dog to be a duck dog and going on hunts require dogs to remain focused and committed. Consequently, duck dogs need to have a high work ethic to dedicate themselves fully during training sessions, practice sessions, and lengthy hunts.

4. Intelligence

While duck dogs need to have a high work ethic, this work ethic needs to be coupled with intelligence to allow duck dogs to learn various commands and intuitively understand how to behave and react during hunts.

5. Emotional intelligence

Finally, duck dogs need to have emotional intelligence and a transparent method of communicating their feelings to their owners. The reason is that a duck dog that may be frightened, uncomfortable, or sick will be a liability on a hunt.

Therefore, dogs that clearly communicate how they feel with their owners will help hunters determine if/when a duck dog should or shouldn’t accompany them on a hunt.

Which Breeds Make The Best Duck Dogs?

black lab looking at camera
Happy black lab dog with enthusiastic expression and tongue

The ten best duck dog breeds are:

  1. Labrador Retrievers
  2. Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  3. Golden Retrievers
  4. American Water Spaniels
  5. Boykin Spaniels
  6. Curly-Coated Retrievers
  7. Irish Water Spaniels
  8. Flat-Coated Retrievers
  9. Standard Poodles
  10. Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retrievers

1. Labrador Retrievers

Arguably the best breed for duck hunting, Labrador retrievers were originally bred for marking and retrieving waterfowl. Not only are Labradors physically fit, but their double fur coats keep them warm and include a water-repellent layer.

Meanwhile, Labradors have webbed feet and a long tail to swim and maneuver through marshy terrain with ease.

Finally, Labradors are renowned for being intelligent, loyal, and emotional intelligence dogs. 

2. Chesapeake Bay Retrievers

Similar to Labradors, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers were bred for retrieving waterfowl along the rough waters off Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These large, powerful dogs have excellent stamina, as was evident at the height of their popularity when they used to retrieve upward of 100 ducks a day! 

3. Golden Retrievers

Golden Retrievers are renowned for their loyalty, obedience, and friendly demeanor. Furthermore, their thick coats allow them to stay warm and dry in water and marshy terrains.

While initially bred for hunting, certain Golden Retrievers have proven to be gun shy and disinterested in duck hunting since their initial introduction as hunting dogs. Therefore, you should ensure your Golden Retriever originates from a line of hunting dogs before training them.

4. American Water Spaniels

Although larger dogs are often favored for their athleticism and hardiness, smaller breeds of dogs can also make excellent hunting dogs. Therefore, American Water Spaniels are favored duck dogs for hunters with smaller boats.

Furthermore, as the name implies, American Water Spaniels are good swimmers that enjoy retrieving ducks in marshy terrain.

5. Boykin Spaniels

Boykin Spaniels are an all-American dog breed that came to prominence in the early 1900s as hunting dogs for wild turkeys. However, their diminutive size hides their physicality, defined chests, and their adaptability that has seen them transition into respected duck dogs.

6. Curly-Coated Retrievers

In contrast to Boykin Spaniels, Curly-Coated Retrievers have been used as duck dogs since the early 1800s! Extensive cross-breeding between English and Irish Water Spaniels led to the development of a breed with a thick coat that protects it from the coldest temperatures and waters.

However, some Curly-Coated Retrievers are slow learners, meaning owners must exercise patience when training them as duck dogs.

7. Irish Water Spaniels

As one of the ancestors of Curly-Coated Retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels have been used for hunting waterfowl since the 1600s, before their introduction to the American hunting market in the 1920s.

Known for their long legs, adaptability, and intelligence, Irish Water Spaniels cemented themselves as the most common dog breed in the Field Dog Stud Book during the American Civil War.

8. Flat-Coated Retrievers

Considered the most streamlined retriever breed, Flat-Coated Retrievers are excellent swimmers with manageable, water-resistant coats. Although a rare breed that is slow to mature, the popularity of Flat-Coated Retrievers is increasing, following their dwindling numbers post World War Two.

9. Standard Poodles

Although perceptions of poodles have shifted to high fashion and luxury, they are excellent hunting dogs that were used before the invention of firearms in the 1400s! Their unique coat allowed poodles to keep their bodies warm, while their shaved backs helped them remain streamlined while swimming.

10. Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retrievers

Finally, and as the name implies, Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retrievers were bred for duck hunting in the frigid climate of Nova Scotia.

While initially used as a decoy to find and lure ducks, they can be trained to be excellent retrievers and duck dogs in the right hands!


In conclusion, duck dogs require a unique combination of various characteristics to assist hunters. Consequently, certain breeds of dogs are better suited as candidates for duck dog training over others.


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