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Raising Ducks for Herding Trials

By Joyce Norris

I have been raising and leasing ducks for herding trials for about 6 years. Most judges and exhibitors say “They are the best ducks they have ever seen.” This does take some work. My ducks work well in groups of 5. If a duck gets split off by a dog it will look for the other ducks and regroup easily. They move easily off a dog, do not run or flap, unless a dog is too fast or close. They will only go thru an obstacle if the dog is right and makes them. They are not course trained and are very honest and will show the good and bad points in your dog training.

I prefer the Call Ducks because they flock well, move slowly without flapping, they must be pushed to move and their smaller size allows me to haul 10-13 ducks in a large Vari-Kennel Crate while traveling. My Calls are larger than the show Calls, they are hardier, have more bone, more plumage and do not need extra heat during the winter.

I hatch my babies in an incubator or under a broody hen. When the ducklings are hatched they are placed in a tub with a heat lamp for 2-4 weeks. I hand feed them hard boiled duck eggs and handle them daily. They are fed a Poultry 20% Starter formulated for ducks and chickens (some chicken feeds are medicated and not good for ducks) Depending on the weather at about 3-4 weeks they are put outside in an X-pen lined with poultry netting with a crate in it. At about 6 weeks they are given small pans of water to swim in and about 8-10 weeks they should be completely feathered and ready to start working.

Because of the handling, my ducks are used to people, so will fetch as well as drive. I break any extra laid eggs for them in the arena, so they follow me around every morning as I pick them up. I trim the flight feathers on one wing to prevent them from flying away. This needs to be done every time they molt and put on new plumage.

I put colored plastic poultry leg bands on them. One color designates the group hatched together. This is very important since ducks are known for imprinting and do so on their hatchlings. Let’s say I have a group of 12 babies. I will band them with green bands when they are old enough to start working. I will try to match them into groups of 5. I usually have 3 males and 2 females or 3 females with 2 males. I also try to match them by plumage color (ducks are prejudiced and prefer to be with like– colored ducks).

I take 5 ducks and work them with an experienced dog. If one consistently splits off, I add a different duck or two to that group until I get a compatible group of 5. They are then banded with a second band of another color. Let’s say green and orange. I take another group of 5 and work them together and if compatible give them a second band color of brown. The two left-over ducks remain greens and hopefully can be fill-ins if one of the ducks in the other groups gets injured.

When the ducks mature the next year and start to lay eggs, they may start to pair off and I might have to resort the groups.

During the day all the mature ducks are kept together in a 48 x48 arena made of hog panels. I observe them in the arena and they will sort themselves off in their banded groups. They are fed 15% Grower/Finisher and Scratch Grain, have water pans and kiddy pools with a concrete block for them to get in and out. Some are kept in X-pens with crates that I can move around the yard. At night the ducks are herded across the yard by the dogs to an overnight enclosure, where there is no food or water. This keeps the overnight pen clean and dry. The ones in the X-pens are crated over night with pine shavings as bedding and crate covers to keep them protected from the weather. The only time they are not moved to the arena is when it is snowing hard. They do not like the snow and will walk a little then sit down and tuck their feet to warm them up.

When heading for the trials the ducks are hauled in Vari-Kennel crates with pine bedding in my minivan. They are usually quiet while driving and the girls start to quack when I slow down or stop. This makes things interesting at gas stations.

I usually plan to arrive at the trial site the day before and turn the ducks out into the A Course arena with food and water to get them used to the fencing and let them graze. I will herd the ducks through all the obstacles, especially when there are different ones, like a foot bath or wagon used in AHBA trials.

I bring my own small X-pens that I fold out to make the holding pens, with each having a door in front. I use a larger X-pen to make an exhaust pen then add 2 more X-pens to make an alley way back to the holding pens. I always set the holding pens at least 16 ft (large X-pen size) from the arena fencing, to cut down on the draw to the other ducks. The exhaust gate is tarped and some of the arena fencing.

For the set out, I use a round wire cage basket made of rabbit fencing with small squares to keep legs and heads from getting caught. This also makes the ducks visible for the trialing dog. The ducks are carried out and placed in the basket. I carry 3 and an assistant carries 2 (I supply aprons for my duck wranglers.) The ducks are used to being handled and seem to stay calmer being carried rather than being wheeled out in a crate and turning it on its side to get the ducks out.

I stand on the exhaust side of the basket leaving room when lifted so the dog can take control of the ducks. I lift the basket when the dog gets to the #4 or #5 marker, in a sweeping forward motion towards the handlers post and high enough in the air so the dog can come through to take control of the ducks. This pushes the ducks forward and helps keep them from cutting back to the exhaust. Once the dog controls them past the centerline panels, I slowly walk off the field with the basket.

When the run is over and the exhibitor exhausts the ducks, they run down the alleyway back into their holding pens. The holding pens have clothespins with matching band colors and individual water buckets in them. Ducks love and need water. When the trial runs are over I turn the ducks back out into the arena to relax, eat and drink the rest of the day. Before dark they are sorted back into their crates to spend the night safely.

For B Course the ducks are carried out to the set out basket. I lift the basket with the same sweeping motion when the dog crosses by the drive panels. After the hold or shed, we walk out onto the field with a crate and the ducks are directed into it and then carried back to the set out pens.

I have tried running the ducks back into the freestanding pen to crate them, but this caused the ducks to either not want to come out of the pen for the shed/hold or they would keep circling the pen. I have tried exhausting them back to the set out with a dog, but this taught the ducks where the exhaust was and increased the draw to the holding pens.

I never dreamed that I would be leasing ducks all over the US for herding trials. Good trial ducks are hard to find and people will travel a long distance to get a chance to trial on my ducks. Folks to not realize the work it takes to keep over 100 ducks trial ready and willing to work.

Ducks are becoming popular and the nice thing about ducks is they show no preference to a particular breed of dog like sheep can do. They slow everything down for the dog and handler to learn about herding. I train my dogs on ducks mainly and everything taught has transferred to working sheep and cattle. Working ducks takes a lot of finesse. They are greatly affected by movements of the handler also. They will show any weakness in your training program.

Hope this will help others to understand what it takes to develop good, workable ducks for herding trials.