Is it possible to train a duck? You know, like a dog. Or potentially, even a cat. The answer is – yes. And, no. Let me explain.
We have pet ducks. Two of which, Maggie and Gabby, are imprinted on me, aka Piddlewick. One, Louis our white call duck, is imported into the flock. All the rest were hatched by Maggie. She is the matriarch and our first pet duck.
I mention the above because they all play a part in understanding training. That is, does it matter if they are imprinted, brought into or hatched to the flock? The answer, again, is yes. And, no.
Ducks are smart. Which surprises some people. It has to do with brain size in relation to their body. Amongst birds, crows in fact are considered one of the smartest animals on the planet. So yes, ducks have the ability to learn, not just what they would normally learn through nature.
It is possible to train a duck, but not the normal way you would anticipate. Not the way you would train a mammal. Ducks can learn beyond nature, eg nurture, through repetition, routine and resonance.
The simplest training to start with is getting them to know their name. Through repetition of using their name, particularly from very young, they do come to understand it and know it refers to them. Like most animals.
We can then progress on to an action. You can train a duck to come to you by calling/asking/commanding. This is ideally done from very young, as a duckling, but it has some success with an older imported in to the flock duck.
Again, like training most animals it is about consistency of commands. Choose your command words early on and stick with them. For our ducks, they all know ‘Come on’. We use this to get them to follow or to come when called, whichever is needed.
But it is not just commands, it is resonance too. That is, how you say something. I can call Maggie to me through saying ‘Come on Maggie’ in a normal voice, as well as simply ‘Maggie?’ said loudly and slightly higher in resonance and repeated a few times. (Said once will only get me an ‘I am here’ response.)
When I find worms, the ducks have learned that their name said 3 times ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie!’, quickly and at a slightly higher volume with an excited inflection means ‘worm for you!’. And that duck will come running. Yes, sometimes joined by others as they are smart enough to know that another one is being called for worms and there may be a chance to snarf the treat. But guaranteed, the duck leading the pack is the one whose name I used.
Ducks are exceptional at recognising tones in voices, from normal to excited to scared. They really pay attention if your voice sounds scared. You will get a faster response, but like ‘The boy who cried wolf’*, it’s not to be used too often, rather only in reality.
They are less inclined to pay attention if you sound mad. Honestly. No duck likes to be told off. When our ducks (read Maggie) decide they wish to forage in next door’s garden, a definite no no, and I am on the search for them, calling them, they are known to not answer or come if my tone is angry. And when they know they are doing something they shouldn’t.
I mentioned routine, this is the most important aspect in training a duck. Stick to a routine and ducks will very rarely vary. Want them to go in or to bed at a certain time, come up with a catch phrase that you say each time whilst herding them into their home for the night. (See the video below for a prime example.)
Or even certain sounds. Mine is ‘pa duh pup’ with an up down up syncopation – no idea how that happened, so do plan ahead. Do this each time and after only a few days you will be able to simply say this phrase, and they will start heading to bed. It won’t even matter what time it is.
Ditto on letting them out in the morning. Using a word or phrase to ‘release’ them will soon send them running out and into the garden/enclosure/where ever you normally want them to go.
What can’t you train a duck in? Understanding the word ‘no’. This is where they really differ from mammals, especially dogs. In example, ducks don’t have hands, so their beak acts like their hands as well as their mouth. It is what they use to figure out what things are, to play and to explore. And sometimes, particularly when feeling playful, they pull a little to hard.
We have been working on Gabby not pulling our cats whiskers, so hard. They have learned to turn their heads when Gabby tries to groom them or play with them. We are working on figuring out a way for Gabby to learn to not be so rough, but so far with no success. Saying ‘no’ and trying to show him by pushing him away or holding his beak certainly does not work. We have had a tiny bit of success by saying ‘No!’ emphatically, but only in that it gives him pause before he begins pulling again.
You also can’t toilet train your duck. Something I get asked a lot. There are duck diapers to aid in this area if your duck lives/comes in the house. However, we have learned with Gabby (second time around imprinted, lives in the house duck) that they can try to be less, shall we say, productive.
Generally ducks do not like to soil their bed. By putting down a towel (preferably red or pink, a duck’s favourite colour) or creating a soft place to snooze, they definitely try harder not to mess it up. Versus, say, a floor. And it helps if you don’t feed them too much before bed time.
It is very definitely easier to train a duck when imprinted on you. Young ducks, like people, are easier to train than older. But older ducks, unlike people, are still relatively easy to train if you are certain to stick to routine and repetition.
Adding a duck into your flock, it will learn quite quickly from the others by at first imitating and following them, but within a short time will take it onboard as nature over nurture.
Routine phraseology in action at Gold Shaw Farm:
We are affiliated with AmazonUK, so as they sell ‘The Boy who Cried Wolf‘ books I figured I would link to this write up.