Having a Retriever to waterfowl hunt with is one of the best parts of hunting. However, gun dog training is something that has to be taken seriously if you desire to have that hunting dog. Even though Retrievers are breed to “retrieve” that doesn’t mean that new pup is going to know how. Think of blowing your first duck call, you could have spent $200 dollars on the best duck call out there. Yet, that call wasn’t going to sound good without practice. Gun Dog Training is the same way, it takes a lot of practice and scenarios to create a well-trained gun dog.
This is why we’ve reached out to a series of dog trainers who work with Labrador retrievers for AKC hunt tests. We wanted to get their input on proper set up for gun dog training. We’ve also added some training tips and situations to help while training your dog.
Selecting a Gun Dog Breed –
I’m not here to tell you what dog breed to select when looking at a retriever gun dog. However, the most common are Labrador, Chesapeake, and, Golden Retrievers. If your curious about learning more about each breed and the specifics ofÂ where they originated from check out our Top Duck Hunting Dogs article. You’ll find out more specifics about each breed. I will have to tell you no matter what breed you select as long as you buy from a reputable breeder and focus on proper gun dog training. Your retriever will be a great hunting dog.
After you’ve selected a puppy the first 6 months of their life is really focusing on obedience training. Now exposing them to some hunting fields, maybe even a bird or two isn’t a bad idea. However, if you rush into thinking your puppy will be a duck dog as a puppy. You will be sadly disappointed. Instead, focus your time on getting your puppy crate trained, and/or house trained.
The main focus of any great gun dog is obedience. If you can focus on anything while gun dog training its obedience training. Having a steady dog in the blind, or a dog that can walk on a leash is very important. Better yet not grab food off the table and it great with kids is going to give you a dog that you and your family can enjoy. We are all prone to forget the basics of obedience training at some point in our dog’s life. I know I get relaxed and give my dog a little freedom and he quickly grabs it. I know I’ve failed at keeping him steady while hunting. Usually when you have experienced hunters who know not to shoot towards your dog, your okay. However, that isn’t always the case. Therefore, having a steady dog is important for any safe hunting.
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Gun Dog Training Commands –
Typically most dog owners use the same commands when looking for training their dogs. Therefore, we have added some detail to the common commands and some tips on teaching them to your dog.
Come / Here –
Most people tend to use here or come when gun dog training. Select one and stick with it, so as to not confuse your dog. The best way to start teaching this command is to purchase a check cord seen here or similar. Something that is 20-30′ in length. Check cords are very inexpensive and they will become one of your favorite training tools. To train the come/here command attach your dog to the check cord and begin to walk away from your dog while holding the other end of the check cord. You want to start with small distances and work your way back for this drill. Start at maybe 5-8 feet and give the cord a firm jerk and say “here or come.” Perform this drill multiple times and always leave on a positive note.
- Do this until your dog is responding to the command without any jerk of the cord. You can also use this check cord in the water, since this cord floats. It’s always best to change your dog’s environment while training. This will help expose them to responding to you, no matter the conditions.
- The Sit command has to be the most common and universal command. The easiest way to train this drill is to work with them while they are being served food. This drill can be started at a younger age. Simply hold the bowl of food up before feed your dog. Next, command them to sit. You may at first have to physically arrange them into sitting. However, as soon as they sit simply place the food done and your dog will easily learn to sit.
Stay / Steady –
- The stay or steady command easily pairs with the sit command. As a result, you can almost teach these at the same time or shortly after the sit command. While your dog is in a sitting position simply place your hand towards them in a stop motion and say, “stay.” You can begin to take a step away from your dog as they learn this command and this will help reinforce the drill. As you can see knowing how to sit first is important in this training command. If in the event your dog breaks toward you. Swiftly bring them back to the spot you started the stay command training. Next, start the lesson from the top. This will help teach your dog that the stay command is mandatory and only the owner can release the dog.
Kennel / Place –
Teaching the kennel or place command is an important one when waterfowl hunting. It’s also quite important when crate training your puppy. If you can begin to teach the kennel command when crate training, this can be quite easy. The main idea is that you are teaching your dog where a safe places for them is when hunting from a boat or in a blind. This can take some time. This command can be used when loading your dog into your truck, dog hide, or blind. It’s a great command.
- In the event, you didn’t give your dog a kennel command when they were crate training. One can simply begin using a dog hide or a marsh stand. They work great as they give your dog a “spot” that you want them to learn as their “place”. Start small and work on this one in your backyard or basement. Once they are doing it on command introduce them into the training in a hunting scenario without any hunting. After they’ve mastered that. Next, take them hunting and reinforce the command. This gives them a stepping stone approach that will help teach the command.
Heel, is the command that you want to train your dog so that they walk at your pace on your side. Most trainers will have their dogs on their left side and stick with it. Now the idea was to have your dog on the opposite side of your shooting arm. So with that pick a side you want your dog to heel to and stick to it when training. To train this command, use a lease, a slip leash works great for this and walks with your dog on a leash. If your dog speeds up past you, give them the heel command and pull them back to the position you want them in. The biggest thing is to have your dog stop when you stop. Same goes for when you walk they should walk next to you.
- It’s no surprise your dog is going to do some unwanted things. Therefore the No command should be used to stop any unwanted behavior. For example, this is going to be quite important when house training and obedience training your puppy. However, when it comes to gun dog training, this is still important. As you don’t want him jumping on others or causing any safety issues while hunting.
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Starting Gun Dog Training –
As soon as you get through the basic puppy training. You can move into gun dog training, which usually occurs after 6 months of age. If you are looking at learning what’s before gun dog training, check out our puppy training article for some added tips. There are a couple options when it comes to gun dog training. Either look for a gun dog trainer or do the training yourself. Now neither one is better or worse. Rather it simply comes down to time and money. If you have the patience and time training your own gun dog is the best choice for you. Hence, if you don’t have the time every day to give your gun dog the attention it needs. Then finding a gun dog trainer is going to be your best option.
Instead of just skipping into advanced gun dog training we decided to build out the steps in training a great hunting dog. Starting with introduction drills leading to the advanced steps and drills.
Introduction to Gun Dog Training –
The introduction phase of gun dog training can be quite robust. It may be like drinking from a fire hose for your dog. However, the idea is to expose your dog to the necessary environments, tools, and drills they will soon see in their path to becoming a good gun dog.
First, since we talked about obedience early we won’t go over crate training, socialization, or traveling. However, they do belong in this stage of dog training. Next, you will want to introduce your dog to walking on a leash, and walking them in natural environments. What I mean by this is to take them to a State Park or even a hunting field (not while hunting), but expose them to nature they will see as they grow up and begin to hunt. Most states have dog beaches, but any pond or lake will do. Get your dog familiar with water. Make the experience fun you can even introduce them to retrieving a little.
This is the next step in the Introduction phase, retrieving exposure. You’ll be surprised most young dogs will instantly grab a bumper when thrown to them. However, remember this is all fun and just introduction. They may not bring it back to your hand…they probably won’t. In this phase of training, you can even begin to expose them to birds live or dead. Remembering to save a few bird wings from your previous hunting season is a great way of getting them on the scent.
Lastly, giving exposure to gunfire, from a distance, is apart of the introduction phase. As well as a dummy thrower or any other tools you plan on using while training your dog.
Summary of Introduction Gun Dog Training
|Step 1||Step 2||Step 3||Step 4|
|Crate Training||Outdoor Nature Walks||Exposure to Birds||Single Water Retrieves|
|House Training||Intro to Water||Intro to Lead Training||Intro to Gunfire|
|Walking on a Leash||Intro to Retrieving||Single Land Retrieves||Short Double Retrieves|
Intermediate Gun Dog Training –
Intermediate training builds upon the exposure and training that is conducted in a dogs Introduction training. Now every dog is different and has different limits to their ability to train. As a result, you may have to go backward at times when a dog is neglecting to remember their training from introduction training. None the less, basic training is about introducing more formal gun dog training. This is when your dog needs to remember the task and begin to perform it the way you are requesting. However, it’s also your responsibility to give your dog the proper patience and time for them to learn the trait or task you are asking of them.
Intermediate training will be the backbone of gun dog training. This is when your dog will learn the fundamentals and start to become your waterfowl retriever. Some of the first training exercises you will be doing is more formal obedience training, heel, sit with a whistle. Next, you’ll begin to teach your dog force fetch, which progresses into fetch while walking or sitting. Most people when hunting will use e-collars for their dogs and this is when you begin to start introducing the concepts.
Next, as you build out the fetch, you’ll work on force to pile work with your gun dog. This helps teach them the concept of when they are sent to retrieve that there is a dead bird. Then you can work your way into the Single and Double T drills, which will create formal handling drills. It teaches go, stop, and casting direction. As a result, combining them all for the dog to learn. The premise of intermediate gun dog training is just that. Putting together the individual drills and formulating the proper retrieve.
You also will be introducing and training them outside of their normal environment. Meaning the drills will start to partake in fields, ponds, and hunting conditions. This helps your dog begin to understand that retrieving with decoys in the way or gunshots going off is a normal thing when hunting.
Summary of Intermediate Gun Dog Training
|Step 1||Step 2||Step 3||Step 4|
|Obedience||Entry Casting||Singles||Simple Water Doubles|
|Force Fetch||Force Pile||Steady with Lead||Delivery to Hand|
|Collar Conditioning||Double T||Land Doubles||Retrieval with Gunfire|
Advanced Gun Dog Training –
When you begin to master intermediate training with your dog, your dog will have learned all of the fundamentals of making good retrieves. Some hunters may even feel as though they have a finished gun dog. If that is what you are looking for you may begin to dabble in the advanced gun dog training. However, with advanced training, you really are just mastering longer retrievers, more difficult retrieves, and more of them at a time. This is when you begin to expose every situation you think will come up when hunting. Therefore, if you skip advanced training you can’t expect your dog to do something you’ve never taught them or showed them before. If you know any great detail about duck or goose hunting, you no there is no normal day. Unforeseen situations always arise. This is why pushing yourself and your dog to training advanced drills will pay off in the long run.
As you master the drills and single and doubles of intermediate training. Advanced is when you begin to work on doubles and even triple marks. This teaches your dog that, “yes,” you may shoot more than one duck when a flock comes in. As you work on blinds your dog is learning to memorize where birds have gone down and how to work the scent to find the bird in that area. Advanced training can be hard for both you and your dog. As you know your dog can retrieve but can they do it under hard concepts and distractions. However, it’s worth putting in the time, as your dog will be one of the best-hunting partners for life.
Summary of Advanced Gun Dog Training
|Step 1||Step 2||Step 3||Step 4|
|Blinds||Water Blinds||Multiple Cast Drills||Long Blinds|
|Blinds with obstacles||Multiple Blinds||Cheating Drills||Diversion Retrieve|
|Land Blinds||Memory Blinds||Water Doubles||Technical Water Retrieves|
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Maintaining Gun Dog Training –
As your gun dog reaches their second or third year and they are a proficient hunting dog. It’s easy to start getting relaxed in your training or hunting. This is usually when dogs begin to start cheating or become sloppy. They usually try and get away with maybe dropping a bird instead of delivering it to your hand. They may even break a few times year. Usually at first, for me at least, I think its just a simple mistake. However, before you know it your dog begins to do that more often than you’d like. This is when you realize that your dog isn’t maintaining good drills and retrieves.
Which is why the offseason even just a few months after duck and goose season is when you need to begin working on basic maintenance training so as to keep your dog polished and obedient. This is also a time when dogs can get out of shape and they begin to get less activity. It’s our responsibility to get your dog active and make sure they are still eating a balanced diet. I’ve always stuck with the same Purina Pro Plan and haven’t had too many issues with my dog’s weight or diet. However, if you cheap out and get your local coops branded dog food make sure it has the required nutrients to keep your dog on a balanced diet. Usually, if the food is cheap so is the contents. This used to be more of an issue in years past, but with the number of organic, whole food style dog foods out there it’s not too expensive to splurge and get the good food.
Another thing I started since my dog is getting to be a more middle-aged Labrador. Is that I started them on a daily vitamin to make sure I’m prolonging the life of his joints, and overall health. One of the best I’ve found that has no fillers and is specific for gun dogs is Alpha Dog Nutrition which has numerous product lines for vitamins and supplements for gun dogs.
Do’s & Don’ts of Gun Dog Training –
Some of the best advice I received when I first picked up my puppy has stuck with me since. Therefore, sharing it hopefully will help others not make the mistakes as well.
- Patience is the main thing that will determine wheater you have a good dog or a great gun dog. I was told every dog has a different limit and capacity. You have to let your dog learn at their own pace. Sometimes a certain drill can take your dog a day and others may take weeks. As a result, you need to be willing to stay with it until your dog learns it and has it down as muscle memory before you move on.
- Never expect too much out of your dog. I know where we hunt we can’t use pit blinds, so I never trained my dog in those type of conditions. Well, when we hunted Missouri last year that was a different story. I exposed my dog to a pit blind for the first time and let’s just say it wasn’t the best situation for a relaxing hunt for myself. This is why you need to expose your dog to the environment they will hunt and may never hunt.
- Lastly, try and set the gun down those first few hunts with your new gun dog. Especially when it’s their first few hunts. However, make sure you bring a buddy along that is a good shot. This way you know your dog will have exposure to a hunt, and yet you can help control/training them as needed.