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Four Basic Commands to Teach Your Retriever
written by Wade Bourne

Owning and using a capable retriever adds another dimension of pleasure to waterfowl hunting. Start your training by teaching four basic commands: sit, stay, here and fetch.
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Retriever Training Commands
An obedient retriever can be a great asset in duck hunting. Owners can teach their own dogs four basic commands that will turn them into capable companions afield. Photo by Wade Bourne

The story is true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

"Buster" was feeling his oats. Four friends and I were sharing a duck blind in eastern Arkansas. Birds were working well, and we'd had several close-in volleys. The morning was truly grand in every respect but one: Buster was running amok.

This two-year-old Lab was breaking every rule. He was leaping from the blind whenever we came up to shoot. He was freelancing on his own, ignoring his owner's commands. He actually deposited one greenhead on the bank across from our decoys; then he swam back to the blind empty-mouthed (as opposed to empty-handed).

"I don't know what to do with him," Buster's perplexed owner moaned. I started to offer suggestions, but I bit my tongue and said nothing.

I knew what Buster's owner should have done: trained more and started earlier to instill some discipline in this young dog. Buster's rowdy behavior wasn't his fault; it was his owner's. He had failed to gain control over his dog as a pup, and now we were all paying the price in terms of having to endure Buster's I'll-fetch-it-my-way antics.

Most retriever owners who train their own dogs share one common goal: to turn them into obedient, highly skilled canine partners with good manners and the know-how to complete difficult retrieves under their masters' direction.

Truthfully, however, few home-schooled dogs reach this level of performance. This is because few amateur trainers have the time and/or the know-how to usher their dogs into such "high altitude." Instead, most amateurs compromise for a retriever that tops out well down this ladder of accomplishment.

And that's okay as long as the dog achieves a basic level of training. A retriever doesn't have to be able to complete 200-yard blind retrieves to be worth his feed. If he sits, stays, marks falls, and retrieves to hand, he'll be an asset instead of a hindrance. He may not win the next field trial, but if he's an enjoyable companion and a benefit to his owner, that's good enough.

This is why teaching the basics is so important. They're the underpinning of a dog's performance. Maybe his owner will take him beyond basic training, and maybe not. In any case, the dog must achieve a minimum level of training. Following are tips from leading professional trainers around the country on how to instill these essentials in a young retriever.

The Foundational Command: "Sit"

Pro trainer John Amico and his wife Beth Ann operate Deep Fork Retrievers in Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Amico delves deeply into canine psychology with the retrievers he trains. However, he starts on a very basic level, teaching the foundational command of "sit". To do this, Amico uses small hot dog bits as treats to convey to the dog what he wants him to do and to comply quickly.

He explains, "First, I'll feed a puppy a couple of small hot dog pieces to get him to liking them. Usually by the third piece he'll bite your fingers trying to get it.

"Next, I'll hold a piece of hot dog back over his head where he can't reach it. What's his natural reaction? He's like a fulcrum. He'll sit down and lean his head back to look at it. I'll give him the treat the instant his butt touches the ground. It won't take him long to respond consistently to this hand movement. When I raise my hand over his head, he will learn that if he sits, he'll get the piece of hot dog.

"Also, I want him sitting up straight with a sharp focus on my hand. I have a saying: 'If you feed sloppy, you'll get sloppy.' I won't give him the treat until he's sitting up straight and alert."

Amico continues, "When he gets used to doing this, I'll name the hand signal. I'll call it 'sit.' I'll give this command, then I'll raise my hand to feed him, and he'll drop down. It won't take too many repetitions before he'll respond to 'sit' instead of waiting for me to raise my hand. He's eager to get that treat, and he'll do what he needs to as quickly as possible to get it."

As the puppy turns into an adolescent, Amico will tie him out on a short lead to condition him to accept point-of-contact control. When the dog stops fighting and accepts this discipline, then Amico is ready to resume training using the same basic commands -- including "sit". This is also when he will change the reward for compliance. When the dog sits, Amico will begin throwing a training dummy instead of feeding a treat. The reward is now getting to retrieve the dummy, and the dog is ready to move on to more demanding work.

The Follow-up Command: "Stay"

Mike Stewart owns Wildrose Kennel in Oxford, Mississippi. Stewart specializes in breeding/training English Labrador retrievers for both water and upland retrieves.

Retriever Training Commands
Owning and using a capable retriever adds another dimension of pleasure to waterfowl hunting. However, obedience is very important. By teaching four basic commands -- sit, stay, here and fetch -- a hunter can lay the foundation for more advanced training to follow. Photo by Tyson Keller, Avery Outdoors

Stewart emphasizes that "sit" and "stay" are separate commands that should be taught and enforced independently. He says, "'Sit' is a short term response. You give the command, and the dog complies quickly. In contrast, 'stay' is longer term. When you give the command to stay, the dog remains stationary until you release him."

Stewart teaches "stay" by giving the command to sit, then by walking around the dog saying "stay." At first the dog won't understand the meaning of this command, and he will get up to move. Stewart advises taking the dog by the scruff of the neck, scolding him, and returning him to his original spot, commanding "stay" again. "Never let him get away with moving. If he moves, you correct him and take him back to the spot immediately. Soon he'll learn that he has no alternative but to stay in that location until you release him."

As the dog's compliance grows, Stewart instructs to command "stay", then walk around a building or out to a long distance. If the dog breaks and comes, repeat the scolding, take him back to his original spot and start over.

Stewart stresses that a trainer should never call his dog off a "stay" command from a remote location. He explains, "This will teach him to start anticipating being released, and he'll start creeping. Instead, the trainer should always return to where the dog is sitting to release him from 'stay'."

Stewart continues, "As the dog progresses, you put him in more stressful situations. You make him stay while you throw dummies or shoot a training gun around him. You might run another dog by him on a retrieve, but he should stay put and watch the other dog perform."

Stewart says in a hunting situation, if a dog goes for a retrieve before being sent by his trainer (called "breaking"), the trainer should tie him up for the rest of the hunt and prohibit him from retrieving. "He shouldn't get a reward for bad behavior," Stewart stresses. "Then you can start back in the correction process when you get him back in a formal training setting."

The "Most Important" Command: "Here"

J. Paul Jackson and his wife Melanie operate Lone Oak Retrievers near Dyersburg, Tennessee. Jackson, a full-time retriever trainer, tabs "here" as the most important command a young dog can learn. "If a dog comes immediately when you call him, he'll stay out of trouble. If he's headed toward the street or strangers or whatever, but you command, "No. Here!" and he comes straight back to you, you've averted a problem. This is why 'here' is so important in both social and hunting situations."

Jackson teaches "here" when a pup is approximately 3 months old. He does so with a 30-foot check cord. He commands the pup to sit, then he backs out to the end of the cord, says "here" and gives a gentle tug on the cord. "To start with, you'll probably have to reel him in," Jackson says, "but you should do so gently and without being intimidating to the dog. I'll squat down and encourage him as he's coming.

"Then, when he gets to me, I'll lavish him with love and praise," Jackson continues. "I want him to know he's done a good thing. I want him to think, 'I need to go to him and get my reward.'" Jackson says usually a dog learns this command in only a few quick lessons.

Next, the trainer allows the pup to run free, but with the check cord attached and dragging. "Then I'll command 'here' to see if he'll come without the tug on the check cord. If he ignores me, I won't chase him or scold him. I'll just walk nonchalantly to the end of the check cord, take it, give him a sharp tug and command, 'No! Here.' Then when I pull him in to me, if I have to, I'll love on him again. So I'll leave the check cord on him and use it until he knows what 'here' means and responds to it reliably in any situation."

The Final Building Block: "Fetch"

Jerry Holden of Monroe, Louisiana, is a conservation director for Ducks Unlimited, and he has a long history as a successful retriever trainer in both professional and amateur ranks. He says of the four basic commands a young dog must master, "fetch" is the hardest to teach. "Actually, you have to go through a 3-step process. You have to teach 'hold,' then 'drop,' then 'fetch.' You can't cut any corners in this sequence."

To teach "hold," Holden makes a dog sit on the tailgate of his pickup in a shaded, cool area, and he forces a training bumper in the dog's mouth, commanding "hold." "He will drop it every time," Holden says, "so you repeat the process. Make a fist, tap the dog gently on the underside of the jaw, put the bumper back in his mouth, and repeat 'hold.' This time he may hold it a second or two, then drop it again."

Holden says this process is a test of wills. "When he drops it, you keep putting it back. You have to convince him that you're going to win, and you must remain absolutely calm in the process. You don't want to show any frustration."

Holden says this first lesson should last 5 minutes -- no longer. "When you get him to hold the bumper for a few seconds, then push the bumper toward the back of his mouth. He will spit it out, and when he does, you command 'drop,' take the dummy and praise the dog for his compliance."

The next day it's back on the tailgate for a repeat of this first lesson. "Every time you go through the process, he should hold it a few seconds longer, until, after 4-5 lessons, he'll hold indefinitely."

Then it's time to move the dog to the ground. "Get ready to start over, because he will forget everything. But you use the same technique as you did on the tailgate, and he will relearn to hold in one or two lessons. He figures out that 'hold' means hold on the ground as well as on the tailgate."

Next comes walking the dog on a short lead while commanding him to hold the bumper. "Through this whole process, you want to praise him and love on him when he makes progress."

After the dog will hold the bumper while walking on a lead, it's time to progress to "fetch."

Holden explains, "Put him back on the tailgate and command him to sit. Then pinch his ear between your thumb and forefinger to induce discomfort. When he opens his mouth, say 'fetch,' and pop the bumper into his mouth. Then immediately release the pressure and command 'hold.'

"As you repeat this process, the dog will soon learn that getting the bumper releases the pain, so he'll start reaching for it. When this happens, quit pinching him, and take him back to the ground. Put a bumper 10 feet away and command 'fetch.' He'll probably balk, so you go back to pinching the ear. When he figures out that fetching and holding the bumper keep him pain-free, he'll start picking up everything in sight, and then you're on your way to having an obedient, capable canine partner in your duck blind."

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