With a little know-how and a lot of time and patience, hunters can train their own retrievers to be capable hunting companions.
Andy's not the best retriever in the business, but he's good enough for me.
He's my 7-year old black Lab. I've raised him from a puppy, and I've trained him to hunt for both waterfowl and upland birds. Like many hunting dog owners, I didn't have the time or the know-how to turn him into a field champion. But I did teach him the basics to become a capable and enjoyable hunting companion. He might be a blue-collar retriever instead of a blue ribbon champion, but he's a winner in my book!
Many hunters entrust their retrievers to professional trainers, and that's fine. Systematic work by a savvy handler is the surest way to turn a pup into an obedient, capable hunting partner. However, in these days of economic downturn, many dog owners may not be able to fork over the monthly training fee this requires.
Rest easy! With moderate amounts of knowledge and time, virtually anybody can train their own retriever and be pleased with the result. Granted, said dog might not take a line and run 200-yard blind retrieves. Or, he might not always hold steady when guns are booming and birds are falling. (Breaking is Andy's nemesis; ask my hunting partners!) Still, any hunter can teach the basic commands to get a pup from kindergarten through high school. Then, combined with what he will learn on his own, this is plenty education for most dogs to become capable hunting partners.
Following is a simple blueprint for training your own retriever. Follow these steps, and don't expect too much of your dog too soon. If you do these things, chances are you and your canine pal will be happy with each other both in the field and in everyday life.
You're the Boss
From the very start, you should establish your dominance over your pup. You're the authority figure, and he must learn and accept his status in the "pack". This doesn't mean you should be gruff with your pup. But it does mean that you have to keep the upper hand. Let your dog know who's boss when he's young, and it'll be easy to maintain this dominance as he grows older.
Perhaps the most important part of training is to work your dog everyday. You may be able to train only 10-15 minutes after work, but this will be enough to reinforce what he's already learned and to advance his learning as feasible. With a young dog, repetitive, short lessons are far better than infrequent, longer sessions. Make the commitment, at least in his first, formative year, to spend a few minutes each day training your pup.
One mistake many amateur trainers make is being inconsistent in giving and expecting compliance with their commands. You can't be wishy-washy. If you tell the dog to do something, you must give the command the same way every time, and you must expect him to obey it. If he balks, you see to it that he complies.
For instance, if you give the command "sit," and your pup doesn't sit, immediately push his butt to the ground, and then praise him for his compliance. Soon he realizes that when he hears "sit," he has no option but to obey. Plus, when he does sit, he'll be rewarded. It won't take long for him to eagerly respond to this basic command.
Inconsistency confuses dogs and promotes noncompliance. This is no way to train. Trainers should not give a command unless they are in a position to enforce it. Then they must see that their dog obeys. Again, this doesn't mean dealing out harsh punishment, especially with young dogs. It simply means controlling the situation to insist that a dog sits, stays, comes, fetches, etc. when you tell him to.
Don't Chase or Play Tug-of-war
I start play-training a puppy the first day I bring him home. I use a rolled-up sock to play fetch, sitting on the floor with the pup in my lap, tossing the sock, momentarily restraining the pup, then letting him go. When he brings it back, I smother him in praise.
Hunters don't have to spend a small fortune to have their retrievers trained by professional trainers. Instead, they can train their dogs themselves. They may wind up with a "blue collar retriever," but they will take satisfaction in monitoring their dog's progress, and they will build stronger bonds through the training process. Photo by Travis Mueller, Avery Outdoors
However, two things I don't do: (1) if the pup runs off with the sock, I don't chase him. The game is fetch instead of keep away. Instead of chasing, I will run away from the pup. He'll usually run back to me then, and I'll take the sock from his mouth and praise him for bringing it back. And (2), I don't allow the pup to fight me for possession of the sock. When he brings it, I command "drop," and I'll quickly squeeze his jaw to make him release the sock. Soon he'll get the picture that the game is bringing the sock back and releasing it, not pulling back against you.
Teaching Basic Commands
As a pup ages, his trainer should teach him the basic commands of sit, stay, come, and heel.
"Sit" is easy. Use a leash. Tell the dog to "sit," and simultaneously push down his rump and pull up on the leash. When he sits, love on him so he'll know you're pleased with his compliance.
"Stay" is a little harder. Make your dog sit, then command "stay," and move a step or two away. He'll move toward you. Immediately take him back to his spot, tell him "sit" and move away again. Hold up your hand in his face to reinforce this command. Soon he'll get the idea what "stay" means. Then start backing farther away and making him stay in place progressively longer. Eventually he should learn to stay when you give the command and walk out of sight. Always, if he breaks, take him back, make him sit, and try again. Practice makes perfect. Well..., almost.
Most pups will learn "come" on their own. They'll want to be with you. When teaching "sit" and "stay," release the dog to return to you with the command "come". Never call a dog to you for punishment. You want to teach him that coming back to you is a good thing and nothing to fear. If you want to reinforce a command, go to him to do it. Don't use "come" with any situation that can build his reluctance to approach you.
"Heel" is learned on a leash. Position pup by your chosen side (usually the left), get a short rein on the leash, and simultaneously say "heel" and start walking. When you do, give a tug on the leash to get him started walking with you.
Some dogs will balk at learning this command; they will rebel against your control and pull back. But be patient and work on "heel" daily. When pup stops needing the enforcement of the leash, remove it and practice heeling him without it. If he relapses, return to leash-training to reinforce that you're in control.
For more info on teaching basic commands, check out "Four Basic Commands to Teach Your Retriever."
Introducing to Water
I've seen amateur trainers take a small pup and fling him into the water -- sink or swim! This is terrible and can instill fear of the water in these natural-born "water dogs."
Instead, wait for warm weather, and take pup on a visit to a pond or small lake. Wear your rubber knee-highs. Let pup explore on his own as you walk around the bank and begin wading ankle-high into the water. Encourage him to wade in with you. I've even taken small pebbles and tossed one in ahead of my pup to make a splash. Usually he will wade in to check the source of the splash. As long as he shows no hesitancy, I'll toss more pebbles to work him deeper until he's swimming.
The main thing is not to force him. Let him get used to the water on his own. And don't worry if he doesn't take to water on his first trip. There's plenty time for him to build his confidence about getting wet.
Introducing to Loud Noises
A gunshy dog is useless as a hunter, so it is absolutely essential for a trainer to get his pup used to loud noises, but ever so carefully!
Don't get in too big a hurry with this. An older, more confident dog is less likely to become gunshy. With a puppy, introduce him to loud noises a little at a time -- banging his pan at feed time, slamming a truck's tailgate, etc. Watch for any sign of shyness, and pace this introduction to loud noises according to his response to them.
When he's older (4-6 months), it's time to bring in gunfire. Take pup on a walk. Play with him and get him in the best mood possible. Then allow him to range out ahead, exploring on his own. When he's 40-50 yards away, turn your back and shoot a training pistol or cap pistol, something that will "pop" but which isn't as loud as a shotgun. When pup stops to look, call him back to you and play some more. The point is, reinforce that the popping noise is nothing to fear.
In the weeks ahead, as pup gets used to the popping noises, work up to louder and closer noises. However, if he shows any shyness or timidity about the noises, back off. Do not do anything that will intimidate pup or cause him to associate the popping sounds with punishment or fear. If you make gunfire something he associates with excitement and fun, gunshyness shouldn't be an issue.
Teaching with a Whistle
I whistle-train my dogs from an early age. When I command "sit," I follow with one blast on the whistle. "Come" is followed by three short blasts. Soon they learn the meaning of these whistle signals.
Why is this important? Because in the field your retriever will often be too far away to hear your verbal commands, but the whistle will carry farther. When he learns to follow hand signals, you'll need to be able to get his attention. When he gets too far away, you'll be able to whistle him in closer.
Beyond these basics, an amateur trainer will want to work with his young retriever on marking falls, taking a line, learning hand signals and achieving other advanced levels of training. The more time you spend with your dog, the more capable he will become in the field.
In many ways, training your own retriever is like coaching your kid to play Little League ball. Teach the fundamentals. Be encouraging. Be patient. Make it fun. Expect him to make mistakes. Discipline sparingly and consistently. Practice on a regular basis to build skills progressively.
There is great satisfaction in bringing your own dog along. You take pride in his accomplishments and pleasure from the time you spend together. Again, he may not become a blue ribbon winner, but blue collar is okay. If he brings back your birds, who cares if he's not perfect? He's your helper and your pal, and that's enough.
Shop all Dog Training Gear