A well trained dog will hold a steady point in spite of gunfire.
A band of tight flying blue-winged teal buzzed down the far shore of the small lake. I whispered to my hunting buddy to get ready. Our pair of Labrador retrievers trembled with excitement.
Just as I had predicted, the teal flew to the west end of the lake, turned and headed up the north shore straight for our set of three dozen decoys.
When the shooting ended four teal bobbed in the decoys belly up. I sent my chocolate Lab, Peggy, for the first retrieve. My hunting partner did the same with his dog. However, his young dog never responded to the command to retrieve. Instead, she hovered by his side trembling.
I queried my buddy about the experience of his dog. He quickly stated, defensively, that he believed training for a Lab should not start until it was a year old. The young dog's training had started that morning. My buddy received his reward for his training methods, or lack thereof, immediately. His dog proved to be mortified by the gun fire, i.e., gun shy.
Peggy retrieved all four of our teal and happily accepted the love and praise I poured all over her. At my command she took her place in the boat again and eagerly awaited the next flight of ducks. My pal's dog never left his side all morning.
Over 45 years of duck hunting, I have witnessed the aforementioned scenario dozens of times. Duck hunters love retrievers. However, even in these days of hyper information, many hunters still believe that hunting dogs either have it or they don't. By their very nature, retrievers have the innate ability and desire to want to retrieve game. However, their desires and initiatives to retrieve game may not necessarily match those of us as duck hunters. We want our dogs to retrieve on our command, not at some point in time later when the dog feels safe and secure and wants to get the duck.
A retriever can be a very good companion and hunting dog, yet be gun shy, which greatly reduces its effectiveness as a hunting dog. Following are several steps every retriever owner can take to keep his dog from developing gun shyness.
Step 1: Choosing your pup
The quicker your puppy becomes socialized with humans, the easier it will be to train.
Training with your new puppy begins immediately, preferably at 7 or 8 weeks of age. Your puppy developed some sense of connection with you when you picked it out of the litter. We all love puppies and the more we have to choose from, the more time we spend with the litter trying to determine which puppy would be best for us. Puppies are already socialized to a degree, first with mom and the litter mates and secondly with the owner of the mother. If the owner has not spent much time with the puppies and you can tell it, do not buy from that owner. The quicker puppies are socialized to humans, the easier they will be to train. Save yourself a great deal of heartache and choose only puppies that show signs of being socialized. If they run from you squealing in fear to hide, you know there are problems. Both mom and puppies should approach you to play and investigate.
Step 2: Creating a bond
Once you have made your choice of a puppy, commit to a 72-hour regimen of staying close to the puppy and not letting it out of your sight. The first 72 hours the puppy is in its new home will determine what kind of relationship the two of you will have for the duration of your time together. Remember, the puppy is highly stressed from being separated from its mother and litter mates. Too, it is in new surroundings and is now around unfamiliar people.
As soon as you arrive home with the puppy, make it comfortable very near you. Do not allow others to play with the puppy. At the most, others should only pet the puppy briefly. You want the puppy to key in on you. You will be its master for life. It will learn from you and learn to trust you and rely on you. Establishing a trusting bond quickly is paramount to your success. Never intentionally scare or unduly frighten the puppy.
Step 3: Teaching basic commands
After the initial 72-hour-get-acquainted-period has lapsed you and your puppy should be at ease around one another. It should readily play with you and should have established the fact that you feed and water him. Those times are superb times to pet the puppy and socialize with him. Training has already begun, but now it is time to start intentional training to produce the kind of hunting partner you want.
The first things you want to teach your puppy includes: its name and the commands, sit, stay and come. They are all instructions that soak in with repeated repetition. Keep sessions short at first and gradually lengthen them as the puppy learns. There are many books and videos available to help with the process. However, these basic commands are building blocks for more to come.
Step 4: Introducing noises
When your newfound partner has satisfactorily mastered the initial commands, it is ready for further training. I have found it very useful to begin using louder noises when I start to teach a puppy to retrieve. Let the dog play. Get it excited. Toss a ball or a training dummy a short distance. The puppy will naturally chase it. Call his name and tell him to come. All the while, clap your hands and scurry backwards rapidly. Stop suddenly as the puppy comes close to you. Low and behold, your puppy has completed a retrieve while you were making loud noise. It didn't notice, because it was so excited. Continue the process until you can replace the hand claps with a starter pistol or a .22.
Step 5: Water training
After the maturing puppy is confident with the slightly noisy training, advance to water training with longer retrieves. Toss the training dummy high and long so the dog can watch it and concentrate. As the dummy begins to fall to the water, fire a small gauge shotgun, such as a .410 or 20 gauge. Watch for any fear or restlessness from your dog. If there are no problems, command the dog to fetch the dummy. When the dog returns with the dummy, give him the usual praise, but approach him with the shotgun in hand. He will smell the burned powder, see you with the gun in hand and soon understand that it is all part of the process.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. It is fun for both you and your dog. Every session makes your dog steadier and you more confident in his abilities. The good news is that you have a lot of years ahead of you to enjoy a dog that will never fail because of gun shyness.
My buddy showed serious signs of embarrassment. His $2,000 Lab never retrieved a single teal that morning. My $250 Peggy performed like a trooper. It's not the price of the dog that makes it a steady lover of the hunt. It is the time and training given by the master.