The wonderful thing about working with Labrador Retrievers is that most of the skills that they need to be outstanding hunting dogs are already part of the breeds temperament, traits and normal behaviors. The Labrador Retriever, as with any other dog bred to retrieve and hunt, will have challenges to training as well, but getting started with a sound training program is the first step to a successful training routine.
If you are interested in a Lab as a combination hunting dog and companion pet, you need to consider which lines or which kennel you may want to purchase from. While all Labs have some natural hunting ability, different lines have been bred more as field or working lines, while other lines are more commonly used in the show ring or as for pets. Starting out with a hunting line or a field line will make your training easier, plus you are more assured that the dog that you end up with will have the instincts to be an outstanding hunting dog. Keep in mind every dog is different, and how you train them will also be critical in their behavior out in the field as they go through their learning experience. Dogs that are pushed too hard, treated inconsistently or punished rather than worked with a positive reward system are much less likely to be outstanding hunting dogs, regardless of their breeding line.
The first step is to start working with your puppy right from the first day home. This includes spending time with the dog, playing with the dog and daily care of the dog. This constant interaction builds a rapport between the owner and the dog as well as develops a strong bond. Although Labs love most people and are very friendly dogs, they still understand the pack mentality and that their pack is their family. As the human in the pack you have to be the alpha leader, which means being kind, loving, firm and consistent in everything that you do with the dog.
Obedience training is the key element to any type of hunting dog. If the dog doesn't routinely, come, sit, stay and lie down on command you can't expect him or her to work away from you in retrieving and waiting to run out after birds during a hunt. Labs, by their very nature, are outstanding obedience candidates but they do need routine work, socialization and ongoing training. It is always a great idea to start a Lab puppy out in a puppy obedience program and even move into a slightly more advanced level until they are fully and consistently responding to commands and cues.
Once the dog has mastered the basic obedience and even some of the advanced work, it is time to start incorporating distance training into your routine. This includes having the dog respond to commands when they are off-leash and away from you as the handler. Some training programs incorporate this aspect, however you can also work on this on your own. The principles are the same as close contact obedience and require patience and practice to master. Typically distance training is gradual, with the handler slowing moving farther away from the dog as the canine gets the hang of working and responding at a distance.
It is at this point that distance cues or command signals also have to be taught. For many owners this includes hand signals, which are initially paired with voice commands while close, then the voice is gradually faded out until the dog is responding just to hand signals. Some hunters prefer hand signals since they are perfectly silent, while others use whistles to communicate commands to the dog. Since retrievers are used after the birds are downed, whistles may be a good option.
Training retrieval can start when the dog is just a puppy. Start with a favorite toy and work towards having the dog bring it back to you every time. Never play with the dog by chasing for the object or engage in any type of pulling or tug of war competition in play. This is important as you want to have a retriever with a "soft mouth". A soft mouth means that the dog does not bite down on the object in the mouth, thereby retrieving the carcasses of birds without any damage by the dog's teeth. Water retrieving is essential, as is placing objects on the ground and having the dog locate them and return them to you by scent. There are several techniques to accomplish this training and some wonderful online information or training programs that can be do-it-yourself routines.
The last step is to get the dog desensitized to the sound of guns. Most hunting dogs will adjust to the sound of gunfire rather quickly, but some may become timid or frightened. If this happens allow the dogs to calm down, then gradually bring them closer to the guns and provide lots of praise and attention for staying calm and focused.
The next part of the process is to actually take your dogs out hunting. Although it may be tempting to invite all your friends, a good idea is to take your dog out a time or two on your own, before adding distractions. This will allow the dog to become familiar with a routine, plus he or she will have to learn to sit and stay in the blind or out of sight when the birds are circling or landing. In addition the dog will also need to learn to watch the falling birds, as well as learn to go into the water for multiple birds if there is more than one hunter.
One of the best options for training a gun dog and keeping a Lab in great training for hunting is to join a local gun dog club. These groups are typically organized and run by dog trainers or breeders, and typically include dogs and owners with all levels of experience. These clubs are a wonderful way to train your dog alongside already proficient dogs, as well as a way for first time trainers to get some tips and strategies from experience dog handlers and hunters.
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