How to Train My Puppy to Waterfowl Hunting Retriever
Most waterfowl hunters know that a well-trained hunting dog can be a real asset and make waterfowl hunting both easier and more rewarding. However, there is a lot that goes into training a puppy for them to be a great hunting dog. When I brought home my black Labrador Retriever, Burner, in April, I knew I would have my hands full. Here is how I trained Burner to become a good hunting partner.
The first and most obvious step is to teach your puppy simple, everyday commands. Things like sit, lay down, stay, and fetch are the most beneficial commands for waterfowl hunting. Be selective in what words you use for each action; maybe you prefer “down” instead of “lay down.” Make your choice and be consistent. Many hunters will use the dog’s name as the “release word” or the word they say to let the dog leave the stay command and go fetch. I chose to use the word fetch instead so I could use his name for other actions, such as grabbing his attention or recalling him. Also, Burner is a family dog just as much as a hunting dog, so using his name as a hunting command could confuse him when in the house.
One of the most important things during this stage is to get your puppy acclimated to loud noises and water, something they will be subjected to while hunting.
Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard and introduced Burner to it pretty much the day we brought him home. I would toss a dummy just beyond where he could no longer touch it to entice him to get deeper into the water. It takes some time, but their natural instincts will kick in, and eventually, you’ll struggle to keep them out of the water.
Acclimating your puppy to loud noises at a young age is crucial. You could do this by banging pots and pans over their head while they are eating or even by purchasing a 22-cartridge dummy launcher. This will get them acclimated to the sound of gunshots and teach them that that noise means they will have to retrieve soon. I would also listen to music at a rather loud volume, vacuumed with him in the room, and was never afraid to make a lot of noise around him. I wanted to be sure that Burner was not nervous around loud noises, no matter the circumstance. Once they are used to these loud noises, you can introduce the sound from an actual gun. Be sure that if you shoot a gun near your dog, you start far away and gradually move closer to the dog. All these would allow them to get used to it at a gradual pace.
Once they have the basic commands down, it all comes down to repetition. I found that little spurts of 10-15 minutes of working on training worked best; anything more than 15 minutes, and he would lose interest and become distracted. Training is hard work for puppies; they need these breaks to stay focused in the long run. This also helps to avoid overstimulation, in which case the puppy would just shut down. We would do the same work over and over again. One exercise we would do is I would have Burner lie down in his blind, tell him to stay, and then I would throw the dummy bird while making sure he stays lying down. After a few seconds, I would tell him to fetch, and he would return to the blind with the dummy. We would even work on this in the house with the blind and one of his toys.
This also helped him become comfortable with his blind, and he enjoyed just taking naps in it. As soon as I had the blind, I placed it in the living room with the door open and let him spend as much time as he wanted to in it. I knew that many dogs have issues with getting in their blinds, so I wanted to introduce the blind to him at a young age.
Another critical aspect of training is the reward system. I purchased small, soft training treats so they were easy to chew and did not distract him too much. Whenever Burner performed a command correctly, I would reward him with a treat and say “Good fetch” or whatever command it was that he just did. Also, at the end of every training session, I would reward him with a few treats, lots of pets, and “Good boy.” I would be toeing the line of over-excitement to show him I was happy with what he did. Labs live to make their owners happy, so I used this knowledge to my advantage.
Best Training Aides
The tools I utilized for training were some I already had, some I went out to purchase, or even items that I DIY’d. I found that getting a hunting blind early on helped a lot. As mentioned earlier, it allowed him to get used to it, and I could introduce it into training right away. I also would use a frozen duck that I harvested last year. This duck was whole, with feathers still on. It is important for the feathers to be on the duck, or even on a dummy, as it introduces them to the feeling of feathers or even the scent of waterfowl if it is a real duck. If your puppy just wants to play with the dummy, you can tie a small rope to the dog’s collar and give little tugs to show them that you want them to return to you. I used a duck because it is smaller and easier for a puppy to hold and retrieve. That being said, when goose season came around, I would take a harvested goose and bring it to Burner. Once he got used to geese, I would throw the goose into my backyard pond and command Burner to retrieve it. Being in water obviously makes the goose lighter and more accessible for Burner to retrieve.
Another thing I found beneficial but not necessary is a behavior collar. I never used it to shock him, but if he were distracted by something else, I would use the beep or vibrate feature to get his attention. I used this sparingly and rarely when he had the dummy in his mouth. You have to be careful as you do not want to traumatize your dog into not wanting to pick up the dummy. If you choose to use a behavior collar, I highly recommend that you use it all of the time, not just for waterfowl training purposes. This will ensure they do not associate the negative beep or vibrate with hunting.
While having a trained waterfowl hunting retriever is super beneficial, it takes a lot of hard work and time to train your puppy to get to that level. There may be days when it feels like you are going backward in progress, but remember that your puppy relies on you to teach them right and wrong. I hope your puppy treats you well as a hunting dog and as part of your family.