Lots of Labrador retriever puppies will wind up with new homes around Christmas and many are destined to be hunting companions for years to come.
It’s a pretty expensive project to get them trained professionally and not a necessity if you are just looking for a buddy to go with you and retrieve the ducks you bag from icy waters. Most of the things you will want your dog to do are instinctive to them and you simply need to spend some time and effort to sharpen those inborn traits. By nature, most labs are good-natured and want to please you.
If you are not interested in a field-trial dog or a professional-grade hunting dog, you can train your Labrador to maintain good behavior and do the things you need him to do when you go out in the field.
Here are a few simple ideas that can help you reach those goals.
Introduce your lab to the water early. Most of them love to get wet and will take to it right away. Start them off with small areas of shallow water.
You can even use something like an outdoor baby pool for this purpose, but just splashing around the edges of a pond will work also. I recommend not putting them in icy cold water to start with. Those first experiences don’t need to be unpleasant in any way. Gradually, work your way up to open water and keep it lighthearted and fun for them.
The first basic commands they need to learn are “sit” and “stay”. These two are the foundation for other more complex things you will want them to do later on.
One good method for “stay” is to hold a treat over the pup's head and use the command word while gently pushing his hips down. Once he sits, let him have the treat and give him some praise. As with any of these commands, you will need to do it over and over for a while and eventually he’ll sit on the command without the treat.
One of the keys is to spend some time daily working on the things you want him to do.
You can teach the “stay” command in a similar fashion. First, get him in his “sit” position and walk away three or four steps holding your hand up and saying “stay”. If he follows, walk back to his original spot and make him sit again. Once he stays put, call him to you and give him his treat. Gradually, work this routine until you can go for long distances from him before calling him to you. This is harder than the “sit” command because his instinct is to want to be right beside you so it will take some time. Practice patience and put in the time. He’ll get it. Don’t forget to lavish praise on him when he does well. Remember to make it fun.
When you get to the point where your pup will sit and stay, you can begin work on retrieving.
The “back” command is commonly used when you want him to retrieve. Make him sit first, throw the dummy and then give the command. Don’t let him go until you give the command. A short leash may be useful here. Once again, this is something that is instinctive for them and they love the game.
At first, they will want to go get the dummy you throw for them and then run around and play with it instead of bringing it back to you. Have your treats ready to entice him to come back for it once he has picked up the dummy and, as always, use patience, rewards and praise for a job well done.
Further down the line, you can use a BB gun or a starter pistol so he can begin to associate the shot with what he will be expected to do next.
Don’t start off with a shotgun right in his ear. A good next step is to get someone who is hidden from view to throw the dummy into the water while you and your lab sit on the bank. Use your starter pistol while the dummy is in the air, let the dummy hit the water and make him stay with you until the “back” command is given.
Another useful hint would be to use scented dummies so your dog will get used to the difference in smell between decoys and the real thing. You don’t want him retrieving your decoys, and using these scented dummies from an early age helps avoid this problem.
If you don’t have a good place to practice where there is water available there are various Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) that can be used. The rules for training dogs on these WMAs can be found at gohuntgeorgia.com or on page 18 of the Georgia Seasons and Regulations booklet that is free at many retail outlets.
Articles and columns by Alvin Richardson about hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports appear weekly in the Statesboro Herald. Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.