Labrador Retrievers are well known for their superb hunting abilities, especially in retrieving fallen game in waterfowl hunting. When the breed was first developed in Newfoundland, the Labrador’s incredible ability to assist hunters was the main reason this trait continued to be pursued in the breed. With selective breeding, the Labrador Retrievers that we know today are excellent for hunting, though they do require some training first.
The first step when training your Labrador Retriever for waterfowl hunting is to get your dog used to the water. This is most successfully done at a very young age, as water playtime will be more easily acceptable. Try to help your dog understand that water is not something to be afraid of, and offer treat rewards when your dog voluntarily goes into the water. If your dog seems wary, try first going into the water yourself, to show your dog that it’s safe. Throw a rubber dog toy in shallow water, and give your dog significant praise if they retrieve it.
The next step is to begin accustoming your dog to the scent of waterfowl. This can be purchased at many hunting supply stores, and is best used when combined with a “decoy” (an object resembling a waterfowl, that is sprayed with waterfowl scent). Use of a decoy is one of the most important aspects of training your dog for hunting, since it is the foundation of their training. A decoy containing waterfowl scent will help your dog to connect the scent to the resemblance of a bird, and make subsequent hunting training much easier.
At first, try simply throwing the scented decoy a short distance on land, and encourage your dog to retrieve it. Provide a reward and lots of praise for prompt retrieval. It is not advised to attach food or treat items to the decoy to entice your dog, as this may make them associate the decoy with food (and you may train your dog to bring back a half-eaten duck). The waterfowl scent alone, along with your Labrador’s retrieval instincts, should be sufficient to entice your dog to retrieve the decoy.
Once your dog is comfortable with retrieving the decoy, it’s time to begin water-training. This can be a very involved process, especially if you have not extensively socialized your dog with the idea of being in the water. Try to start slowly, and use a water-resistant waterfowl scent on the decoy (it’s also a good idea to choose a decoy that floats!). Begin by catching your dog’s attention with the decoy, and toss it a short distance into the water. When your dog retrieves the decoy, be sure to give a lot of praise, as well as a treat reward. Labrador Retrievers are very loyal dogs, and will respond well to constant positive reinforcement of their good behavior. Throw the decoy again, this time throw it farther out, so your dog has to swim to retrieve it. This time, when your dog returns with the decoy offer a bigger treat, and a lot more praise.
This process may have to be repeated several times, over the course of several days. Every dog is slightly different when it comes to hunting, depending on their training level, breed-based traits, and background. The advantage is to train your Labrador from the time that they are a puppy, so that you have the strongest possible bond with your dog. This bond is a huge part of hunting with your Labrador Retriever, since the stronger this bond, the more likely they are to obey your commands. A dog that has not been sufficiently trained may ignore your wishes, or be distracted by other animals. The important thing is to reinforce that this desired behavior will produce rewards, and that it is categorized as “good dog” behavior. Labrador Retrievers are always eager to please, and repeated rewards for a behavior will make them much more likely to repeat this behavior in the future.
After your dog is sufficiently trained with a decoy, and is able to find and retrieve the decoy from deep water, it’s time to start bringing your dog hunting. As with all training programs, this should be done with caution at first, since this will be a new experience for your dog. Be sure to accustom your dog to the sound of gunshots, so that they don’t become panicked or run away. This can be done by having your dog nearby (not too close at first, and safely restrained) while you are target or skeet shooting. Eventually, your dog will associate that noise with you, and you will be able to have your dog nearby when shooting without their being afraid. This should be done gradually, because dogs have very sensitive hearing, and are much more likely to be hurt by the sound of a gunshot than a human. Some hunters even use ear protection for their canine’s sensitive ears.
Once your dog is accustomed to the sound of a gunshot, it’s time to take them hunting! Begin with one retrieval at first, and be ready to reward your dog accordingly for bringing back the downed bird. If this does not work the first time, don’t despair. It may take your dog several tries before they are able to successfully associate the bird with the decoy, and to incorporate their decoy training in the field. Be patient, but do not offer your dog any rewards. If your dog is not responding, try taking them back home for more decoy training, and then attempt to hunt with them again.
Labrador Retrievers were bred to hunt, and have a strong desire to retrieve fallen game. They are one of the best choices for a hunting “gun dog”, and have an admirable history of success with hunting training. If you are loving, patient, and give your dog a lot of positive reinforcement, you too will be able to train your Labrador to be a successful hunting dog.