The Adaptable Hunting Dog: Labrador Retriever

The Adaptable Hunting Dog: Labrador Retriever
Labrador retrievers are by far the most popular breed for use on duck hunts. â–  Photo by Polly Dean.

Fair warning for anyone considering the purchase of a hunting-line Labrador retriever: do not purchase one of these dogs based on their looks. Sure, Labs are beautiful to look at, intelligent and enthusiastic, but most folks who bring one home don't realize the full extent of "enthusiastic." Labs are easy to love at first sight, but line-bred hunting Labs are not designed for or meant to be household pets. Woe to those who expect their Labs to lay on the floor all day doing nothing. These dogs are tornadoes wrapped in fur, strong and durable, with energy enough to outlast anything they chase and anyone who dares to go with them. Want a low-key housedog? A pit bull might be the better choice!

Today's Labs are exactly what the original breeders intended, a hunting dog capable of spending long hours in the field, braving cold, rain and snow while bouncing through brush to flush upland birds or swimming tidal currents to retrieve downed waterfowl. The tougher the conditions the better they like it, and after a long day afield they like nothing better than a couple of hours of back yard romping just to help them unwind from their busy day. If you want a "sit, stay and heel" kind of hunting dog, don't pick a Labrador retriever. These dogs are meant for high-energy hunting situations and are the ideal choice for all day, every day bird hunting. If you are not up to that level of performance, a Lab is not for you.

That being said, congratulations on your purchase of a new Lab pup. You can expect no less than a decade of exciting hunting with an intelligent companion that, with experience, teaches you things about upland game and waterfowl hunting you never imagined. It all begins the day you bring your new pup home — and the training never ends.

BASIC TRAINING

Every hunting dog must learn a few basic commands. Some of the most beautiful (and expensive) line-bred hunting dogs are utterly worthless in the field because they haven't learned a few simple commands designed to exercise control over the dog and the hunt.

Begin with day one: "Come here!" If your dog will not come to you on command you will have many a miserable experience in the woods and on the water. Use a whistle, your voice or even snapping your fingers, but always use the same command so he knows what you mean. And, always praise your new pup when he comes to you. Never discipline any dog that has just responded to your "Come here!" command, or you teach him to avoid you because bad things happen when he does finally come to you. Constant praise for a job well done is the key to successful training; the dog's inbred instincts take care of the rest.

Also important are the sit, stay and heel commands. Eight-week-old pups may not respond well immediately, but spend 20 minutes a day on these commands and in a few weeks you'll see a huge improvement. Always reward the dog with praise when he does something right, and continue to work on the commands that don't come so easy. Every dog is unique and learns at his own pace, but a spring-born pup should be well on his way to basic discipline by October — if you do your job faithfully each day. He'll be a rookie nonetheless, but he'll show signs of "getting it," and that's all you can ask for during his first season. All else is practice, repetition and experience. Alas, most hunting dogs are best at what they do in their declining years, but this is why wise hunters add new pups to the kennel each year. They learn from you and they learn from their peers in an endless, ongoing cycle.

WHAT CAN A LAB DO?

From an upland hunter's viewpoint, there's practically nothing a hunting-line Lab cannot do. Bred to be masters at fetching downed ducks and geese, they can switch from woodcock to quail to pheasants or grouse as fast as you can. You can teach a Lab to point, to "set" or to flush birds — even all three — and once the dog learns its job it will excel at it. Built into every Lab is an unalterable desire to please its master, and when you have shown your retriever what you want and how you want it done, he does his best to perform at the highest levels, every time. In fact, when a Lab makes a mistake he couldn't be more apologetic, making faces and doing the humble shuffle as he comes back with a, "Sorry, boss!" look on his face. And, you can bet that next time he makes amends.

One surprising aspect of a Lab's personality is that it can learn new tricks. A master of all hunting techniques, a Lab also has the unique ability to adapt to unusual situations. For example, all of my Labs have had to learn to do the "low crawl," a technique we must use when sneaking up on open field farm ponds where mallards and geese are the target. Because the loafing birds would easily spot us if we simply walked in on them, I had to show my Labs (by example) how to creep into range on knees and elbows. This is a good trick to practice first in the living room, and then across the back yard. It rarely takes more than a few sessions for the dog to get the idea, but after the first "real time" experience, most Labs seem to understand the concept and are quick to hunch up and do the low crawl on command.

Another unusual request I make of my Labs is to sit and stay, a valuable tactic when hunting upland birds. The idea is to set the dog up at one end of a cover (orchard, corn patch, etc.) and then walk to the other end. Using hand signals, I'll bid the dog to "Go find them," and then the fun begins. The dog essentially becomes the driver and I am the blocker. The Lab courses through the covert at top speed, putting birds up that have no choice but to flush and fly my way for an easy shot in open cover. On several occasions I've had the dog come running out with a bird in its mouth — these fast and aggressive dogs are sometimes too much for a hesitant grouse or pheasant!

HUNTING CLOSE

Labs can become victims of their own enthusiastic energy, so they must be reined in so that a trip becomes a hunt, not a rout. We are not trying to rid the world of game birds; we are trying to flush them close enough for a shot. Once the dog realizes that this is the game plan, you are on your way to a long, productive career on or off the water.

Teaching your Lab to hunt close actually began back in his first few days at home. Remember teaching him to "Come here?" When a dog is trained to return to his master at an early age it is no problem teaching him to cover the ground in front of him always within shotgun range.

While hunting, use your "Come Here" command, using whistle, voice or finger snaps, to keep the dog in range. You may need to spend some yard time with the dog on a 20-yard rope, calling him in just as he reaches the end of the tether. Labs are fast to learn and quickly realize that there is a limit to their roaming. In time the dog instinctively stays inside your pre-set perimeter unless he encounters a wounded bird or duck, at which point his retrieving skills take over.

Remember always that a successful hunt is the ultimate goal. Don't turn your Lab into a robot; instead, make him part of a team that finds, flushes, downs and retrieves birds. Believe me, when you miss a shot your Lab shows his disappointment. Just as you come to expect perfection from him, he also expects the same from you!

INSTINCTS VS. LEARNING

All line-bred Labs have hunting, flushing and retrieving instincts bred into them, but it is important to remember that no hunting dog is born knowing every aspect his job. They all require training and experience. For example, fetching a sock or ball comes naturally to a Lab, but fetching a grouse, pheasant or duck is a different story. If you have spent a long summer tossing tennis balls for your Lab to retrieve, he will be extremely confused on opening day when you send him out to fetch a wild bird for the first time. I have seen Labs pounce on a grouse or duck and then stare at the bird in obvious confusion, not knowing what this is or what to do with it: They've never seen such a thing before. To solve the problem, it's much easier to incorporate bird wings into your pre-season training so that the dog is at least familiar with the scent and feel of real feathers. Toss a wing into the yard using a fishing rod, all the while encouraging your Lab to bring it back to you, or tie a wing onto a retrieving dummy so that the dog becomes familiar with the scent of a real bird. Your dog may have to "meet" all of the players he will encounter in your upland and marshland forays before he can hunt them effectively, and the time to do that is before the season opens. It's a good idea to save a few wings from last year's woodcock, grouse, pheasants, quail and waterfowl in anticipation of your new pup's arrival. Introduce the Lab pup to them during your daily training sessions so that, by fall, your dog is familiar with all of them.

PATIENCE IS THE KEY

Any line-bred Lab is able to flush birds and fetch them at 6 months of age, but his performance will be far from polished. Don't expect your young Lab to immediately master every aspect of the sport, but do encourage him when he does it right and spend more time working with him on his weak points. Every Lab I've ever hunted over wants to do his best at top speed with great enthusiasm. When he is shown what is expected he literally leaps into action every time, putting on a show of skill and talent that amazes you. It all begins with consistent back-yard training and persistence on your part. Know what you want to teach the dog and then work with him daily until he understands what you are asking of him. All hunting dogs have their specialties but the Lab is the master of multi-tasking. From bringing in the morning newspaper to fetching a wounded, big-river goose the Lab can do it all, tirelessly and with a flair that is unmatched among sporting dogs.

Again, don't bring a Lab home if you expect it to lie on the floor and do nothing all day — neither of you will ever be happy. But, if you want non-stop action in the field or on the water, the Labrador retriever is your dog.

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