What Makes Labs Great Hunting Dogs?

Labrador retrievers can be phenomenal hunting partners when trained right. (Shutterstock image)

They are our most popular breed of dog, but not all Labrador retrievers are hunters. Here's what they need to do to be good hunting dogs in the field or on the water. 

All line-bred Labrador retrievers are born with the potential to be great hunting dogs. The energy, enthusiasm and desire are already there. Patient, persistent training is the missing link.

Aside from its distinctive good looks and intelligence, the Labrador retriever is best known for its boundless energy. Hunting Labs are always ready to go, no matter what the game or time of day. The mere mention of birds, ducks or guns will send them into a tail-wagging frenzy that is a joy to watch and impossible to ignore. 

A happy Lab is an enthusiastic one, but there is more to successful hunting with a retriever than simply turning the dog loose in the woods or on the water. Bottom line, the hunter must find a way to contain and control the Lab's full-speed-ahead demeanor. After all, putting birds into the air is only part of the game. Those birds need to be flushed within shotgun range, a challenging order, indeed. 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT LAB

To begin with, if you want a Lab because they are pretty, lively and entertaining, by all means get one; from any puppy mill, mall store or backyard breeder who specializes in producing lots of puppies for the "so cute" market. These are loving, caring dogs that also happen to do a great job of keeping your furniture free of dust and clutter. 

However, if you want a hunting Lab, one that is all of the above plus easy to train, determined, dedicated and focused, look to a long-term, licensed breeder who sells only pups from Labs that have been line-bred as hunters for generations. The difference in price may be substantial, but you will end up with a Lab that loves you, loves hunting and is a quick and willing learner. Anything less is just a pet. 

GETTING STARTED

Most hunting Labs are ready for their new homes about eight weeks after birth. Forget about hunting right now. This is the time for the pup to learn its name, your name, the rules of the house and all the other things a puppy needs to know in order to become a cherished, working member of the family.

Starting now, and for the rest of its life, give your pup 20 minutes a day of "hunt training." This can begin as chase-the-sock, find the shoe or bring the pillow here, but for a short period every day your pup should be learning. Teach him to sit and stay while you walk across the room; teach him to lay down low (as if in a duck blind) until you tell him to move; teach him to walk at heel (to protect him from other, ill-trained dogs in hunting situations); and, of course, teach him to fetch — to you, to hand, every time. No running around avoiding you or playing silly pup games.

This is business. This is his job. Gently, but firmly, make him bring the sock, the ball or the dummy back to you every time, no excuses.

When he performs as told, lavish praise on him, rough him up, pat him and hug him — but no treats! Teach him to do his job for the pure joy of it — this is what sets Labs apart from other upland or waterfowl dogs. They love to play, and they love to please. All you're doing is reinforcing his instincts while focusing his efforts on the job at hand: finding, flushing and retrieving birds.

Don't expect immediate perfection. At first your pup will likely be a lot of cute, but utterly incompetent. He needs to learn what you want and how you want it done, which is why you must work with the pup every day.

After several weeks of aggravating, annoying, frustrating playtime, your pup will suddenly begin to develop his skills, acting and performing like a pro. Know it, expect it, work toward it, but do not give up! Like any child, a Lab pup wants to play and do silly things — it's more fun. 

But, one day when he's 12 or 16 weeks old, the lessons will begin to sink in and he will not only do the job perfectly, but he'll even begin to anticipate your command and what is likely to happen next. You're connecting. You're getting there. Continue your 20-minute sessions daily without fail, and by your pup's sixth month, he'll be more than ready to take on real birds.

ADVANCED TRAINING

Much can be learned in living-room and backyard training sessions, but sooner or later your pup will need to be introduced to the real world of hunting; woods, water, fields, brush and a wealth of distractions.

Take your 20-minute sessions outdoors where you can be alone with the pup (no human distractions or other dogs). To begin, walk slowly along a path or logging trail with the Lab at heel and, at intervals, throw a retrieving dummy (also called a bumper) a few yards to the left or right with the command, "Fetch!"

Your pup should be able to master this simple task in just a few minutes. Walk slowly, be obvious about where you're going to throw the dummy, and always say "Fetch" as you throw it. 

When your pup excels at this simple exercise, it's time to make life more challenging for him. Prior to your 20-minute training session, go out along the path alone and toss a few dummies to the left and right no more than 20 yards in. Now, bring the dog out and, while walking at heel, tell him to "Find the bird," extending your hand in the direction the "bird" should be.

The pup will likely fail miserably at this new development, but only initially. In time, he will get the idea: that you know there's a bird in there, it's 20 yards away and exactly where you said it was. Again, make him bring the "dead bird" back to you, on the sit, in front of you, not 10 feet away. Don't let him run around and play "catch me" with you. This is business. His job is to fetch the bird and bring it to you. Make him do so.

It should not take more than a week for your Lab to understand his role and execute it perfectly. If not, take more time. Proceed slowly. Make it easy for him to accomplish his task and always reward him with lavish praise when he gets it right.

Continue with "Find the bird," but gradually reduce the number of birds to find until there is only one left. In real-world hunting, there won't be scads of pheasants, grouse or quail every 10 feet. On some long, hard days, the best flushing dogs find no birds after hours of diligent hunting. Fortunately, Labs never become discouraged, nor should you!

In the final stages of training, pre-set one bird at random on either side of the path, 100 or more yards away. Early on, send the dog in to find the bird. He won't find it and will look to you for guidance. Give him a basic hand signal (arm and hand extended) in the direction you want him to go. If he veers off in the wrong direction, call him back and re-direct him. 

The strategy here is to teach the dog to stay within shotgun range of 20 or 25 yards, so that when a real bird is flushed you will have a shot. There is no point in letting the dog roam freely 100 or more yards out. He'll certainly flush plenty of birds, but none that you can shoot. He's learning to be your hunting partner, but he needs to know what you want and how you want it done. 

If you are going to focus more on waterfowl hunting, the training should reflect that. There will be more sitting and staying, water retrieves and long-distance fetches because a wounded duck or goose can present a real challenge to any retriever. Consider the details of your hunting preferences and proceed with your training accordingly. Just remember to train for 20 minutes every day, until you both get too old to continue! 

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