May 29, 2021
I’m not a dog whisperer. My Labs haven’t accumulated a pile of field trial trophies. I’m a duck bum. When I graduated high school, I was voted by my class to be a nomadic wanderer. This is what it read under my yearbook photo: “Jace will continue to kill ducks across the globe. He will fund his adventures by cutting firewood and trapping.” I just wanted to lay that out there for you. What’s to come isn’t a magic wand. It’s simple, sound advice that will work if implemented properly.
When I got my first pup, I was lost. I read every piece of “train your dog” literature I could get my hands on. To be honest, most of the material was very confusing, and for me it was hard to apply. There were too many commands, tips, and the like. I quickly discovered I was doing too much too soon and just confusing and frustrating my young pup. The entire process was a nightmare.
That first dog, Ginger, never worked out. It was more my fault than hers. When I got my next pup, a 10-week-old yellow Labrador Retriever, I drastically changed my approach. I took what I’d read from the countless magazine articles, dog training books, and my own school of hard knocks, and simplified things. If you’re looking to make a great duck dog, here’s the down and dirty on how to get started.
Young dogs have heaps of energy and need loads of attention. Aside from potty training, you need to focus on getting your pup to mind your commands. This can only be accomplished by staying consistent in every aspect of your training. Keep things simple and focused. The first three things I start working on with my pup are the commands: come, sit, and stay. Of course, you’ll find that different trainers may use different verbiage, but the above trio is simple and straightforward. Everyone wants to see their pup retrieving dummies, working blinds, and the list goes on. Don’t get in a rush. The better your dog learns and follows your commands, the easier your training will be.
#1 - Come
Getting your pup to come whenever you command it, is pivotal. The process is easier said than done and needs to be worked on daily. The good news is you can work on this command with your dog wherever you’re at. My favorite time is during my morning chores in the backyard. I let my five-month-old black Lab, Dakota, join me. Numerous times during the chore session, I call her name, use the “come” command, and point at a spot on the ground by my right side. She is familiar with this process. She has seen and heard the “come” command thousands of times in her life and I have kept it the exact same since her training started.
The more you do this, the more your pup will become proficient at it. Don’t be afraid to bribe your puppy with food to get them to work for you. One of the quickest ways to a Lab’s heart is through its stomach, and I always have a few treats in my pocket. When your pup performs what you ask them, give it plenty of love and a tasty snack.
Don’t give up on the process and don’t get lazy. There will be frustrating times. Dakota is well into her retriever drills now, but I’ve neglected to keep up on some of my basic training. A few weeks back, I opened the front door and she sprinted out to go and greet a neighbor. I spied a rabbit in the brush and Dakota was gone. I screamed the “come” command multiple times, but it didn’t stop her from darting across the road. Had a car been traveling down that road, it could’ve been ugly. When I finally caught up with her, I gave the command again and she came running over. This is where mistakes are made. I didn’t scold Dakota for her rabbit run. Why not? She had mentally moved on. She saw me coming across the road and when I called her name, told her to come, and pointed at the ground on my right side, she complied. Had I scolded her, she could have internalized doing her job as a bad thing. Only discipline your pup when they are in the direct act of disobedience. Discipline must be done in the moment.
The following day, I waited for the rabbit. When it was in the brush, I attached Dakota’s 50-foot lead and opened the door. She broke. I gave her a come command, but she kept going until she hit the end of the lead. Her body was jerked around and I was able to discipline her. She doesn’t chase rabbits anymore. You can’t get frustrated. You have to keep training and working. Mistakes are going to happen, and your pup is going to have some setbacks. Know that going in.
#2 - Sit
Once you have your pup coming to you on demand, implement the “sit” command. Like the come command, I use a three-part approach. I first get my pup standing by my right side, call her name so she looks up at me, and then open my hand with my palm down and say “sit”.
When you first start this, it’s likely you’ll have to push on your dog’s butt multiple times while saying “sit”. Again, treats and love are the key to rewarding your dog for doing what you want. Once your pup realizes they get praise and a snack when they listen, a switch flips, a bond is created, and they will want to work to please you.
#3 – Stay
Getting a young Lab to “stay” can be about as much fun as a visit to the proctologist. Often, the sit and come commands are easier to grasp, and you’ll notice immediate improvement. The stay command takes time and patience.
With your dog sitting by your side, call your dog’s name, tell your dog to stay and lightly press your palm inward toward the dog’s nose. Then walk a few steps away. Chances are good, especially during early training sessions, that the dog will follow you as soon as you move. This is normal. Stop and repeat the process. Once your dog stays put a few times, even if it’s just for a moment, stop the training. Give them time to relax and resume the process later in the day or even the next day. Keep working. If you stay the course, you’ll soon be able to give your dog the stay command, walk as far away as you’d like, and they will stay put until you give them the come command.
No one knows your pup like you do, and the decision to work on implementing these three commands during a single training session should only be made when you feel your pup is ready. Go to a big, safe, and open space. Use the come command. If your pup does its job and comes and stands by your side, use the sit command. If your pup sits, use the stay command, and walk 15 or 20 yards away and repeat this entire process multiple times for reinforcement.
Words from a Pro
My buddy, Tony Peterson, is a dog whisperer. I wanted to end this piece with some advice from a man who had trained some damn fine hunting dogs.
“The biggest thing to remember when working with a young dog is not to move too quickly and think we have to teach our dogs to hunt,” Peterson said. “We really need to methodically teach them to listen and to work with us. This means that the foundation work built around confidence building and using baby steps is so important. It's easy to get distracted with the big stuff like double-blind retrieves, but it's the things like a rock-solid recall or dependable steadiness that make a great duck dog. Those things take time and dedication to daily, incremental work, which is where a lot of amateur handlers have trouble. This tends to push people either to try to play catch-up or look for shortcuts, but both are poor substitutes for building and following a long-game plan that is catered to a pup's proper development.”