Retriever hunting training – when to start and what to do
As a professional retriever trainer, I am often fielding calls from people who need advice regarding dog training. One question that I hear the most is:
At what age should I start training my retriever puppy to hunt?
My answer is always the same – start now! Everything you do with your puppy from the time you pick him or her up from the breeder is technically training. You must understand that your retriever is learning every day, whether you are formally training him/her or not.
Your dog is learning:
- Who’s the boss in the family?
- Who can I jump on or step on?
- Is it okay to steal food off the table or counter?
- What things in the house are okay to chew and which are not?
- Where can I go potty that is okay and where I shouldn’t go?
Even this most basic training can substantially impact the ability for your retriever puppy to transition into a hunting machine.
What age to start training retriever as gundog or duck dog?
There is no specific age that you should start training your dog for bird hunting. It will depend heavily on your dog, his/her personality and ability to handle new situations. These traits will determine how fast or slow you are able to progress through hunting training. But the good news is, you can help shape and develop these traits in your new puppy!
Hunting dog training age 2-4 months
During the first few weeks of having your puppy home, you will learn about his/her personality. During this time, and ongoing through that first year, you can and should do some essential training. It’s called socialization. And the more socialization you do, the better.
How can I socialize my hunting dog?
Socialization is simply the process of introducing your puppy or young dog to new things and teaching him or her how to adjust quickly to changing circumstances. As a hunting dog, your retriever is required to adjust quickly to new locations, new terrain, and new hunting situations. You will expect your dog to hunt well and consistently regardless of the day, the weather conditions, or the type of bird you are hunting.
To do this, your dog must be very well socialized.
Socialization can be done throughout a dog’s life, but it is easier for a dog to learn and adjust while he/she is young. Like young people, young dogs are eager and ready to learn new things. So, while you can socialize an older dog, it is much more difficult.
Here are some suggestions on how to socialize your hunting dog:
- Take your dog to new places.
- Expose your dog to different terrain, weeds, or cover.
- Expose your dog to water – both dirty (weedy) and clean.
- Put your dog in new situations.
- Walk your dog in the rain and snow.
- Attend family gatherings where they will your dog will be exposed to new people, young and old.
- Walk your dog in your town or city, on trails where he/she will encounter people and dogs.
- Walk your dog in the country or on a dirt path, through a weedy field, anywhere there will be many new scents.
- Introduce your dog to new people, noises, and equipment.
- Have your dog sit in a boat or hunting blind with you. No shooting! We are just looking for exposure!
- Expose your dog to noise from cars, trucks, ATVs and other loud noise.
These are just some ideas. Every new experience will help your dog learn and adjust. The importance of socialization cannot be understated.
If you want your dog to be well-adjusted and quick to adapt, socialization is how you do that.
Other training for dog’s age 2-4 months
Besides important socialization, you will also need to work on a few other things during those first couple months.
Housebreaking and crate training
Even if your dog is going to be an outside dog, I highly recommend house breaking your hunting dog. Why? Because you will never regret having a clean dog! House broken dogs tend to keep their kennels and runs clean because they have learned that there is a right place to empty (go to the bathroom) and a wrong place. Outdoor dogs do not always learn this lesson.
Crate training is also an essential step for preparing your dog for hunting and home life. I know some people think using crates is cruel, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Dogs are den animals. They like small, confined spaces because these spaces make them feel secure and protected.
Introduced your dog to a crate when he is brought home from the breeder. Using the crate to contain your puppy at night and when you are not available to watch him/her carefully is practicing good sense. If you introduce the crate correctly and use it consistently, your dog will soon love his/her crate. Our dogs often go into their crates to sleep on their own. We leave the crate door open during the day and they willingly go into the crate to sleep or just have some time alone.
Teaching a dog manners while they are young is critical. By setting up rules and boundaries, you will be teaching your dog to handle pressure, a trait that is vital to teaching a dog to hunt.
Some behaviors owner’s think are cute when the dog is a puppy, can quickly become a problem as the dog grows. Learn more about these behaviors in this post.
Teach your new pup the words, NO and OFF. When your pup does something he shouldn’t, a stern NO can often quickly deter future episodes. Use the OFF command with a correction to keep your dog from jumping on you. Yes, even when they are only 2-4 months old. In fact, especially then. By learning that jumping on people is not okay at a young age, you are less likely to have this problem as the dog ages.
A few other ways to teach good manners include making your pup SIT before he is allowed to eat and SIT before you allow him to go through the door to outside. Your corrections do not need to be harsh, but they do need to be firm and consistent. Teaching your dog manners will help him/her adjust to further training.
Introducing your puppy to collar and leash
During the first couple months you should buy your puppy a collar and put it on him/her. Getting used to the collar will take some time, that is okay. Don’t take it off just because he/she seems uncomfortable with it.
This is also a good time to get your pup used to a leash. You can connect a 6-foot leash to the pup’s collar for short periods of time and with your supervision. Use a leash that does not have a loop so that your pup won’t get caught on anything.
At this time, just let him/her drag the leash around. Every once in a while, pick up the leash and hold on to it. Do not yank or drag your dog but let him/her get used to the pressure of you having control. You can also use treats to encourage cooperation.
Teaching your hunting dog how to retrieve
You should start retrieving with your pup within a week after you bring him/her home. There is a correct process of working on these first retrieves, and it is important that you follow it. For complete details on how to do this properly, check out this post.
Lastly, you should remember that your puppy is growing, so do not do too much running or exercise during these first two months or you could damage or injure your pups growing bones and muscles.
Other factors that will determine my dog’s training?
After socialization, the next most important trait we look for in hunting dogs is high prey drive or desire. High prey drive is not something you can create in your dog. It is something that is handed down genetically through the pedigree. But there are things you can do, to help develop the drive and desire provided the dog already has a genetic inclination in this area.
Live bird introductions are key to developing your dog’s prey drive. Many high-quality breeders will introduce the pups to a pigeon or bird wing while they are still in the litter. Even if this is the case, you will still want to do a live bird introduction with your pup. We will discuss this more in the next section.
Hunting dog training age 5-6 months
Around the 5–6-month age, your dog is ready to learn formal obedience.
Obedience is always the first step. All our programs here at Otter Tail Kennels begin with obedience. In my opinion, a dog can never have too much obedience training. It is the foundation on which all other training will rest. Even older dogs can benefit from obedience tune up drills.
Obedience training should continue for your dog’s entire life. If you want your dog to stay very obedient, you will need to work to continuously refresh his/her obedience.
At age 5-months you can start teaching your dog the SIT, HERE and HEEL commands. Teach these commands on-lead and in short sessions (5-10 minutes) each day. Taking your dog for a short walk and stopping frequently to make him or her SIT is a great way to get obedience work in each day.
Introductions to hunting equipment and situations
In addition to obedience, if you have not already, now is the time to start introducing your dog to various hunting equipment and situations. If the weather is appropriate, this is the best age to introduce your dog to water. Make sure that you find a shallow area and allow the dog to enter on his own terms. You can encourage him or her to get into the water using a rubber bumper or other toy. Slowly encouraging the pup deeper until he/she is swimming.
You should also take time to introduce your dog to a hunting boat, a hunting blind, decoys and live and dead birds as we discussed previously.
Lastly, you can start working on gun introduction at this time. Gun introduction MUST be done slowly and correctly. The last thing you want is a gun-shy dog. For more information on how to properly introduce your dog to gunfire, check out this post.
Retrieving with a 5–6-month-old dog
If you started retrieving with your dog when he/she was 2-4 months old, you should be ready to move retrieving outside and gradually increase the distance. If your dog is not firm on the HERE command, make sure you do all retrieving with a long check cord. We do not want the pup to get away with not returning to us with the bumper. That is a bad habit that we do not want to start. With a long check cord, you can gently direct the pup back to your side.
Do not get carried away throwing retrieves with your young dog. Too many people love to play fetch with their dog so much that they throw a bumper dozens of times – resulting in the dog getting bored with the game. This can cause other issues can pop up. Limit the amount of retrieves you do each session to three or four and work instead for quality – a good retrieve and a good delivery.
Hunting dog training age 7-11 months
By the time your pup is 7-months old, he/she should have adult teeth. This is where the real hunting training begins. This is also the age, if you are considering having a professional train your dog that you would want to make that decision.
If you plan to train him/her yourself, we suggest you find a solid retriever training program and adhere to that closely.
What age to send my dog to a professional trainer?
If you are considering sending your dog to a professional trainer for retriever training, generally trainers accept the dog any time after the adult teeth have come in. Formal training ideally should begin around the 6–7-month age, but, generally, any time under 2 years is considered acceptable.
Preparing your dog for hunting
Up until now, the training has been generic – the training focused on making your pup a good citizen and family dog. But at this age it is time to dig into preparing your dog for his future hunting career. It is also at this age that many retriever owners get anxious, or impatient, and decide they can jump right into actual hunting. This is a rookie mistake and many potentially great hunting dogs have been ruined by their owner’s lack of self-control.
Training beyond obedience will depend largely on what you plan to use your dog for. If your retriever will be a gun dog or a hunting partner, the training you provide during this period of your dog’s life is crucial to his future hunting career.
Moving to e-collar pressure
Hopefully, you have been doing the obedience work previously recommended. If you have, your dog should be obedient on-lead and now its time to start working with an electronic collar. You may have decided not to use an electronic collar, that’s fine, but you may reach a point where your dog is failing to progress with obedience off-lead and at that time you may find yourself needing to reconsider your decision.
If you are using an electronic collar, make sure you take time to properly collar condition your dog. Not sure how to do this? We have an e-book coming out on this soon. For now you can get some information here.
Finish up hunting equipment introductions
If you have not completed the introductions suggested in the 5–6-month-old training, now is the time to work on that. Remember, you want your dog exposed to as much hunting equipment and scenarios as possible before you begin to hunt with him/her. Give him the exposure he/she needs so that progress can be made when you add hunting situations.
Gunshot exposure should be ongoing during these months, but make sure that you are doing this correctly. This is one area that can quickly spell disaster if it is done incorrectly. Learn how to do it correctly here.
Do I have to force fetch my retriever?
I am constantly getting emails from people who have dogs that recently stopped retrieving. They wonder what they can do to fix this problem, and I will admit it frustrates me. I know that if they were following a proven, reliable training plan for their dog, the dog would never have gotten to this point.
Force fetch is a controversial topic, but as a retriever trainer for over 30 years I can attest to the importance of the process. The force fetch process gives you, the dog’s owner, the ability to enforce a FETCH command, something you cannot do without going through the process. Learn more about force fetch in this post.
Lastly, force fetch will clean up mouth and delivery problems you might be having with your dog. If your dog is dropping the bumper and not delivering it to hand, force fetch will fix that problem.
Retrieving with a 7–11-month-old dog
Around age 7-11 months, your retriever should be retrieving consistently and bringing the bumper back to you. Now is the time to really put some energy and focus into setting up marking scenarios for your hunting dog.
This means that you will need to enlist some help, either other people who can throw birds/bumpers for you or a mechanical device. There are limits to how far you can throw a bumper and it is rare that a bird would approach you from your back and fly directly in front of you. By using another thrower, you can set up marking scenarios that more closely represent what your dog might see while hunting. Vary the distance and direction of the marks, and preferably take time to learn about marking drills and how they can help your retriever.
Now is also the time to set up simulated hunting scenarios. Think about how you hunt, and then do marks with your dog that mimic that. If you hunt from a boat, incorporate that. Or if you hunt from a blind, or sitting on a bucket, add those elements to your training. Try to make the scenarios as close to reality as you can.
Specific training for bird dogs
During age 7-11 months is also the time to start working on field and hunting blind manners.
If you are strictly an upland hunter, this may mean working hard on control and keeping the dog quartering close to you while walking through a field. It may also include enforcing a HERE command under exciting and difficult conditions so that your dog does not keep chasing after a bird that you missed shooting.
For waterfowl and duck dogs, blind manners could include working on noise issues so that you can hunt without your dog whining or barking. It can also mean just getting your dog to sit still for long periods of time in the boat or blind. It will all depend on how and what you hunt as well as your dog’s personality.
When can I take my dog to the field?
At this age, I understand if you are anxious to get your dog out in the field or blind hunting. And if you have been following these guidelines, you are getting close.
Hunting dog training age 12-18 months
Up until this point we have been working on a type of “classroom training” for your retriever puppy. Now he/she is ready for on-the-job-training!
You will notice I call it on-the-job-training and not hunting. The reason is that while your dog is now at the point where he/she is likely ready for hunting exposure, your retriever is not “experienced” at hunting.
Tips for that first hunt
No matter how many simulated hunts you do, simulated hunts cannot exactly duplicate the experience of actual hunting. So, you need to make sure that your first hunts will produce quick success for your dog. If you do this, you will be on the right road to helping your dog develop into a super hunting machine.
Reasons to skip that first season
While I understand being anxious to get your pup hunting, I cannot overstate the importance of waiting until your dogs training is at the point that your first hunt will likely be successful. If your dog is not ready, if you have skipped some training steps and are seeing issues like startling at gunshot, or not picking up or delivering birds, your dog is not ready to hunt and you would be wise to back up and hold off until your dog is ready.
Here are a couple other reasons to skip that first season if your dog is not ready.
Setting bad habits
By putting your dog in a position of hunting him/her when they are not ready, you are going to be allowing your dog to establish bad habits. Bad habits are often extremely hard to break if they have been allowed to go on for any time. You very well may have to go back to earlier training to fix issues that arose due to hunting a dog that was not ready.
Risking bad experiences
This one is even more important. You cannot always control the experiences your dog runs into while hunting. What if your inexperienced dog gets bitten by a goose? Or, severely startled by several guns going off all at once? These are only a couple examples of bad experiences that can ruin or severely delay your dogs hunting education.
If your dog is not quite ready, you are better to wait. Keep training, keep socializing, keep exposing your dog to new situations, but make sure that the first hunts you go on are controlled and produce easy success and learning for your dog.
What if I am not starting with a puppy?
Older dogs can be taught hunting too. But the key is to start training an older dog as if they are a 7-8-week-old puppy. Don’t assume they know something or quickly breeze over something because you want to get to the fun part of training. Skipping steps is how you get a dog that is afraid of gunshots or even birds. And those are very difficult problems to address without the help of a professional.
Final thoughts on what age to start training a puppy to hunt
Every day your retriever is learning. He/she is either learning to be a great family dog and dependable hunting companion or learning how to get away with things and drive you crazy. Retrievers are smart, resourceful dogs. They bring such joy to our lives. But they are like children, they need direction, rules and boundaries.
Take time to train your retriever. Don’t rush the process and don’t let your excitement cause you to put your dog in a position that he/she is not prepared for. Follow a complete training program and you will greatly increase your odds of success.
If you are looking for a professional retriever trainer with proven hunting and hunt test programs, check out our training programs or give us a call 651-303-6459. We also do one-on-one training to guide owners who want to do the training themselves.
Until next time, happy retrieving.