Socialization, exposure, and training
The first few months of a puppy’s life are so important. The training and socialization you do, or don’t do, during this time can quickly make or break the future hunting potential of your dog. And yet, many new owners get so caught up in the cuteness of these bundles of fur that they disregard any training until the dog is much older.
Sometimes new owners are just overwhelmed with taking care of their new puppy. Others lack the information needed to make good decisions regarding training for their new family member.
Unfortunately, though, some bad behaviors or missed socialization and exposure opportunities are difficult to address with an older dog. So, if your goal is for you new retriever to eventually grow into an excellent duck dog, here is a guide to raising your Lab puppy to be a duck or gun dog.
Picking up the puppy
The journey with your new retriever pup starts the day you pick him or her up from the breeder. Hopefully you have done your homework and selected a litter of puppies with parents who have proven trainability.
If you have a pick from the litter, you will want to take some time to observe the puppies. Even so, most trainers will tell you that picking a puppy is a complete crapshoot, meaning there really is no way to know how good the dog will be while looking at them as a puppy. You can look for the pup’s personality, but even that is likely to change as they age. Genetics and a proven pedigree are the best way to stack the odds in your favor from the start.
Beyond that, if you have a good breeder, they are the next best source for information regarding the pups. A good breeder will give you a recommendation based on what you plan to use the pup for and your family situation.
Check out this post on searching for a great retriever puppy and what to look for in breeders.
If possible, bring someone with you to pick up the puppy. While you can put a puppy in a crate to transport them home, leaving the litter is a traumatic time for most puppies. Being held on the way home is a good way to start bonding with the puppy.
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The first week raising your Labrador Retriever puppy
There is very little training needed the first week you have your puppy home. Use this time to hold, pet and play with your new puppy. Bonding with the puppy is important and this is a good time to do that. You will likely be exhausted this week from getting up multiple times each night to let your puppy outside.
Learn more in What should I do the first week with my new Lab puppy?
Socialization is key for retriever gun dog puppies
While socialization is important for all dogs, it is essential for retriever puppies destined to hunt. Socialization is the act of putting your retriever puppy in new situations and allowing the puppy to figure it out.
Your puppy may handle new situations well, or she might show timid or frightened behaviors. This is not the time to coddle your future gun dog. Let your puppy explore and learn, don’t make a big deal when or if the puppy gets frightened.
Dogs are very aware of their owners and if you act or acknowledge your puppies fear, they will likely think you are scared too. This is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with socialization. We want puppies to learn to adjust quickly to new situations. We want them to learn how to figure out new conditions and handle them without fear or hesitation.
Puppies need to be socialized to people also. Let your puppy interact with people of all ages, including children. In addition, it can be helpful if they are also socialized to other dogs and cats.
Create a love for retrieving
Yes, retriever’s DNA generally means they have a built-in love to retrieve. And yet we see too many retrievers with little to no retrieving desire. Sometimes this is just the result of bad breeding, but it can also be the result of poor introduction to retrieving or using the wrong items for retrieving.
Many people like to play fetch with their puppy using a ball or Frisbee. If your puppy is going to be a family dog, and you don’t care if he/she hunts, this is fine.
But if your puppy is destined to be a hunting partner, this is going to make some retrieving problems down the line.
We may use a ball to encourage a very young (8-9 week old) puppy to retrieve, IF, and only IF, the puppy is struggling with retrieving desire. Otherwise, we strongly discourage ongoing use of these items.
Gun dogs and duck dogs are working dogs and they need to retrieve birds that fall to the ground. The rolling action of the ball or frisbee will create an excitement and energy that will make retrieving birds seem boring. Birds generally don’t roll when they hit the ground. We have found that dogs that have only retrieved balls or Frisbee often struggle when they need to retrieve a bumper or bird.
We have an entire post on this subject, see How can I teach my retriever puppy to fetch?
Expose your Labrador puppy to common hunting elements
A retriever that is going to be expected to hunt, should be introduced to hunting equipment and elements at an early age. Some of the things that he/she should be introduced to include:
Hunting requires dogs to quickly adjust to different land and water situations. Things that we, as people, don’t give a second thought, can confuse a dog. Hills and mounds, flat areas and shallow divots are terrain that a hunting retriever should learn to traverse with ease.
In addition to land, different water is also an important factor. Lakes are good, but you should also try to expose your puppy to dirty water. Water with lily pads, cat tails and algae are all things a duck dog will need to handle to work.
Labrador retriever puppies need to learn all about the equipment you use when hunting. Doing this when they are young and continuing the exposure as they grow, will make this second nature to them.
Boats and blinds
If you hunt out of a boat or blind, introduce your puppy to it. For boats, start on land. Get your puppy comfortable getting in and out of the boat. Throw retrieves from the boat. Similarly, introduce your dog to the blind as a good thing. If you are using a dog blind or hut, make sure your spend lots of time getting your pup comfortable going into and out of it. Make it a fun place to go to get retrieves.
Duck or goose decoys
If you will use decoys when hunting, take time to expose your puppy to them. Many times over the next few months, put some out on your lawn and let your puppy learn what they are. Eventually, move them to water and again allow your pup to explore them. Throw retrieves through them and teach the dog that he can ignore the decoys.
This is one of the most important things that you need to exposure your new puppy to. And it really needs to be done right. The last thing you want to do is create a gun-shy dog. That is very difficult to fix and the dog may never be able to hunt if the damage is too deep.
Learn more about how to do this correctly in Introduction to gunfire.
Basic obedience for your gun dog puppy
Your puppy is ready to learn obedience early on, and you will find that if you start when they are only a couple months old, they will learn quicker and be more obedient as they age. Commands like SIT and HERE are the first ones you should teach.
Teach SIT by simply saying SIT and pushing down on your puppy’s bottom. Don’t expect them to stay sitting very long at first, but with lots of repetition you will be able to increase the SIT time. This will make a huge difference as they get older.
Teaching HERE to young pups will require a long lead. Squat down a few feet from your puppy and say HERE as you gently pull them to you.
Praise is essential with young pups, but the praise should be given when the puppy does something right. For instance, you say SIT and push his bottom down. Then praise him saying GOOD DOG, SIT. If you have to say SIT five times before your dog SITS, you should not be praising your dog or your dog will learn that he/she doesn’t have to SIT until the fifth command.
You can use treats to teach your puppy obedience and reward him or her for obeying commands. But treats should only be used for very young puppies (under 4 months). Many Labs will soon learn to only obey when given a treat, that is not the lesson you want your dog to learn.
Read more about praise in How to train a Labrador Retriever – Tip #8
Teaching your retriever puppy manners
Don’t let cuteness overload be the reason your new puppy turns into a terror. It can be difficult to discipline a cute little puppy, but it is essential. Here at Otter Tail Kennels, we get more than our share of calls from people whose puppies are out of control and causing problems in the home. The pups are causing friction in the family relationships. It’s so sad, because very often the problems started when the dog was just a young puppy, but the owners didn’t want to punish or discipline the pup.
Small issues often become much larger issues if they remain uncorrected. If you see your puppy doing something wrong, you need to take action to let him know that the behavior is not acceptable.
Final thoughts on raising a lab puppy to be a duck or gun dog
The time to start training your Labrador puppy to be a duck or gun dog is now. Right away. Even if you plan to send your retriever puppy to a professional trainer in the future, you still want to take the time to socialize, expose, teach and discipline your dog now. We have trained some retrievers that the owners have willingly admitted they ‘didn’t do anything with the dog because they feared ruining him.’ The sad truth is that by not doing anything with the puppy, they severely handicapped their hunting dog from becoming all that he could be.
Each week your puppy is growing and learning, and those first five months are the perfect time to get him or her off on the right foot. The socialization, exposure, and obedience are all steppingstones they need to advance in their role as a hunting partner. Do not skimp or disregard this time. You can give your ultimate duck dog some essential skills – the ability to adjust to every and all situations with ease. Nothing could be more important.
If you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I am here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.