Various hunting dog breeds exist with unique abilities in flushing prey, scent tracking, and retrieving. Before training begins, select a breed that is fit for your style of hunting. A good hunting dog will have inherited a good nose and instincts from his parents, but you have to be the one to control him, to tell him where and when to hunt. Training hunting dogs begins at a very young age with conditioning and basic obedience, and continues in the field with command testing and reinforcement. A good hunting dog never has poor fundamentals, so make sure to hammer down his obedience and tap into his natural instincts while your hunting dog is still young.
What may surprise many dog owners who are hoping to train their dogs for specialized work is that training begins immediately when the dog is brought home. With hunting dogs, training a puppy straight from the beginning is much easier than trying to train a three year old dog with established habits and behavior. Your first goal is to teach the dog his name; after name recognition is seen, you may move on to sit, stay, and come. Because sometimes in the field your dog may be unable to hear your commands (like when he is in the water swimming toward a catch), teach your dog to associate the commands of sit, stay, and come with a whistle. To do this, add the whistle once your dog has an idea of what your verbal commands mean. Say sit, and blow the whistle once. For stay, or stop moving, blow the whistle twice. For come, blow the whistle repeatedly in short bursts.
As a pup, get your dog excited about the game of fetch. In the field, you will want a dog that is excited to chase after a bird that you have just shot, so do everything in your power to make fetching fun. Use a dummy, and twirl it around your head, acting excited. Once your pup shows interest, toss it for him. If he brings it right back to you, praise him and immediately throw it again. If he holds it in his mouth with a ‘come and get it’ look, run away from him while calling his name. A puppy will automatically follow you. Once he is close, turn around, grab the dummy from his mouth, and throw it again. It is very important for the dog to learn to bring the dummy back to your hands. In the field, a dog that is well trained at this will bring a bird back to the handler without hesitation. A dog that is untrained may have to be put on a check line so that he does not scamper off with the prey. Play fetch often.
Because it is very important for your dog to learn to carry birds in his mouth, never scold him for chewing or carrying anything, even if it is something valuable that he should not have. If he is chewing your table legs, spray bitter apple on them, or dust with chili powder. Replace a shoe in his mouth with a toy, and praise the pup while he carries the toy. When you play fetch, make sure that your dog does not become accustomed to dropping the dummy from his mouth if distracted or bored. If he drops it, put it back in his mouth and say ‘hold,’ touching his jaw to show what you mean. Later on during training if he drops a bird before he has delivered it to you, make sure to correct him by putting the bird back in his mouth and closing his jaw while saying hold.
It is very important that your dog understands what you are asking him to do, so be very clear with instructions. Always use the same tone while giving commands, and keep them short. Once the command is learned, you should stop giving praise; the dog needs to do the work for the sake of working. Hunting dogs must be held to stringent behavior rules because they may actually face danger in the field; if they misunderstand your direction, or fail to listen, it could cost their lives.
Training hunting dogs is a form of art. Time, patience, and consistent training are very important parts of successful training, and the best trainers know that there are no shortcuts to training a good hunting dog. For those of us who get to see a good hunting dog and handler team in action, the teamwork between dog and man is something we will not soon forget. A bond like that can help to explain why dog is, and always will be “man’s best friend.”