What is it about the Labrador Retriever that makes him or her such a good working dog? Plenty of breeds have a strong work ethic, a sturdy body, and a good fetching instinct. So what's so special about the Lab? If your instinct is to attribute the dog's talent to its breeding, you are on the right track. The Labrador Retriever was developed specifically to sniff out game, pick it up in the field, and bring it back safely to its owner. But the Lab is more than just a duck finding machine. An intelligent and trainable dog, he or she has enough energy to keep up with the hunter and truly loves the work.
The Root of the Behavior
The roots of the Labrador lie in Newfoundland, Canada, where breeders created a sturdy working and sporting dog. The demands of the environment also exerted its influence. To keep up with retrieving fallen ducks in the cold and damp of Newfoundland, the dog developed thick, water-resistant fur and strong bones. The Labrador Retriever also has a strong and sturdy musculature, which lets it stand up to long hours of work in the field. Its strength is balanced with a subtle grace, which lets it maneuver its way to capture game that might be difficult to access. Both of these qualities are of utmost importance for hunting dogs, which need to be equal parts agile and tough. The Labrador can spend hours hunting with his or her owner, no matter the weather. In fact, many hunting owners have found that their Labs thrive in conditions that people or other dogs might think of as less than ideal.
And at the end of the day, when another dog might be ready for a nap, a Lab is ready to keep going with a game of fetch in the backyard. Suited mentally as well as physically to the demands of the hunt, the Labrador Retriever also possesses an intelligence and a willing temperament that make it highly trainable. Labs are predisposed to learn new skills and accept directives, and the skills associated with hunting are among its most deep seated. They will chase things and bring them back all day long, especially if the thing you want them to chase is in the water. Although the breed has since spread across the world and taken on numerous new jobs, including hunting as well as serving as a guide for people who are blind, the Labrador Retriever retains his or her ability to work devotedly and reliably at nearly any task.
Encouraging the Behavior
No dog is born as a skilled hunter, but most Labs can get there with consistent training. The best results happen when the dog starts in puppyhood with the crucial command “come here.” Any hunter needs to be sure that his or her dog can reliably come on command, so you as the owner need to be reliable in your cues. Choose one command and use that every time you want to call your dog. As soon as you can, start training your Lab to come on that cue. Offer praise every time he or she responds and never use the cue as a way to get your dog to show up for punishment. You can start adding other commands, such as “sit” and “stay,” while your puppy is still working on “come here.”
Experts recommend about 20 minutes per day, but it will likely take a few weeks before you start to see results. Once you have established basic obedience skills, you can start teaching your Lab to retrieve. This often works best if you start by teaching him or her not to retrieve. Toss a dummy, command your Lab to stay, and then go and get the dummy yourself. This teaches your dog to resist temptation and wait for your call. You can then reinforce this patience by teaching him or her to selectively retrieve. After you send out some ducks, make the dog wait and then send him after the difficult targets. This teaches your dog to look to you for direction.
Other Solutions and Considerations
All dogs are different, and this is even true within a breed. Not all Labrador Retrievers will be good hunting dogs, because all Labs have different levels of steadiness, energy, and reliability. One way to test whether your Lab has potential is to fire a gun in its presence. If this scares your dog, he or she lacks the constitution to be a hunting dog. You may also want to keep looking if your Lab can't sit quietly when asked, because a hunting Lab needs to be able to wait patiently until they hear the command to retrieve. Many of these problems stem from a trend in the hunting world to prioritize training over breeding. However, the more hyperactive or distractible a dog is by nature, the more so his or her puppies will be. If you seek out a dog that is naturally willing and trainable, you will have an easier time preparing him or her for the field.
If finding a hunting dog was like hiring an employee, a Labrador Retriever would be one of your most qualified candidates. Labrador Retrievers excel at the job both mentally and physically, and as an added bonus, they are loving and loyal pets off of the field. With the right training, your Labrador Retriever will work like a dog in the field!