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The Labrador Retriever, although most commonly a pet and family companion, also makes an excellent service and sniffer dog for law enforcement. However, they are actually a sport dog, used to scent, locate, flush, and retrieve game. Strangely enough, this American favorite actually originated in Canada, used by fisherman to haul nets, fetch ropes, and retrive fish that got out of nets. This very adaptable, intelligent, people-oriented dog was put to use as a sport dog and quickly became an invaluable hunting companion.
While they have plenty of natural ability, Labrador Retrievers do need to be trained to do field work and to be successful hunting companions. Field training allows handlers to harness those natural abilities by assigning commands, direction, and giving the dog experience following commands. After all, in the field there are plenty of distractions, other dogs, prey, gunfire, and other scents. Your Labrador has to to be trained to work in a hunting environment and respond to commands to trail, freeze when game is located, flush game when required, and retrieve game to his handler without become startled, confused, or distracted.
Labrador Retrievers are used both for hunting waterfowl and upland birds. When hunting waterfowl, Retrievers need to sit quietly behind blinds while hunters take a shot at birds that are lured into range. Labradors are then given directional commands to retrieve waterfowl in difficult terrain and return the downed birds to their handlers.
Upland birds are found in wooded areas and sometimes dense brush. A Lab is used to locate scent trails on the ground or in the air and guide handlers to the birds. When the bird is located, your lab must either freeze, so as not to startle the bird, or flush it so it comes into the open. Your Labrador is then required to retrieve the fallen bird and return to his handler. This means a lot of complex behavior your dog needs to learn. There is rough terrain to negotiate and, in the case of a Labrador, often water as well. Your Labrador needs to learn to listen to his handler and perform his duties taking everything in stride. No easy feat!
Most Labradors love to work and hunt. The praise and joy of being outdoors and hunting is reinforcement for much of the work your dog will be doing, however, treats and better yet, toys, are also great ways to reinforce your Labrador's behavior. These motivators will make sure he knows he is on the right track. A Labrador should be worked and trained on good recall and retrieving in a safe environment first, so there is little chance of him taking off in the wilderness. Some trainers use tracing collars as well, to ensure their dogs do not get lost. With these tools and skills on hand and prepared, you can begin your training.
The Field Hunting Method
Teach your Labrador good obedience skills, retrieving skills, and directional commands. He will also need good off-leash recall in a safe environment like your yard. Make sure he responds well before venturing out into the field.
Take your Labrador out into different situations, such as out in the field, and practice responses to commands where distractions are present. Start with minimal distractions and then up the difficulty as he progresses.
Exercise and take your Labrador in wilderness areas. You'll want to especially take him to environments with heavy brush, water, and difficult terrain. Make sure your dog has experience swimming and is in good physical condition overall.
Meet other dogs
Socialize your Labrador with other dogs so that when he is hunting with other handlers and dogs in the future, he is familiar with how to interact and work in a pack. Start socialization as early as possible to solidify good manners around other dogs and people.
Expose to sights and sounds
Make sure your dog is used to gunfire, ATVs, and hunting equipment, such as GPS collars. This will keep your dog from being distracted or frightened during actual hunting and familiarize him with the appropriate surroundings.
The Scent and Game Trails Method
Create simple scent trails
Create a scent trail with treats in a straight line for your dog to seek out and follow. Keep initial trails simple so your Labrador can find the end of it more easily. You can do this with different kinds of treats to keep it interesting.
Encourage your Labrador to find the scent trail and follow it to its conclusion. Reinforce with treats or play. Make the game fun, as hunting should be exciting for your dog.
Make difficult scent trails
Make scent trails more complex by pairing them with animal, or bird scent. Add distractions, hide the scent better, interrupt the trail, and practice in different terrain. Remove the food scent and get your dog used to just following prey scent.
Introduce tame game animals
Introduce live game animals, such as pheasants, or rabbits, in a cage and get your dog excited about the animal. Remember to maintain control of your dog at all times to ensure the safety of the prey animals if you are not actively hunting them.
Start finding game
Start allowing your Labrador to locate scent trails of game animals in the wild. You can create trails at first and let your dog find game at the end of the trail. Gradually start letting your dog find actual prey scent trails on his own and reward him for locating prey.
The Field Skills Method
Use a check rope, a long lead rigged to drag behind your Labrador, that you can grab to stop your dog when game is located. When your dog locates game, say 'Whoa' and grab the end of the rope to stop your dog from rushing game, allowing hunters to set up for a shot.
Teach retrieval skills
Teach your dog to fetch with a tennis ball. Use a second ball to ensure that he learns to release the ball, then switch to dummies or bumpers and pair retrieve commands along with it.
Teach blind betrieve directions
Teach your Labrador to blind retrieve by following directions to retrieve a planted dummy in a straight line, to the right, or to the left. Use hand directions and verbal commands in tandem to get your Labrador adjusted to each one.
Teach retrieval distance commands
Provide your dog with verbal and hand signals to guide your Labrador to go on further or to stop and look close for prey that needs to be retrieved. Make sure to remain consistent in your commands.
Practice in field
Practice all of these field skills out in wilderness areas with other dogs, hunters, and distractions. Make sure your dog gets lots of practice and experience. Be patient and do not punish your Labrador when mistakes are made. Start over, rewarding successful hunting behaviours and following directions.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 05/31/2018, edited: 01/08/2021