How to Train a Labrador Retriever for Field Trials

Hard
3-6 Months
Work

Introduction

Your Labrador Retriever is a lean, mean, retrieving machine!  He was bred to help his human companions hunt. A Labrador Retriever has the instincts and the skills to follow his nose and retrieve downed game. Many hunters and handlers train their retrievers and then use them not only for hunting, but to compete in what is called a 'field trail'.  These competitions test a retriever's hunting skills. Specifically, they test your dog's ability against other retrievers to bring game back to his handler. Dogs compete against other dogs and are judged based on their ability to wait for game to be harvested, mark where game falls,  follow directions to retrieve downed game they did not see, and retrieve the ducks. Other field trial events measure other hunting abilities that your Labrador may also compete in, depending on the scope of your dogs talents and training. These may include scenting, pointing, and flushing. These trials are designed to simulate a day's hunting in the field and are not only a competition for sporting dogs, but they also set standards for producing the best hunting dogs.

Defining Tasks

Field tests judge your dog's ability against other dogs. Retrieval distances will be greater as handlers and dogs strive to prove who is the best. There are a variety of different field trial events and most events will have between 50 and 100 participants. Handlers and dogs work together in a field trial to exhibit their retriever's patience and ability to follow directions. 

A successful field trial Retriever will know how to wait patiently behind a blind, not causing distractions, and will be attentive to mark the location of fallen birds, or to perform blind retrieves, by following their handlers directions to retrieve the game bird. Retrieval abilities are tested in a variety of terrain and a winning field trial dog will bring a game bird immediately back to his handler.  Dogs are marked down if they are slow, hesitant, noisy, inattentive, or fail to follow direction. Training of dogs for hunting and field trials should begin at a very young age, with basic skills that can be developed so that he makes an able hunting companion and a fierce competitor when he matures.

Getting Started

Before training or competing in field trials, your dog should be well socialized and used to the sound and smell of gun fire.  Your dog will also need to be in good physical condition, able to cover rough terrain, and be a proficient swimmer. While training retrieval skills, you may employ toys such as tennis balls and  then graduate to bumpers which are training dummies that resemble ducks in weight, size, and shape. You will need an outdoor environment that resembles a hunting environment. Equipment like a check rope may also be employed to teach your dog to steady before being released to retrieve.

The General Skills Method

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Step
1
Accustom to gunfire
Teach your dog to be accustomed to gunfire. Start with a loud noise like clapping, then making loud banging sounds with metal or a noise maker. Start from far away, move closer as your dog becomes acclimatized, and reinforce noises with treats and praise. Do not push a nervous dog. Be patient and let him become accustomed to the noise.
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2
Expose to new situations
Socialize your Labrador with other dogs, take him out on new experiences, and get him used to lots of new sights and sounds so he is well adjusted and learns to take new experiences in stride. He will be exposed to lots of new and unexpected things at a field trial.
Step
3
Teach to swim
Make sure your dog is a good swimmer and can work in water. Take your dog to ponds and lakes, or start with a swimming pool. Go with your dog into the water, or play fetch, throwing retrieval items into the water. Start shallow and gradually work deeper until your dog is swimming.
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4
Teach commands
Teach obedience commands such as 'sit', 'down', 'stay', and 'come'. Your dog will need these commands at busy field trials and as a precursor to teaching directed hunting skills.
Step
5
Accustom to outdoors
Practice all 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. Do not punish your Labrador when mistakes are made. Start over and reward successful hunting behaviours and following directions.
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The Marked Retrieve Method

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Teach him to look for fetch items
Let your Labrador retriever roam loose in a large enclosed area. Blow a whistle and then toss a tennis ball out a few feet for your dog to retrieve. Repeat. This teaches your dog to look for a retrieval items when he hears the whistle.
Step
2
Work on release
Call your dog back to you when he has the tennis ball and have another identical tennis ball ready, so that your dog brings you the ball and releases it in anticipation of having another ball thrown. Reward your Labrador for releasing the fetch object. Gradually delay throwing the next ball so that your dog learns to release fetched objects.
Step
3
Teach him to wait
Attach a long leash or check rope to your retriever. Ask your dog to 'sit/stay' or 'down/stay' while you toss a tennis ball in a straight line. Restrain your dog with the lead, and wait for a few seconds. Blow a whistle, give a verbal command or a hand signal to your dog, pointing toward the tennis ball, and then release him to retrieve. This teaches your dog to 'steady'.
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4
Practice steadying
Repeat steadying before fetching or retrieving, gradually increasing the length of time your dog has to wait before being released to fetch the ball. Only allow him to fetch when signalled to do so.
Step
5
Introduce field conditions
Gradually replace tennis balls with bumpers and practice over rough terrain, in water, and around distractions like other people, dogs, and noise.
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The Follow Direction Method

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Straight line
Plant bumpers along a fence-line, give the command to retrieve, and a hand signal indicating the direction your dog should go toward the retrieve location to encourage a straight run. At first, allow your dog to see where bumpers are placed. Later, you will practice without your dog seeing the planted bumper locations.
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2
Direct distance
As your dog is moving down the fence-line, provide verbal encouragement like 'further back' or 'go on' to indicate to your dog to continue or stop. When your dog reaches the target, blow a whistle to mark the location.
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3
Plant to the side
Start planting bumpers in an open area to the left or right while walking with your retriever on a leash so he sees where you are planting them. Retreat several yards with your dog and set him up.
Step
4
Direct to side
Have an assistant walk with your dog on a lead while you give the retrieve command and a verbal command 'over there' while pointing in the direction of the planted bumper with your hand. Have the assistant take your dog in the direction indicated to retrieve the bumper. Practice this to make sure your dog sees your hand signal and comes to associate you pointing with the direction of the planted bumper.
Step
5
Practice in the field
Place bumpers in an open area and hide them from plain view. Plant them straight in front, to the right, or to the left, and at varying distances without your dog seeing where you plant them. Release your Lab and give him hand directions and verbal directions to go further or look close. Blow a whistle when he gets close to the plated bumper to assist your dog.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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