Gun Dog Training Basics

By Jim Low | May 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2001

Amid waves gilded with autumn sunlight, a sleek, golden dog swims purposefully through a flock of bobbing decoys. Gathering a mallard drake's disarrayed wings into a neat, mouth-sized bundle, she turns and makes for her owner, who waits among flooded corn stalks 40 yards distant. She delivers her parcel to hand, accepts a congratulatory pat and then turns her face skyward to watch for the next flight of birds.

Watching a good dog in action, it's easy to believe you lack the skill needed to train one of your own. It isn't true. I trained my golden retriever, Guiness, based on what I learned from a couple of books. She wouldn't win any field trials, but I don't want a field-trial dog. I want a well-behaved hunting companion who shares my zeal for the hunt and fetches the birds I shoot. She fills that role admirably.

Gun dogs are born with 90 percent of what they need to be good hunters. Their most impressive skills, finding game and bringing it back to their masters, are purely instinctive. All a trainer has to do is build a foundation of discipline needed to work with people.

The basics of dog training are the same whether you hunt waterfowl, quail, pheasant, grouse, doves or nothing at all. To be fit for human company, all dogs must sit, stay, come and heel on command.

Start training your pup when he's seven- to 12-weeks old. Don't use any discipline or punishment until he's three months old. Learning has to be fun.

Training sessions should be short and frequent. Two or three a week are enough, but four or five are better. You may be able to train effectively for as long as 15 minutes per session. Stop at the first sign of boredom.

Always finish with a few minutes of play. If you lock your dog in his kennel immediately after training, he'll feel like he's being punished.

Basic Commands

Snap a leash on your dog's collar. When he's standing calmly by your side, gently pull up on the leash. Eventually, the pressure will cause him to sit. When he does, and only when he does, instantly give the command, "SIT." After a few repetitions, he will associate the command with the action, and he will sit on command.

With this and every other skill he learns, praise your dog and stroke the tops of his shoulders each time he does what you want. Don't overdo the praise. Like any commodity, the more he gets, the less it's worth. Stroking on top of the shoulders is important because it reinforces your dominance.

With your dog sitting by your side, hold the palm of your hand in front of his face and command, "STAY." Drop the leash and step in front of him, but keep your palm in front of his face. If he moves, patiently return him to where he was and make him sit again. When he finally stays put, praise and stroke him.

Repeat the procedure, increasing the distance you step away from him. Make him sit and stay until you come back and praise him. If he breaks and runs to you, withhold praise, take him back to where he should be and make him sit and stay again.

When your pup learns to stay, snap a 20-foot rope to his collar and walk out to the end of the rope. Tug on it, and when he starts toward you, crouch down, clap your hands and command, "COME." Your praise will teach him it's OK to quit "staying" when you call him.

Gradually increase the distance and make sure he comes directly to you when called. Keep a few food treats in your pocket and give him one every third or fourth time he comes straight to you. If he gets sidetracked, take him by the collar and return him to his original position.

Now is the time to start building staunchness, the ability to stand fast in spite of temptations. Command him to stay, and walk away 50 feet. Call his name as if you are about to tell him to come. If he breaks and runs to you, withhold praise, and return him to where he was sitting.

When he finally stays upon hearing his name, walk back to stroke and praise him. Immediately make him sit again. Walk 50 feet away and call his name, followed by "COME" and the crouched hand clapping. Praise and stroke him when he comes.

Don't let walks degenerate into tugging matches. You'll lose, and your dog will learn that straining at the end of a leash is OK.

Hook a six-foot leash to a chain slip collar so the collar constricts when the leash pulls tight. When your pooch walks at your side, quietly repeat "HEEL" in a firm voice. When he gets ahead of you, give him all the slack that remains in the leash, then turn and walk the opposite direction. This will give him an unpleasant jerk and force him to adjust to your new course. Repeat " HEEL" when he's at your side again. After a few repetitions, he will be heeling like a champ. The trick is to never say "HEEL" when he isn't heeling.

The Release Command:

To complete your repertoire of commands you need a release command, a word or phrase that tells your pup, "You're off duty." For this, I use, "OK."

To get this idea across to Guiness, I made her sit and stay, and then put a tidbit of her favorite food treat, boiled deer liver, on the ground in front of her. After she had waited a few seconds, I put the morsel in her mouth and in an upbeat tone said, "OK." I repeated this procedure, making her wait longer each time. After I established a connection between saying "OK" and her getting the treat, I left the liver on the ground and gave the release command. She snapped it right up.

I didn't have to teach her what "OK" meant when she was heeling. I gave the release command and she was off like a shot. She knew "OK" meant she was free to do what she wanted.

To teach Guiness to stand completely still, I have trained her to balance a liver treat on her nose until I release her. If she moves her head and the treat falls off, she doesn't get to eat it. The ability to sit perfectly still is very useful when a wary flock of mallards is circling low overhead. It's a neat parlor trick, too.


Your dog should bring retrieving dummies all the way to you. If he tends to drop dummies early, back away from him as he approaches so he has to follow you.

Never chase or wrestle with your dog to get a dummy. Instead, grab his collar and praise him a little, and then take the dummy, commanding "GIVE." If he resists, reach under his muzzle with one hand and put thumb and forefinger in the corners of his mouth, forcing it open. Be sure to deliver the command, "GIVE," just as he releases the dummy, not before.

A dog that gets used to retrieving every dummy you throw will have a hard time staying put when you shoot a bird but must delay the retrieve. To teach him to wait, walk out and pick up at least half the dummies you throw as he sits and watches.

Be Commanding!

All the commands mentioned here are short and distinctive. You can substitute other words, but make sure they are brief and don't sound alike so they don't confuse your dog.

Preface each command with your dog's name. Hearing his name gets his attention for the command that follows. After a while, he will come to expect a command whenever he hears his name, and he will automatically prepare to obey.

Dogs learn quicker when verbal commands are paired with visual cues. For "STAY," I hold out my hand like a traffic cop. For "SIT," I use a downward sweep of my hand. For "COME ," I crouch and clap my hands, and for "OK," I swing my arm as if pitching a softball.

Always deliver commands authoritatively, but don't shout or repeat commands. Unless he's far away and making lots of noise, your dog will hear you. If he doesn't respond, it's because he's overexcited or doesn't want to obey.

Shouting will only excite him more, and repeating commands teaches him that he can ignore you. Make him obey the first time you give a command. Swatting causes more confusion than correction. He'll learn much quicker if you use corrections that are based on instinctive canine behavior.

The top dog in a pack settles most challenges to his authority with an aggressive stare. He also projects dominance by standing tall and raising the fur on his back to look bigger. When your dog willfully disobeys, stare into his eyes, stand erect, square your shoulders and loom over him. When he drops his ears in submission, make him obey the original command.

If you need to make a point forcefully, do what the alpha dog does when a subordinate does something that really ticks him off. Grab him by the scruff of the neck and give him a good shake, enough to raise his front feet off the ground. Save this for serious infractions.

Most trainers use whistles because they are easier for dogs to hear at a distance. Also, whistles don't get hoarse, and they don't say things that offend genteel sensibilities.

The key to successful whistle use is settling on a distinctive signal for each command. Guiness knows that a single short tweet means, "Sit down and look at me." Two quick tweets mean, "OK, you can go back to what you were doing." A rolling series of double tweets "tweet-tweet, tweet tweet, tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet" means "Come."

Establishing these signals was easy. I just laid them on top of existing skills. To transfer the verbal command "SIT," I blew a short blast immediately after the verbal command each time I gave it. She was sitting on the whistle command alone within five minutes.

Expect your budding genius to forget everything he has learned the first time you take him on a real hunt. Don't get angry. He's just overwhelmed by the excitement of new sights, sounds and smells.

You can minimize this problem by introducing your pup to novelty at an early age. Take him to different places for training. Let him interact with other people and dogs. Take him to a lake with a flock of resident geese. In each new setting, spend some time making him sit and stay so he understands that discipline is necessary, even in the most exciting situations.

The material covered here just scratches the surface. Two superb dog training books contain a wealth of more detailed information about training gun dogs. "Gun Dog," a classic by Richard A. Wolters, covers advanced skills training for pointers and other upland dogs. "Retriever Training," by Robert Milner, masterfully explains dog behavior and detailed procedures for training dogs to hunt waterfowl.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer