Labrador retrievers were originally bred to hunt and retrieve dead or injured birds in water, and most dogs take to the activity easily and happily. While some hunting skills and behaviors are instinctual, most come from months or years of training and practice. Proper training will ensure that your Labrador grows into a successful hunter and a loyal friend. It will also reduce your dog's risk of injury during hunts.
Choosing a Puppy
Select a Labrador retriever puppy based on the puppy's background and overall health. Puppies from a line of active hunters are likely to be easier to train for the work than those who come from a line of household pets. Speak with the breeder, verify credentials and documentation, and ask for details about hunting traits and known genetic health problems in your prospective new retriever's family lines. Serious breeders will be pleased to discuss the reasons for selecting the parents of this litter and what kind of performance they expect of the puppies.
Begin basic training early in your young Labrador retriever's life. From an early age, take your puppy places, and teach and reinforce basic commands such as "Sit," "Stay," and "Come." These commands will provide the necessary foundation for later hunt training.
Once general obedience training is complete, encourage your dog to become comfortable in and around water by providing plenty of opportunities for water play. Set up a child's wading pool in your yard, or take your dog to the beach. Also, take your dog along to target practice so that your Labrador retriever becomes familiar with the sound of gunfire. Use previously taught obedience commands to keep your dog under control during practice.
Training Your Dog to Hunt
Teach your dog to retrieve upon hearing a specific word, such as a name or other command. Be consistent in this training. Emphasize that retrieval is only allowed when the send command is given. If your dog's name begins with the letter S, consider using a different word as the retrieve command. If your dog is tensely waiting for the word to retrieve, the "S" sound of a reinforcing obedience command such as "Sit" or "Stay" may be confused with the name.
Use scented dummies during training hunts to assist your dog in finding and retrieving the dummy fowls. Scents are available for external application or for injection into the dummies. Place decoys far from your dog, and reward your dog for ignoring the decoys and homing in on the dummies. This trains your Labrador retriever to ignore other animals and birds in the environment and to focus on the prize during an actual hunt.
Once your dog is efficient at retrieving dummy birds on land, move on to water training. Scent a new dummy or training device, throw it into the water, and command your dog to seek it out and retrieve it. Practice as often as needed, and reinforce good behavior and successes. Consider taking your dog on a simulated hunt to uncover any weak areas before an actual hunt.
References & Resources
Pro Retriever Training: Labrador Retriever Training Tips
Ducks Unlimited: Five Key Points for Training Your Retriever
American Kennel Club: Labrador Retriever