From new puppies to the old guard Labrador, these five commands create the essential foundation of any good hunting retriever. Regardless of age, they build good habits, set the standard for learning, and most importantly, help you focus more on the hunt and less on bad behavior.
Barton Ramsey, the founder of Southern Oak Kennels, works with dogs of all ages and always starts with “sit down.”
“’Sit’ is essentially the foundation of all dog training,” Ramsey said. “It’s positional, so it’s a great starting point for teaching puppies how to learn. It is the cornerstone on which the entire building is built.”
Josh Parvin of Cornerstone Gundog Academy shares Ramsey’s belief that “sitting down” is a foundation. “Train to the point where you give ‘sit’ one time,” Parvin said. “Having a dog that sits on command and doesn’t move until told otherwise is invaluable and gives you the peace of mind that your dog is under control.”
Making sure your dog has a solid understanding of a basic command like “sit” is critical when introducing more essential and advanced commands like “place.”
If “sit” is the cornerstone of learning, then “lay” is the cornerstone of making a well-rounded, pleasing dog. MeatEater contributor Tony Peterson and fan of bird-dogs explained why it’s at the top of his list.
“I think the most underrated command for a duck dog is ‘place,'” Peterson said. “If your retriever knows its place in the stash or in the boat, there is no question where it should be, it is cut and dry. The ‘place’ command is also great for teaching hand signals and more advanced work, and makes your duck dog better at home.”
“Place” is also a superior command for Ramsey. “’Place’ is good because it gives kids something that’s easy to focus on,” she said. “Later, it’s useful for keeping a dog in the proper position in hunting scenarios, or in his dog bed when company is over and dinner is served.”
While it seems like a no-brainer, a good memory is essential and teaches your dog how imperative it is that he listen.
“One that I emphasize with my dogs is remembrance,” Peterson said. “Whether you use ‘here’ or ‘come,’ knowing that your dog will return to you at any time is very important. The solid retreat keeps them safe in cold water, and it’s crucial if your retriever is pulling double duty between waterfowl and upland hunting.”
While remembering can be easy to train, it’s also easy to let go. Lack of memory ends up endangering a dog’s safety. In 2019, Barton and I were on a hunt where a mentally ill driver tried to run over some of Barton’s dogs. Fortunately, the dogs had a good memory. Between getting the dogs back to the truck and Barton getting in the way of the vehicle, somehow neither dog was injured.
“Heel” serves two purposes, especially for a waterfowl hunting dog. I use this command more than any other.
“’Heel’ extends beyond nightly walks in the neighborhood,” said Ramsey. “It is the main position to line up a dog before sending him to retrieve. “It is also a position where a dog must be completely focused on its handler.”
While many dogs will perform the “heel” act, that second point Barton makes is a good example of how “heel” isn’t always created equal. Right now, my pup Kace does a great job of performing the act, but she’s not always focused on me. Where that creates problems is lining her up for her next recovery.
For Parvin, it’s also about hunting safety and knowing his dog is safe and out of harm’s way.
“A dog that doesn’t stay close, or worse yet, trips you up all the time, can be dangerous on a hunt,” Parvin said. “By teaching ‘heel,’ I know where my dog is and I don’t worry about my dog getting into trouble. He teaches ‘heel’ competently and you’ll be glad you did.”
Lastly, if your dog is well enough trained to comply with a command until another command is given, it will be necessary to release the dog from your command.
“A well-trained retriever needs to be given a command once, and that command is extended until another command is given,” said Barton Ramsey. “So a release command is essential. This gives a dog permission to leave the previous command.”
For Parvin, the command is “go play.”
“My dogs know that if I say, ‘Go play,’ they are free to do as they please,” Parvin said. “More importantly, they know they can’t do what they want unless I give them that release command.”
I have trained my pup Kace to both “OK” and “go play” as release commands.
If you can master these easy-to-train basic obedience commands, your dog will learn faster, be easier to handle, and ultimately lay the groundwork for becoming the dog all your friends want to see in action on their next hunt. Ducks.