From brand new pups to the old guard Labrador, these five commands create the essential base of any good hunting retriever. Regardless of age, they create good habits, set the standard for learning, and most importantly, will help you focus more on the hunt and less on bad behavior.
Barton Ramsey, the founder of Southern Oak Kennels, works with dogs of every age, and always starts with “sit.”
“’Sit’ is essentially the foundation of all dog training,” Ramsey said. “It’s positional, so it’s a great starting point for teaching puppies to learn. It’s the cornerstone on which the whole building is built upon.”
Josh Parvin from Cornerstone Gundog Academy shares Ramsey’s belief that “sit” is a foundation. “Train to a point where you give ‘sit’ one time only,” Parvin said. “Having a dog that sits on command and doesn’t move until told otherwise is invaluable, and gives you peace of mind knowing your dog is under control.”
Ensuring your dog has a strong 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 “place” is the cornerstone of making a well-rounded and enjoyable dog. Tony Peterson, a MeatEater contributor and bird-dog fanatic, 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 their place in the blind or boat, there’s no question of where they should be, it’s cut and dry. The ‘place’ command is also great for teaching more advanced work and hand signals, and makes your duck dog better at home.”
“Place” is also a top command for Ramsey. “’Place’ is good because it gives youngsters something easy to focus on,” he said. “Later on, it’s helpful for keeping a dog properly positioned in hunting scenarios, or on its dog bed when company is over and dinner is served.”
While it seems like a no-brainer, good recall is essential and teaches your dog how imperative it is that they listen.
“One I emphasize with my dogs is recall,” Peterson said. “Whether you use ‘here’ or ‘come,’ knowing your dog will return to you any time is so important. Solid recall keeps them safe in cold water, and is crucial if your retriever pulls double duty between waterfowl and upland hunts.”
While recall can be easy to train, it’s also easy to let it slip. Lax recall ends up putting a dog’s safety in jeopardy. In 2019, Barton and I were on a hunt where a mentally-ill driver tried to run over some of Barton’s dogs. Luckily, the dogs had good recall. Between getting the dogs back to the truck and Barton stepping in the way of the vehicle, somehow no dogs were hurt.
“Heel” serves two purposes, especially for a waterfowl hunting dog. I use this command more than any other.
“’Heel’ extends beyond evening walks in the neighborhood,” Ramsey said. “It is the primary position for lining a dog prior to sending for a retrieve. “It’s also a position in which a dog should be fully focused on its handler.”
While a lot of dogs will perform the act of “heel,” that second point that 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 retrieve.
For Parvin, it’s also about safety on the hunt, and knowing your dog is safe and out of trouble.
“A dog that doesn’t stay close by, or worse, 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’m not concerned with my dog getting into trouble. Teach ‘heel’ with proficiency and you’ll be glad that you did.”
Lastly, if your dog is trained well enough to stick with a command until another command is given, the dog will need to be released from their command.
“A well-trained retriever needs a command given one time, and that command extends until another command is given,” Barton Ramsey said. “So, a release command is essential. This gives a dog permission to leave the prior command.”
For Parvin, the command is “go play.”
“My dogs know if I say, ‘go play,’ they are free to do as they please,” Parvin said. “More importantly they know that they can’t do what they want unless I give them that release command.”
I’ve trained my pup Kace on both “OK” and “go play” as release commands.
If you can master these easy-to-train basic commands of obedience, your dog will learn faster, be easier to handle, and ultimately set the groundwork to become the dog all your buddies want to see in action on your next duck hunt.