Hunting Dog Training Tips for the First Year

Hunting Dog Training Tips for the First Year

The First Year – Hunting Dog Training Tips

There are a number of common setbacks that hunters encounter when training their retrievers at home.  The most common training pitfalls are discussed here, as well as Hunting Dog Training Tips and how to overcome them.

Lengthy Training Sessions

As hard-working humans, we are conditioned to the idea that that the more time we put into something, the more we get out.  However, when working with young dogs, this equation does not hold true. Instead, training sessions that are too long can lead to mental fatigue and negative associations with hunting.  For dogs younger than six months of age, training sessions should not last more than 5 minutes. Additionally, training sessions do not have to occur every day in order to be effective. For dogs 6 – 12 months of age, training sessions should be positive, upbeat, and less than 20 minutes long.  

Hunting Too Soon

Hunters often become impatient and want to expose their dogs to the hunt as soon as possible.  However, dogs under 10 months of age have nothing to gain from this experience, and the risk of serious training setbacks, such as becoming gun-, water-, or bird-shy is high.  Instead, be patient and continue to build basic skills while mimicking controlled hunting scenarios at home until your dog is ready for a real hunt.

Emphasizing Retrieves over Steadying

A common misconception is that working on steadying too soon will result in a dog that is unenthusiastic about retrieves.  However, this theory is not true, especially when trained properly and with gentle techniques. Any retriever with good bloodlines will inherently mark and retrieve, while not retrieving is the skill that requires work.  Practice non-retrieves early in your dog’s training by picking up half of all bumpers.  

Repetitive, Meaningless Marks

If your dog is enthusiastic and driven about early retrieves, do not throw too many marks during early sessions.  As soon as your retriever is reliably chasing, marking, and retrieving, make the marks more difficult by having them fall in different terrain, such as tall grass, water, or in high crops.  It is important to avoid excessive marking, as it can create bad habits rather than instill good behaviors.

Too High of Expectations

Never set your dog up to fail; instead, make sure every time you engage in a training session with your pup, he or she is set up to win.  Modify your dog’s training in order to ensure success each time, no matter the drill. Simplify the training concepts and break them up into smaller steps, if needed.  Remember that dogs learn best when each skill is broken down into individual components before being linked together.

Lack of Transition Training

Hunters often want to test their dog’s skills as soon as they can.  However, in doing so they sometimes set their dogs up for failure. One common mistake that hunters make is rushing through training without enough repetitions, causing confusion and frustration for dogs during the first hunt.  A second mistake is not connecting the dots during training by going straight from yard work to a real-life hunting scenario.

In order to get the most out of your dog and ensure that your pet is ready for a hunt, training should occur in the following sequence:

  1. Yard work:  practicing skills in a controlled environment
  2. Field training:  practicing skills in a more distracting, real-life setting
  3. Transitional training:  simulated hunts that cover common scenarios, such as gun fire
  4. Training on the hunt:  the first few hunting sessions that are dedicated to training, with specific goals to achieve

Ignoring Lifelong Learning

Dogs should be reinforced in their daily behaviors outside of the field, particularly in their daily lives.  For instance, is the manner in which people play with your dog developing bad habits? Are children tossing meaningless, repetitive retrieves that are ruining your dog’s steadiness?  Is your dog being encouraged to run, swim, rough house, and chase, to the detriment of his or her behavior on the hunt? It is important to establish rules in your household for how your dog is to be interacted with, particularly during playtime.  Educate your visitors on your dog’s boundaries, and control his or her environment, if necessary.

Delaying the Introduction of Skills

In general, the earlier you introduce a skill to your dog, the better.  Two common mistakes that hunters make is delaying the introduction of whistles and hand signs.  

The whistle can be introduced early in a dog’s training, particularly for recall and sit.  Dogs as young as 6 – 8 weeks of age can be taught recall when a whistle is blown, especially when the whistle is associated with something positive.   When associated with a reward, dogs can sit on whistle command by 3 months of age. The longer you wait, however, the more difficult these commands will be to train.

Similarly, hand signals can be picked up early when introduced properly.  When a hunter waits too long to teach hand signals, the result is an overly independent dog, instead of one that works interdependently with the owner.  After your dog responds well to casts and whistle commands, incorporate directional cues.

Improper Timing

Finally, consistent timing is necessary when training a dog, for both praise and correction.  The most effective dog training will occur when the animal receives reward or punishment at the exact moment the behavior (good or bad) occurs.  Waiting too long teaches the dog to associate the most recent behavior with the praise or punishment, and not necessary the action being praised or corrected.  Another important component of proper timing is to administer the praise or correction in the exact location where the behavior took place. If necessary, return the dog to location, make the correction, and re-emphasize the command.  Remember, reward goes further for a dog than correction, and a properly timed treat can make all the difference in building your dog’s confidence.

Joe Scarpy – Bull Valley Retrievers

Where Do I Get Dog Training Birds

Where Do I Get Dog Training Birds

We get asked often on where to get birds for your training. So, I have compiled a list of area bird breeders/providers for your reference.

Woodsway Kennel & Game Birds

17117 Mendall Rd, Princeville, IL 61559

617 N. Santa Fe, Princeville, IL 61559

[email protected]

(309) 696-5027

Brad Haseman

Po Box 156

Hinckley, IL 60520

(815) 739-4481

Email: [email protected]

Rice Family Farm

Jeff Rice

29800 Bushnell Road

Burlington, WI 53105

(262) 539-3374

Gun Dog Training Birds
Gun Dog Training Birds

G.C. Breeding

Guy Carnagey

6158 W. Bruns Rd.

Monee, IL 60449

(708) 534-7521

Hatch N’ Catch Quail

Randy Lay

3684 E. 29th Rd.

Ottawa, IL 61350

(815) 792-8050

JR Game Birds

2002 East 3150 North Road.

St. Anne, IL 60964

Please be sure to check Dog Training and Game Laws before training with any state game animals.  You can find a reference Here for Illinois regulations and IDNR links. We often have extra training birds available and would gladly sell any excess birds we may have for your dog training needs. 

American Labs vs. British Labs

American Labs vs. British Labs

Labrador retrievers are the quintessential dog, loved by both families and hunters alike.  Indeed, for more than 24 years the Labrador retriever has been the most popular breed in the United States, per the American Kennel Club.  This trend is seen in the UK as well, as the UK Kennel Club reports the lab has the highest registration numbers of all gun dogs. Incredibly versatile, the Labrador retriever can be used in the field, but also in settings such as Seeing Eye and therapy dogs, as well.   Regardless of the universal love of labs, most of the world (particularly hunters) are divided. Some prefer the British lab, while others decidedly love the American lab. The difference between these two types of retrievers will be described here.

The British (or English) Lab has a stockier build than its lanky, American counterpart.  A British Lab stands 21.5 – 22.5’’ tall, while the American Lab stands taller at 21.5 – 24.5’’ at the shoulder.  The British Lab has a wider build with a fuller chest, thicker neck, shorter legs, and a more clearly defined forehead stop.  The American version, on the other hand, has a narrower head, longer legs, longer muzzle, and a more agile build. Whereas the British Lab is built like a rugby player, the American Lab looks more like a track athlete.

An easily distinguished feature of the American Lab is the tail, which is frequently thinner and tends to curve upwards.  The British Lab, on the other hand, has a tail that is thick and straight. British Labs have denser coats, but commonly weigh less than American Labs.  Male British Labs range 70 – 74 lbs (females top out around 55 lbs) while American Labs often weigh 10 – 20 lbs more.

Of course, there are plenty of similarities between the two types of Labs.  For instance, both have water-resistant double coats. There are three recognized colors of Labs:  black, yellow, and chocolate. For both the British and American Lab, the black coat is most common.  Interestingly, there are fewer chocolate British Labs than American ones.

From a temperament perspective, there are a number of differences between the two types of dogs.  British Labs have a tendency to be calmer, quieter, and less active than their American counterparts.  However, American Labs tend to have more energy and a greater hunting drive.

Despite these differences, both types of Labs have the same origin, which is the Newfoundland St. John’s water dog.  This breed was used originally used for helping pull fishing nets back to shore in the 1800’s. While the UK and US recognized the breed at different times (1903 and 1917, respectively), neither governing body recognizes a difference between the two Lab types or lineages.  

How did the differences between the two types of Labs arise?  The difference stems from geographical differences in training and hunting.  For instance, British field hunting history involved large events involving hundreds of birds over the course of many days.  For these large scale shoots dogs were expected to be quiet, controlled, and excel at finding game.

In America, the Lab’s job description is slightly different.  Here, more versatility is required due to differences in region, climate, and game species.  The European-style shoots led to hunt tests and field trials in America, which required a decidedly more athletic dog with a stronger drive.  As a result, the physical characteristics of the Labs bred in America changed in order to fit these needs.

At the end of the day, there are few differences between what the two types of dogs can accomplish when well trained.  During late season hunts, the enhanced drive of the American Lab can be advantageous, but overall the two dogs are more similar than most people realize.  Some people believe that British Labs are easier to train due to their calmer demeanor, but that point is often hotly debated because a softer dog might not take discipline as well.  Overall, both types of Labrador retriever makes a great family dog.

When purchasing a Lab, British or American, health should be the most important focus.  Breeders should stress eye, hip, and elbow health. Hunters should also do their research and find the breeder whose dogs most closely suit their needs.  Some breeders produce dogs for the show ring, while others for the field. This difference can be monumental when a hunter is trying to develop a show ring dog – one that tends to be bulkier and less athletic – for hunting waterfowl.                                                                       

Northern Illinois Dog Parks – Dog Training Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois Dog Parks – Dog Training Northern Illinois

Visit a Northern Illinois Dog Park or Come to Us for Dog Training In Northern Illinois


McHenry County Illinois Dog Training – McHenry County Dog Park List

Hound Town Dog Park – 851 IL-176, Crystal Lake, IL, US, 60014 – For more information call (815) 459-0680.

Bull Valley Dog Park – 11115 Country Club Rd, Woodstock, IL, US, 60098 – For more information call 815-459-4833.

Northern Illinois Dog Training

Northern Illinois Dog Training

Lake in the Hills Dog Park – 9027 Haligus Rd, Lake in the Hills, IL, US, 60156 – For more information call (847) 960-7460. Veteran Acres Park – 330 N Main St, Crystal Lake, IL, US, 60014 – For more information call (815) 477-5400. (Bring your pet for a stroll through this lovely public park. Dogs are welcome as long as they remain on-leash.)

McBark Dog Park – 2500 N Richmond Rd, Mchenry, IL, US, 60051


Lake County Illinois Dog Training – Lake County Dog Park List

Lakewood Dog Park – 27511 N Fairfield Rd, Wauconda, IL, US, 60084 – For more information call Or call (847) 367-6640 for more information.

Duck Farm Dog Park – 1439 E Grand Ave, Lake Villa, IL, US, 60046 – For more information call Or call (847) 367-6640 for more information.

Happy Tails – 835 Commerce Ct, Buffalo Grove, IL, US, 60089 – For more information call Or call (847) 459-2311 for more information.


DuPage County Illinois Dog Training – DuPage County Dog Park List

Bark Park – 849 W Lies Rd, Carol Stream, IL, US, 60188 – For more information call (630) 784-6100.

Hawk Hollow Preserve – Bittersweet Dr and Stearns Rd, Bartlett, IL, US, 60103 – For more information call (630) 933-7248.


DeKalb County Illinois Dog Training – DeKalb County Dog Park List

Katz Dog Park – 201 W Dresser Rd, Dekalb, IL, US, 60115 – For more information call (815) 739-4500.


Southern Wisconsin Dog Training – Southern Wisconsin Dog Park List

Harris Family Dog Park at Old Settlers Park – Paddock Lake – For more information call (262) 857-1869.


I realize this is not a complete list, but this will give you a couple ideas where to take Buster, the next time out.

Please note that we do not encourage the use of dog parks. But if you must visit one, please keep an eye on your dog and even closer eye on the other dogs in the area.

Keep Bull Valley Retrievers in mind for all your Northern Illinois Dog Training needs. If its your household companion or next hunting partner, we can help him be the best he can be.


Introducing Your Dog to Marks in the field

Introduction to Marks in the field

One of the most common questions that hunters have is when to transition their puppy from yard work to marks in the field.  The general rule of thumb is to make this switch after performing plenty of conditioning retrieves and when the dog is reliably delivering bumpers to hand.  

A great first drill that can be performed is the check-down drill.  Here, hunters should find a flat field that is approximately 80 yards, and have a gunner shoot a blank pistol or give a hey hey before tossing a bumper with a short, flat throw to the left.  Before each subsequent throw, the gunner should move in to the right, continually getting closer.

This drill has a number of benefits.  First, it teaches the dog to hunt the proper side of the gun.  Second, the check-down drill teaches the dog to hunt the area properly for the downed bird.  

To begin this drill, first put your dog in a sitting position.  Signal the gunner, who will shoot a blank (or give a hey hey) and toss a bumper.  Stick your hand down, then wait 3 counts before sending your dog. Timing here is important.  Hunters fall into the habit of immediately sending their dog, which creates bad habits in the field, such as poor steadying.



When your dog returns with the bumper, have your dog continue to hold it in his or her mouth in order to stay focused on the task at hand.  Have the gunner repeat the throw, but this time from a closer distance and in the opposite direction. Once the bumper hits the ground, again wait before sending  your dog. Be sure to praise your animal for patience.

As your dog gets the hang of this drill, keep an eye on his or her marking behavior.  If your dog overruns the mark, continue with the gunner starting farther away and moving in.  However, if your dog hunts too sharply, do the opposite and have the gunner move out with each throw.  This check-down drill can be performed every day.

Joe Scarpy – Trainer / Bull Valley Retrievers

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