Developing your dog’s love of water and comfort around gunfire

After several retrieves, this young lab is focused on the next. (Photos by Bryan Beatty)

You brought your pup home at around seven weeks. It has settled in and is progressing nicely with the basics such as sit, stay and come and is learning that you’re the boss. You’ve started retrieves and given them a nose full of what ducks smell like. Now the pup is around four months and things are going to get more advanced and the real work begins. 

We’re going to get to the training in depth, but before that I’d like to cover a couple of very important points. Two fundamental things your retriever must have, which if they don’t, you’re basically sunk, are a love of water and being comfortable around gunfire. It’s called waterfowl hunting and I’ve yet to run across a suppressed shotgun. 

Retrievers were bred to work in water. Others do just fine also. Yours should take to it easily, but you can stack the deck in your favor by finding a pond with a gentle grade that gradually deepens. This lets the pup ease in without suddenly getting in above its head. A spot with no aquatic grass is best since a pup might think that it is land, try to walk on it and end up submerged, which can be scary to them. I’ve seen it happen. If you can, wade out and encourage it to follow you but stay where its feet can still touch. 

The pup’s pace

It might take a few tries but it will start to swim, clumsily at first with its head up and front feet slapping the water progressing to a steady, even stroke. Keep in mind, one way to really screw this up is to throw a bumper in deep water or to push it into deeper water to force it to swim. It can be a setback. Let the pup go at its own pace. It’ll come, it just might take a few tries. 

Gun shyness is an absolute deal breaker, so it’s better to avoid a problem than try to solve one. Use a cap gun or something similar and shoot it a couple of times at feeding time. They learn the loud noise means a good thing is about to happen. It will progress into retrieves later. If your dog shows a tendency for gun shyness, get help from a pro or someone who has worked through it before. 

My second Lab seemed fine at first, but got a case of gun shyness at about eight months. We cured it by having her leashed at heel next to me while someone fired a gun from a distance and then moved her closer as she got more relaxed. I completely ignored her while doing this. Reason being, consoling the dog only reinforces that it’s okay to be afraid. Being stern or fussing at them just makes things worse. As she got more confident, we added retrieves and same as with feeding time, she associated the gunfire with something good. The retrieve is the reward for everything the dog learns and will do in the field. Praise for a job well done goes a long way, too, especially with young dogs.

As for training, be prepared to do it year-round, not just a couple of months before the season starts. Why? A: you want your dog to stay sharp, B: it keeps it in peak condition and C: they love it and hopefully so will you. Disclaimer: you will want to pull your hair out on occasion. I still do at times so take it with a grain of salt.

It takes a lot of equipment to properly train a retriever, luckily most of it is a one-time purchase. (Photos by Bryan Beatty)

A good start

What will you need to get started in terms of equipment? The items listed below are a good start.

  • Whistle (One that blows outward, its louder and directs the blast away from your ears)
  • Duck Call
  • Bumpers (12 black/white, 12 orange)
  • Dummies (ATBs, Dokkens)
  • Leash/Lead
  • Check Cord
  • Collars (Flat, Pinch, Electronic)
  • Ducks/Wings/Scent
  • Blanks/Poppers (Semi autos won’t cycle them so a pump works best)
  • Gun Stand
  • White Poles (Teaching Blind Retrieves)
  • Rubber Mat/Platform (Teaching “Place” where the dog will work from)
  • Shell Bucket (Where you will shoot and handle from)

Tools, not toys

Gun Dog Supply ( carries anything you would need, as well as other vendors and sporting goods stores. One important thing: things the dog fetches while training are “tools,” not “toys” so don’t let your dog play with one when not training. They will think it belongs to them and want to keep it or destroy it. Only using them while training gets them excited and ready to work. 

So at this point, keep up the basics, especially obedience, and start to work on retrieves with the dog coming straight back to you with no chasing or victory laps. Now it’s transitioning from a game when they were very young to a job where they must do what you want. They will make mistakes. You will too, but nothing the two of you can’t overcome. Keep the enthusiasm and know when to quit, leaving them wanting more. You’re on your way at this point.

About Bryan Beatty 13 Articles
Bryan Beatty is a native of New Roads and is an avid hunter and fisherman. He resides in Baton Rouge with his Black Lab, Molly Bee, and can be reached at

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