There are many factors to consider when training hunting dogs. Breed, sex, quarry, type of hunting, the individual temperament of the dog and whether the dog will be working alone or with others, will all have an effect on the relationship and how the animal needs to be managed. However, the secret to bringing up a good hunting dog can actually be summed up in a single word: trust.
The underlying trust between a dog and its handler is crucial to success. A dog that only responds through fear, not only deserves pity, but is unlikely to give the extra 10 percent needed to find that winged bird in particularly rough cover, or to push on when other animals have given up. In contrast, a dog that clearly loves his work will leap willingly into deep water and point to quarry without thinking.
The development of the bond between man and beast is the main reason people choose to train their own dog from a puppy. While it is perfectly possible to purchase a fully trained adult dog, there is not only the disadvantage of cost, but also the lack of shared experience. Training a dog yourself does not mean that you can't bring in professional help and advice if you want to, but obtaining a puppy makes it much easier to assert yourself as the pack leader from the outset of your relationship.
Also, while experienced trainers and breeders will admonish some for saying so, most of us have at least one or two bad habits. Having a dog from a pup means that at least it will understand your foibles, although this is no substitute for good training (in some cases of both owner and dog).
Some people swear by the use of an electric collar. They argue that the small shock produced does not harm the dog and that it allows a handler to reprimand the animal from a distance. Electric collars are not designed for young puppies and, if you need one when the dog is old enough to wear one, then you haven't done your basic training properly. A water pistol is sufficient to have the same chastising effect on a puppy when it is still close enough to you, and backed up with the right combination of tone of voice and reprimanding command, should be more than enough to make your displeasure obvious to the dog. Exclusion, if only for a few minutes, can be another useful tool to underline what is, and is not, acceptable behavior.
If you get that message across early enough, then by the time the dog is likely to do something serious, such as running away or failing to return, then you should have developed sufficient authority to get your message across. Remember that puppies are like children and that gentle reinforcement of the required behavior is far better in the long run than telling the poor creature off for every little thing it does wrong.
The best dogs are trained to hunt by scent, although sight plays an important role in the initial stages of a retrieve. It's often easy to forget that years of breeding have equipped the various breeds of hunting dogs with all the tools they need.
Work to the breed's (and even the sex's) strengths. Friends who have worked a number of Labradors, say they adopt a different approach depending on whether the animal is male or female. Females tend to be more biddable in formal training, but may be reluctant to push on through rough terrain. Conversely males may need a stronger tone to keep them on the straight and narrow, but may be better at independent work in the field. A dog that is going to be tracking will need different qualities (and a different training approach) to one that will be picking up and retrieving shot birds.
It can be very tempting to run before you walk, but training a hunting dog needs the same patience needed for training any dog. Start with the basics: sit, stay and whoa, and earn the dog's respect and obedience before working up to more specific tasks like retrieving and flushing. Keep training sessions short, particularly with young puppies whose enthusiasm is often greater than their physical endurance. It's better to call an early halt to the session and leave the dog eager for the next one, rather than drag it home tired out and bored from repetition. Even just letting the dog have a supervised "explore" of a safe outdoor environment will work wonders in developing its natural curiosity and confidence.
If you will be working more than one dog, or if you will be hunting with others, train the dog to concentrate on you and your commands. If you regularly work a number of dogs, training using a series of whistles with different pitches will allow you to work them together. However, while you want the dog to be attentive to you when it puts its head up, part of a good working relationship consists of trusting the dog to use its nose.
When training, it is important to keep the training fun and exciting. Hide dummies in different positions, vary the timing and route of walks and make sure training sessions don't become predictable. Above all, keep the dog guessing while being consistent in terms of control. Also use domestic routine, such as putting out the garbage or meal times to underline commands and don't forget to reward the dog as much as possible to reinforce good behavior.
Consistency of approach is crucial, not only to maintain trust, but also to progress together. Keep commands and hand gestures the same and don't encourage any behavior which you wouldn't expect in the hunting field, even if you are only out for a relaxing walk. Set boundaries and stick to them. If the dog is also a family pet, make sure that the whole family understands the boundaries, and why they are necessary. Consistency also comes from insisting that required behavior is carried out. If a dog shifts when it has been told to stay, gently place it back on the mark.
Ultimately, if you shower your dog with love, set consistent boundaries and earn its trust, you will have a hard working, reliable companion who you can trust in the field.