“A finished gun dog is a solid citizen, a well-trained gun dog that can handle blind retrieves over water and land, and is a great family companion,” says Dave Alvarez, a long-time upland bird and waterfowl guide and a gun dog broker. “There aren’t many of those around.”

Pro retriever trainer Lonny Taylor of Taylor Made Retrievers takes it one step farther. “A finished gun dog is a dog with an AKC Master Hunter title,” says Lonny Taylor. “Because a Master Hunter dog has proven in competition that he or she has the training, discipline, and ability to excel in all hunting situations.”

Many hunters are happy with a dog that flushes upland birds such as pheasant and grouse, finds shot birds, and retrieves them to somewhere near the gunner. In the duck blind, the dog has to mark where shot birds have fallen and bring them back to the blind. While they may be effective at their jobs through instinct and experience, these are not finished gun dogs.

Experienced hunters have all seen guys who are constantly making excuses about their dogs. The dogs chomp holes into dead birds; drop birds ten feet from the blind; bark, yap, and whine, spooking incoming waterfowl; fight other dogs for retrieves; bolt whenever guns are fired; disappear in the field, chasing all the pheasants or quail out of the cover before gunners can get in position; and yes, eating birds. Worst of all is when someone brings an untrained pup into the field, blasting shotguns over its head, and possibly ruining his hunting career before he even knows what a bird is. In one fell swoop, they teach a pup that birds are really scary and guns are awful and hunting is no fun at all. It’s no fun to hunt with untrained dogs causing mayhem and chaos. In fact, it can be dangerous.

Here are the attributes of a finished gun dog, as defined by the AKC dog who has won a Master Hunter title. A Master Hunter must:

  • Exhibit flawless obedience. The dog must instantly and crisply obey the commands of “Sit”, “heel,” “Stay,” and “Here.”
  • Sit unrestrained for multiple marks. A dog’s job is to WATCH first and foremost, so that he can record what has happened. On his handler’s command, he is then SENT for a retrieve. If you’re in a duck blind and three gunners drop four ducks, the dog should memorize the location of all four falls. He can’t do that if he bolts at the first gunshot.
  • Handle to the whistle. One sharp blast means “Sit!” A trill followed by three short, sharp blasts means “Come here!” and so forth. A finished gun dog responds crisply to various whistle commands.
  • Retrieve on command. Again, the dog’s job is to retrieve when he’s told to retrieve, not when he feels like bolting. “SIT!” means sit here until the handler releases the dog with a verbal command. For marked retrieves, the command is the dog’s name. For blind retrieves, the command is “BACK!” Marked retrieves, where the dog has seen the bird fall, can easily be 300 yards or more. Triple or quadruple marked retrieves are expected of a finished gun dog.
  • Honor for another dog. If another dog is sent for a retrieve, a finished gun dog will quietly sit and watch the other dog do his job. This business of two dogs ripping birds apart while fighting over a duck is extremely poor form.
  • Run land and water blind retrieves proficiently. The dog must have had an intensive course of training to teach the dog to be sent to retrieve birds that he has not seen. He is going on blind faith that the handler will “show” him where the bird is. This also means a dog must know how to “handle”, which means that he must acknowledge the handler’s hand signals and whistle blasts to take directions to the fall. Field trial dogs routinely run 400-yard blind retrieves.
  • Force broke. Many people don’t understand the concept of a “force broke” dog. It means that the dog has undergone an intensive training process to counteract the dog’s natural resistance to obedience. Your dog may love to retrieve, but if you shove his favorite toy in his face five times in a row and say, “Fetch!”, chances are very good that he won’t. If you’re in a goose blind on a frosty morning and dump a bird on the far side of a deep canal, what if your dog decides it’s too cold to swim that morning? Do you take off your clothes and jump in? Not if your dog is force broke. It’s a matter of “you’ll retrieve it because I told you to,” much like a soldier may not want to charge an enemy gun emplacement, but he does it because of the repetitive training to obey orders that he received in boot camp. The bottom line is if you say, “Fetch!” while pointing at a dead skunk, your dog should pick it up.
  • Be familiar with the gun and common training tools. It goes without saying that a gun dog likes the sound of a gun, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take training. A gun dog should be unafraid of guns and noises, and familiar  

In contrast to the mayhem and chaos of hunting over poorly trained or spoiled dogs, hunting over a finished gun dog is a pleasant experience. The dog is an eager, willing, well-trained hunting companion who makes the overall experience much better than it would be without his presence.

Imagine this scenario: You and your buddy are jump-shooting over an icy river. You flush a flock of ducks and geese. At the flush, your dog sits, rooted to the spot, his eyes marking and his brain recording everything that happens. You bag a double on mallards, which fall into the icy water. Your buddy shoots a goose that manages to sail 100 yards before collapsing in the marsh on the other side of the river. You line your dog up on the duck farthest down the river, call his name, and he explodes into the water. He locates the duck and brings it to hand, releasing it when you say “Give”. You line him up on the next bird, and again, he locates and retrieves the bird to hand. You line the dog up on the location where you saw the goose fall and send the dog. He swims the river again and charges into the cattails on the other side. He’s gone a long time, and you’re worried that he may not find the bird. Sure enough, however, here comes your trusty companion with a large Canada goose in his mouth. As your dog re-enters the water, a pair of ducks swing low over the river. You and your buddy stand and take them, and your dog marks where the birds fall as he’s swimming across the river…now that’s a fun hunt. When you have a dog like this, you’ll never worry about getting invitations to hunt choice spots. A finished gun dog is a sure-fire hunting companion that will make your hunts even more memorable than you imagined, and owning a finished retriever should be every bird hunter’s goal.