Allow me to brag a little.
When I’m working my Lab anywhere that folks might walk by, she usually draws some attention. Luna is rock-solid and people seem to marvel at a dog that will wait for as long as necessary to be sent on a retrieve. But it’s another trick she does that really seems to amaze strangers—the shake command.
I call this the real shake command, because the novelty command of a dog putting its paw in your hand doesn’t really do anything for a hound’s performance in the field. It’s cute, but that’s it. The shake command I taught Luna is useful for a hunting dog because it tells her when it’s OK to shake water off her fur.
Anyone who’s been sprayed by a wet dog on the beach or in the duck blind knows how annoying it is. Good news: you can train any dog with basic obedience how to shake on command.
Understanding Shake Behavior
Some dog behaviors are unpredictable, making them hard to produce on command. That’s not the case with shaking, because you know every single time they exit the water, they’re about to shake. This is a huge benefit to the handler and allows you to time training perfectly.
Not only do you know that your Lab, Chessie, or whatever type of duck dog you’re running is going to almost immediately shake dry, but you also know that they’ll start at their nose and end at their tail. This means if you control their head, the shake won’t start.
I shake train one of two ways. The first is with a dummy like a Dokken DeadFowl trainer. If your dog has been force-fetched or trained to hold until you say drop, using a DFT means that the dog will be hesitant to shake. DFT dummies discourage dogs from shaking ducks because they have a hard head designed to whack the dog in the jowl if they shake it. While these were developed to keep your retriever from shaking the living shit out of your freshly downed mallard, they also keep dogs from shaking water off their coats until you take the dummy.
The other way to do this is to meet the dog at the water’s edge and immediately get ahold of their snout. If you control their nose, the shake won’t start. They will either try to get away or look at you with some serious questions in their eyes. The second you pull your hand away or take the dummy, the shake is going to start. Anticipate that and be ready.
Using Hand Signals and Rewards
I use a hand signal with every command so that I don’t need to shout when we’re hunting. For this shake command, in addition to the verbal offering, I move my hand back and forth jazz-hands style. This works well because the dog will be focused on my hand to begin with, because it will have either just accepted the dummy or just let go of her snout.
Timing is important here, and since you know that the shake behavior is going to happen immediately upon release, do your part and issue the verbal command and hand signal right before the dog starts to shake.
This is much simpler than it sounds. If your dog will happily retrieve in the water, then you’ve got countless opportunities to teach this command. With older dogs, you probably don’t need to do anything other than praise, but younger pups might learn quicker with some treats. Either way, the opportunities to ingrain this behavior are as numerous as your willingness to toss a dummy, and your dog’s willingness to retrieve it.
The Whole Process
Since the goal of this command is to get the dog to shake without you getting sprayed, the best way to do it is to instill the basics first. Just understand that arresting the behavior and giving the command will all happen within a few seconds, so early on this will be very active training.
Eventually, you should be able to place your dog as he comes out of the water and then position yourself so that you won’t get wet when he or she shakes. This might take two or three seconds initially, and you’ll probably see your dog gearing up for the shake. If you do, forcefully say “no” and try to get ahold of his snout to stop him, even if he’s already started.
It doesn’t take too long before the dog will come out of the water, sit, hand off the retrieve, and then wait for you to issue the shake command. This is one of the easier commands to train, but it’s also a prime opportunity for them to slip away or become a little avoidant during training.
I believe this is because it’s unnatural for them to wait for permission to shake, but that’s alright. A lot of what we ask our hunting dogs to do is unnatural and yet they are perfectly capable of handling our requests. They can handle this one too. You just need to train correctly and keep an eye on your retriever every time he or she comes out of the drink—especially in November when you really don’t want to get sprayed with 35-degree swamp water.
Feature image via John Hafner.