How to: solve gundog retrieving problems!
- Credit: Lee Beel Photography
Some of the most common problems with your dog’s retrieving can be prevented during early puppy development and management. Howard shows you how to nip those issues in the bud
For most gundog owners, the retrieve and a nice delivery to hand are essential behaviours that we strive to achieve. I am presented with a lot of dogs that have retrieving issues so I thought it might be worth discussing some thoughts and ideas on the subject.
Some retrieving problems:
* The dog is not interested in picking up anything at all and when sent for the retrieve chooses to show mild, if any, interest in going out to the dummy before ‘mooching off’ to sniff around or do its own thing.
* The dog races out to the dummy, but once it has got to it, chooses to sniff, roll around, investigate or play with the dummy. Sometimes a dog is fine with dummies but messes around with game.
* The dog runs out keenly, but then chooses to run around with the dummy or bird in its mouth with no real intention of bringing it back to you. There are several permutations of this, ranging from absolute refusal to deliver, to running past you before finally delivering.
The issue of choice
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So here’s a hot potato... brace yourselves. You will have noticed that in my short list of retrieving issues I choose to use the word ‘chooses’ in each description. Good dog trainers school their dogs to make choices; the dog makes a decision to offer you a certain behaviour. The art is to encourage the dog to choose the behaviour the trainer wants, rather than something that is likely to be a natural canine behaviour. One that a predator would choose. Just dwell on that thought for a moment...
OK, now you’ve thought about it, let’s move forward. If left to his own devices with prey in his mouth, just what exactly would a dog naturally do? Some would simply eat it, others might bury it and there are, of course, pack members that would take their prey back to the puppies. So, might this explain the reasons for some of the retrieving issues that we have listed above?
In training the dog, we will need to persuade him to reliably choose to bring prey, dummies, toys and anything else it finds back to us. In a nutshell, many retrieving-related issues stem from early puppy development and management.
If we are careful in developing a youngster’s desire and choice to bring ‘valuable’ things back to us, many (but not all) of the problems that handlers have with retrieving can be totally avoided. To properly discuss and explore puppy management will require a whole book. In this article, I’m going to focus on the things we might look at once retrieving issues have presented themselves.
Just before we get our teeth into practical training, do me a favour and re-read the list of three retrieving-related issues... Now let’s take a look at a few ideas to address these:
* Where a dog is simply not interested in retrieving at all, I like to find out and work through a list of potential causes. Firstly, breeding: has the dog simply not got the natural prey drive to be interested in retrieving? Most well-bred gundogs are bred to be interested to want to collect things. Secondly, are the retrieving items interesting enough for the dog to want to pick them? How often are retrieving sessions taking place? Has the dog got access to too many toys already? Is the dog frightened of picking stuff up? And what is the dog’s daily exercise regime? These are some of the obvious things we need to know. With the exception of breeding, it may be possible to reignite an interest in retrieving by just changing the environment and daily exercise plan.
Significant to a lack of interest in both the handler and retrieving is a daily walking regime that allows the dog to free hunt. This would be the single and most damaging aspect of dog ownership and problem behaviour that I come across (in at least 50% of the daily lessons I do). While understandable, it is interesting that the most common advice that trainers ignore is on this topic! And yes, you’re right, we need to review how we deliver that message. We regularly review our advice and training strategies at Mullenscote.
* We established earlier in this article (and in just about every piece of writing that I do), that early and well-managed basic training plans, which include day-to-day management, will significantly enhance a young dog’s training and future. By doing things properly from the beginning, we can reduce the likelihood of problems developing and influence the positive behavioural choices that a dog will make. I know that I’m going over old ground, but it’s such an important aspect of what we do.
As a young puppy develops, its experience, confidence, physical and mental development will all increase at an alarming rate. The puppy’s development often escalates faster than its owner’s experience and knowledge. Even the most dedicated of owners find the pup’s newfound strength and character to be challenging. Problems quickly rear their head. These need to be dealt with quickly and need an experienced handler to nip them in the bud. You can see how difficult this can be for a beginner. What is really important is that you achieve a balance between rewarding good behaviour and avoiding undesirable behaviours. This is where an understanding of delivering effective corrections plays a part. In my opinion, an effective correction leaves the puppy with a clear understanding that to gain a reward it must choose to offer behaviour ‘x’. But also, by choosing to offer behaviour ‘y’ instead, there is likely to be a correction (no reward or a mildly unpleasant experience) – if delivered correctly, the puppy will choose the desired behaviour.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with retrieving issues. So many of the retrieving issues I see are directly related to the puppy inadvertently being allowed to choose the wrong behaviour. We need our dogs to understand that the command ‘Fetch’ means go straight to the dummy or bird, pick it up, bring it straight back and deliver to hand, all without resistance.
Make sure that your Come, Sit and Stay commands are taught thoroughly – that the recall command is taught to mean ‘come back to me immediately to receive a reward and avoid correction’. Using a lead, let the dog ‘bimble’ out in front of you. Gently blow the recall whistle and simultaneously run backwards (an acquired skill); if the puppy fails to react and turn towards you, it will receive a firm tug, encouraging it to run towards you to receive a reward.
Do this in quick succession three times in a row. If you get the timing right and throw enough energy into the exercise, the pup will respond instantly to your whistle, rushing for the reward, and importantly, knowing how to avoid correction. You have succeeded in schooling the dog to understand how to avoid correction. It has made a conscious choice.
A good recall is absolutely fundamental to being able to control a puppy while out on a retrieve. If you kid yourself into believing or accepting that your recall command gives you 80% compliance, or less, then you simply don’t have a reliable recall. This is highly likely to lead to retrieving issues.
Practise this technique over several sessions. Once the recall is going well, send the puppy for a very short retrieve while maintaining a hold of the lead. The recall whistle should bring the puppy and the dummy racing back to you. Once established, and don’t rush this process, you will be able to allow the lead to trail and lengthen the distance you throw the dummy. A long line and/or a retrieving corridor can be used to aid success.
With some puppies, a food reward for recall is really helpful but may encourage delivery to hand issues as the youngster seeks the food reward upon its return. Although I’m very much in favour of food rewards, once the puppy is recalling consistently, you can drop the food reward and replace it with gentle affection.
As always, this article gives only an outline explanation of training techniques. I would encourage you to observe good trainers, have lessons and learn how to encourage your puppy to be attentive and obedient before you move on to practising the retrieve. I hope this is helpful, enjoy your dogs and Keeeep Training!