Eliminate Choices For Better Retrieves

Eliminate Choices For Better Retrieves

Follow these tips and watch pup retrieve directly to hand.

I think about puppies a lot, and try to figure out ways to help them learn. It helps if you start with a well-bred gun dog from a well-represented sporting breed.Dutch, a hard hunting English cocker owned by Barbara Haupt of Tenants Harbor, Maine, retrieves everything he's sent for'¦and occasionally something else, as well.


The finished product: pup sitting and holding the bird towards the trainer.

Recently I stood behind some folks at a local Dairy Queen while they made their purchase; it seemed to take forever.

When I was a kid it was, "Okay, what do you want?" The choices were either a vanilla or a chocolate ice cream cone. That's it'¦a quick, simple decision. "Next!"


Now we can choose: vanilla, chocolate, swirled, dipped in chocolate or caramel, sprinkle covered, small, medium or large, etc., etc. There are too many options, which can lead to bad choices.


Do you and your pup a big favor by eliminating as many choices as possible in all your training. Keep things simple so pup can more easily make the right choice.

Consider crate training. Is it best to put pup in his crate while he is unattended, where if he defecates he is forced to remain near his mess? Or to allow pup the run of the house where he has the option of taking a dump anywhere he chooses and then move away from his mess?

Option number one will housebreak pup faster than you ever thought possible, though it is slightly more complicated than that. And you must do your part by taking pup outside at proper intervals. The time outside with pup is better than the same amount of time spent inside cleaning up pup's messes.

Quick, simple decisions; let's use the same idea to train pup to retrieve.

Start alone in a hallway with pup and a short paint roller or puppy dummy. Sit on the floor, perhaps halfway down the hall and pet pup, allow him to walk around and calm down. Slowly wave your puppy dummy in front of pup, and when he is watching the dummy, give it a slow, gentle toss to the end of the hallway.

Pup will invariably run after it and pick it up. Just as pup grabs the dummy, say "Come"--not overly loud--and gently clap your hands. Pup will come running, and yes, he will have the dummy in his mouth.

Do not make the mistake of grabbing the dummy from pup. Instead, pet pup momentarily and tell him, "Good dog." Then gently take the dummy from pup and pet him again. Do this one more time, perhaps two times, and then stop tossing the dummy. Instead, put the dummy away and play with pup a bit.

You are thinking, "Are you crazy? I want to make pup crazy to retrieve so I should toss the dummy over and over." Not!

It is hard to resist the temptation because naturally you want to keep pup chasing the dummy and returning it, but don't. Two, maybe three retrieves at one time is maximum for youngsters. Doing that sequence three times a day is great, though, and will instill the lesson fairly quickly.

Perhaps another read of our August 2006 column on repetition would be helpful.

Training pup is not a race, which is an incredibly important fact to remember--slow and steady wins the race.

The hallway restricts pup to coming only to you; in other words, it eliminates choices to make the decision easier for pup. There is no room for him to run off elsewhere, or make large circles around you hoping to play "Chase the Puppy." Straight out and straight back with the dummy is the lesson learned.

After awhile, move to the end of the hallway to lengthen the retrieve, but still doing only two or three retrieves per session. It is better to leave pup eager to make another retrieve than to allow him to become bored and uninterested because of too many retrieves.

If pup is, or becomes, reluctant to give the dummy up, do not yank it away from him. Rather, after petting and stroking pup, grasp the dummy and blow into pup's nose. He will likely let the dummy loose, then pet and stroke him. If that does not work lift his ear and blow in it while taking the dummy.

Grasp the dummy if that does not work, and with your other hand reach back and lift pup slightly by placing your hand at the juncture of pup's hind leg and body, just in front of the hip. Pup will drop the dummy.

Again, pet pup and tell him how wonderful he is. Pup will learn the drill and become a dependable retriever, which is an enormous advantage in the field.

Eventually move your retrieving drills to a longer hallway, large room or maybe the basement. Note we are still keeping pup constrained, thereby reducing his choices, and making it easy for him to make the correct decision.

Next, have pup retrieve outside, inside a smallish fenced yard. If necessary, utilize a local tennis court or fenced area at the park. (Absolutely, positively be sure to clean up after pup if necessary.)

Praise pup lavishly, and keep sessions to two or three retrieves. Again, three times a day will speed the lessons.

Retrieving downed birds is one of a gun dog's most important jobs. Retrieving downed birds should also be a top priority of every hunter of every game species. Informed conservation practices demand an all-out effort to retrieve all game, as do sound sportsman's ethics.

The next part of the retrieving topic sometimes gets folks in a big lather, but there is really no reason for that to happen.

Force Training
Force training pup to retrieve, or conditioned retrieving training (the second term is primarily semantics to avoid using the word "force") is effective if it is needed.

In all honesty, most well-bred, field-bred springer and cocker spaniels will retrieve reliably if you start them early, keep lessons short and pleasant and praise them for a job well done.

Some field trialers, however, feel it is necessary to take the extra precaution of force/conditioned trai

ning to retrieve to ensure that pup never refuses or fails a retrieve in a field trial.

I doubt if there is a successfully field-trialed Labrador retriever in the country nowadays that was not force trained to retrieve. Retriever trialers have learned the stakes are too high to risk having a dog refuse/fail a retrieve in a trial, especially when force retrieving is so reliable.

I have heard spaniel people say, "Oh, some Labs (even field-bred Labs) do not have the genes for retrieving any more, so they must be force trained to retrieve." They are afraid that if everyone force trains their spaniels to retrieve that the same could become true for spaniels.

First, those folks' basic premise is likely wrong if the dogs are field bred. Since this first premise is basically wrong, spaniels are unlikely to lose their retrieving instinct if owners use force training to teach retrieving.

Fact is that there is little "force" involved. Part of the beauty of force/conditioned training is that again, the method eliminates choices; pup can do only what you want him to do or he cannot move.

A guy told me once that his spaniel could not be force trained because the dog would become too aggressive and bite the trainer.

Not so. A knowledgeable trainer would use a long collar and strap the dog's neck/head to an upright post so it could not move its head. The trainer would also use front leg shackles to restrain pup's front legs using the same post. Pup cannot move, and has the choice of either obeying his trainer or stay tightly restrained to the post. Again, limiting choices during training promotes success.

One can use a simple toe-hitch using a cord, or an e-collar to force/condition train pup to retrieve. But you can do it without either, using about a million repetitions to teach success. Either way, teaching "Hold" is the first step in teaching retrieving.

Often, "Hold" can also be the last step in teaching retrieving. There are a lot of gun dogs who love to retrieve and are quite reliable at it, but for some reason will not deliver the bird to hand, or set it down before reaching its master. Either way, doing a thorough job of teaching "Hold" will generally solve the delivery problem.

As enjoyable as upland bird hunting is, we should not lose sight of the final reward, an enjoyable dining experience. Let's make sure pup delivers the goods.

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