Retrieving is an essential task, and one for which spaniels are ideally suited.
Spaniels owned by hunters with access to good dove hunting are lucky because they can get plenty of retrieving practice prior to duck, pheasant and grouse seasons, as well as other gamebirds considered by most wingshooters to be more significant than the small, rocketing speedsters. Without meaning to impugn doves or dove hunting, I believe most hunters consider doves a warm-up for other gamebirds.
Gamebirds deserve our best effort to retrieve them, and retrieving is a prime reason spaniels are valued so highly among knowledgeable bird hunters. Spaniels know that finding birds is only half the job, and good ones rarely fail to make reasonable retrieves.
Well-bred spaniels have a strong retrieving instinct, but it is up to us to bring that instinct to the fore and develop it to a high level. Providing pup with plenty of birds to retrieve is important. Today we are going to start our retrieving lessons at the beginning.
While the above statement above regarding spaniels having a strong retrieving instinct is true, that does not mean pup wants or intends to retrieve things to you. Having a retrieving instinct means pup likes to pick things up and carry them around, often taking the object to a favorite spot.
Do not worry; we can direct pup's retrieving instinct so he retrieves things directly to you.
Pup can be quite young when he starts basic retrieve training; after all, it is all in fun, and there is no force or punishment involved.
Use a puppy dummy for initial retrieving training. We do not want pup struggling with an oversize dummy while getting started.
Did you ever go to an ice cream store with myriad flavor choices and struggle over what to buy? Having too many choices is often troublesome because that allows bad choices to be made. To start pup's retrieving training properly, we are going to eliminate his choices.
For beginning retrieving we use an inside hallway, a narrow alley or a narrow, three- or four-foot-wide fenced run or area. Block one end of the area, and you and pup start together near the opposite end.
A method I have used to teach retrieving successfully is to purchase a 100-foot length of inexpensive fencing about 40 inches tall, plus enough inexpensive metal posts to form a long, narrow fenced area for retrieving.
If one makes the training area four feet wide, he will have a 4x48-foot fenced area, open on the end the trainer works from. Start with pup fairly close to the enclosed end of the fence and move farther back as he progresses.
Prior to the lesson allow pup to sniff and briefly mouth the dummy to become familiar with it. Do not allow pup to run around, or away, with the dummy. Instead, hold pup by his collar while he acquaints himself with the dummy.
Sit or stoop inside the confined area, approximately five to 10 feet from the blocked end, and tease pup with the dummy. Tap the dummy on the floor/ground, circle pup's head with it and act like pup can have it, then pull it away quickly.
Once pup is jazzed up and excited, give the dummy a short, slow underhanded toss toward the blocked end of your enclosure, being sure that pup sees the dummy. As you toss the dummy say pup's name, e.g., "Sam." Pup's name will become his signal to retrieve.
As long as pup sees the dummy, he will assuredly run after it, perhaps pounce on the dummy, and likely take it in his mouth. As soon as pup grabs the dummy, call him to you by saying "Come" with enthusiasm. Do not shout commands, however; lessons are best learned at normal volume.
Pup is holding the dummy and you are calling his name, and he will come to you with the dummy at least once or twice. After a couple of times, he might not want to bring the dummy to you immediately.
This is where pup's lack of choice, forced by the enclosure, comes into play. Having nowhere else to go, pup must come back to you, stand still or lie down. The latter two choices are easy to deal with, and we will discuss this in just a moment.
Two details of great importance: First, do not give pup more than three retrieves per session for some time. Puppies have the attention span of a gnat and will, after several retrieves, assuredly lie down with the dummy, try to get out of the enclosure by going away from you or try to run around you to escape. We want to postpone any of those avoidance tactics until pup always delivers to hand.
Second, do not take the dummy from pup immediately when he brings it to you. Instead, grasp his collar, pet him and praise him as he holds the dummy. Make him think he is the most wonderful puppy in the world, and that there is nothing more important in the world than his bringing you the dummy. Love him up by petting him, talking sweet nothings to him and generally showing him what a wonderful pup he is.
After a minute, gently remove the dummy from pup's mouth, tease him and toss the dummy again while he is excited about the dummy. Again, only throw the dummy three times during any training session.
Some pups will want to hold onto the dummy, so do not get involved in a tug of war with pup. Instead, blow air briskly into pup's face and grasp the dummy when, in surprise, he opens his mouth. Pet and praise pup again.
After several times pup may catch on and not release the dummy when you blow in his face. An alternative is to reach across and toward pup's back end and hook your fingers under his far-side rear hip/leg area. When you lift pup's rear slightly, he will release the dummy; praise him grandly. Pup's done something well, and we want him to know it.
If on a retrieve pup stands still holding the dummy rather than retrieving it to you, you have the ultimate training tool--the check cord. Since pup is young and small(ish), attach a short piece of parachute cord to his collar and hold the opposite end when you send him to retrieve. Pull pup calmly and steadily to you while commanding "Come" and praise him well before taking the dummy. He will come around quickly because praise is better than being pulled.
Another important item--the trainer should stoop down when pup is retrieving to present a friendlier, less imposing picture to pup as he returns with the dummy. How would you like to approach a monster-sized creature, as you will appear to a small pup if you are towering over him as he returns?
If this process is done three times a day, pup will be retrieving reliably to hand in no time. Do not get concerned with the amount of time different skills take to accomplish. It is far more important to solidify all skills than worry about an irrelevant timeline.
Naturally, you have moved farther back for pup's retrieves as time passes. Also, you are certainly doing other training, such as making pup sit and stay for longer and longer periods of time. Once those skills are honed, start making pup sit and stay while you toss dummies to retrieve. Also, as pup shows he is ready, one should make pup sit when delivering the dummy to hand.
Next, take pup into a yard and start tossing longer retrieves for pup, where you will be pleased to see he takes the drills as a continuation of what he had been doing.
If pup later has the normal spaniel desire to retrieve, it is reasonable to provide him with more than three retrieves in a row. Watch his tail, and if it drops, this signals a good time to stop and play.
If pup is getting toward a year old or so, walk away from him while he is sitting and toss some long retrieves so he learns to mark the fall of the dummy, and gets additional exercise from longer retrieves.
Work on pup's manners, such as sitting until sent on retrieves and sitting prior to handing the dummy to you.
Pup is on a roll with his training program; keep him going with both serious and fun retrieves.