Skip to main content Skip to main content

Tips For Lengthening A Gun Dog's Retrieves

Tips For Lengthening A Gun Dog's Retrieves

Too many early retrieves can bore pup.

I just visited someone with a youngish springer pup that had recently solidified his retrieving, but was not doing well stretching his retrieves to longer distances.

For this issue, we will take retrieving beyond last issue's lessons where we started from scratch with a very young dog. Lengthening land retrieves will be our primary focus. Whether one has a fairly young dog (six to 18 months) or one with a couple of seasons afield, there is still time for training or brushing-up before waterfowl and pheasant seasons are underway.

This is a good time to stop and consider the role of spaniels in hunting. What follows concerning our spaniel's mission is not only my opinion, but also encompasses the traditional usage of spaniels in the field.

I believe in using spaniels for water work, especially along small creeks, more than the traditionalist, though not nearly as much as some who would turn their spaniels into non-slip retrievers, which are generally retrieving breeds specializing in water retrieves from a blind or the "heel" position.

Freeman Lloyd, longtime kennel editor for Field & Stream magazine, wrote in 1930 in Spaniels and Their Training, "Spaniels like to hunt in swampy places where there is plenty of water, slush and here and there tussocks of marsh grass€¦and close to cultivated meadows." He also quoted two lines from a poem written in 1671:

"The Feasant cock the woods do most frequent.

Where spaniels spring and search for him by scent."

Lloyd views the spaniel's primary workplace as on land.

Using ground scent, spaniels are meant to traverse all the ground and cover within gun range and flush birds for its owner; land work is the primary function of a spaniel. Spaniels should also retrieve all shot birds, including birds falling in or across water found adjacent to the area of a normal day's hunt. A normal day's hunt is not meant to focus on water, though water could be peripheral to the hunt.

Retrievers excel in water work because they were bred and trained for water work; Labrador retrievers are our most popular gun dogs. While Labs can be used to hunt upland game, their forte is retrieving ducks and geese from water.

Labradors are wired differently from spaniels and are easier to train to do double marked retrieves, blind retrieves, multiple blind retrieves, and perform some of the other intricacies of retrieving waterfowl over water.

Good spaniels can do much of the water work done by retrievers, but the learning process is more difficult, and it takes longer for spaniels. Additionally, some lining work and water work goes directly against a well-bred spaniel's genetic instinct to quest, or quarter, for birds, rather than taking long "lines" to retrieve them.While spaniels can handle a given amount of water work, they are most at home handling upland birds, including pheasants sometimes found in wetland locations. I would go so far as to say English springer spaniels are the preeminent gun dogs for pheasants.

All right, let's move on to lengthening pup's retrieves, which will be especially helpful on a wounded, running cock pheasant.

First, trainers should remember to limit how many retrieves pup gets during a given training session. When pup is young, and perhaps not absolutely crazy about retrieving, too many retrieves--four, five or more--can bore pup, and he might not retrieve any more during that session, which in turn might cause problems for the next session.

If pup refuses a retrieve from boredom, ignore it and take pup to another area for a different lesson, or to play. After five or 10 minutes, toss a short dummy retrieve for pup, say his name as the command to retrieve and hopefully the short break will have re-excited him and pup will retrieve the dummy without a problem.

Pet him and love him up good before taking the dummy, and end your lessons for the day. Tomorrow is another day, and you will stick to three or fewer retrieves for a while longer.

If your retrieving dummies have no rope attached, you are limited to throwing relatively short retrieves. Tie a one-foot length of rope to each dummy and you will automatically be able to toss the dummy farther, lengthening pup's basic retrieves.

Do not leave a knot on the end of the rope unconnected to the dummy; a knot could cause the rope to be snagged by brush and rip the dummy from pup's mouth. This could hurt pup's mouth and turn off his willingness to retrieve.

By now pup will hup (sit) and remain sitting until released (within reason), including while a dummy is tossed for him to retrieve. Say pup's name as the command for him to retrieve; it will save confusion and be quite helpful later.

Sit pup down, walk about 15 yards in front of him and toss a retrieve that is at least 15 yards longer than his previous retrieves--again, two or three retrieves per session only.

Now is the time for a "change-up." Sit pup down, stand near him and maintain eye contact while you toss the dummy, and hold one hand palm-up toward pup so he waits until he hears his name to retrieve the dummy. Several seconds is long enough for him to wait at first, but then lengthen the time he waits on upcoming retrieves.

Since you have worked on "hup" and made pup obey, the preceding drill (the change-up) should work pretty well and pup will wait, though he should be excited and raring to go for the retrieve.

Now we throw the curveball. While you may not see the importance of the curveball right away, it will be quite important later, so we must start laying the foundation for an upcoming lesson now.

Sit pup down for the curveball, and stand near him and maintain eye contact with him while you toss the dummy, holding one hand palm up toward pup so he waits until he hears his name to retrieve the dummy. Here is the "curveball" part of the drill--pup will not hear his name because you will calmly walk to the dummy (while maintaining eye contact with pup and keeping your palm up toward pup) and pick the dummy up, then return to stand near pup. For now, make these "curveball" throws short.

Re-seat pup, toss the dummy and send him to retrieve it. Re-seat pup and toss the dummy, then make him wait while you retrieve it. Alternate retrieves with pup in the future, but do not alternate and give him every-other retrieve or, believe me, he will learn that "every-other" sequence and outsmart the purpose of the drill. You should occasionally retrieve two or three dummies in a row to keep pup guessing when he will be sent for a retrieve.

The purpose of the "curveball" is so that pup never knows w

hich retrieve is his, yours or, most importantly, another dog's. When hunting with another dog, your pup will not get all the retrieves. If participating in field trials or hunt tests, he will not get every retrieve. The curveball teaches pup to wait until he hears his name before going on a retrieve, and it teaches him even more important lessons--that every retrieve (bird) is not his, and he must not rush to retrieve unless sent.

Still another way to get pup going for longer retrieves is to put a line of four or five dummies in a low-cut field, spread about 10 yards apart. Sit pup 30 yards from the first dummy, in line with the other dummies. Send pup for the first dummy and accept it with praise when he retrieves it. Do the same for each additional dummy until he is retrieving from 70 yards or so away.

You can also put two or three dummies in a pile and send pup repeatedly from 30 yards away, then increase the distance to 40 yards, then 50, etc. Be sure not to over-tire pup, overheat him or get him bored. Play with pup in between increasing the distance for the piles. Praise him and love him up when he retrieves to you.

Remember to train by watching pup's tail. If he is bored, too tired, upset or uninterested, his sagging tail should clue you in; that is often a good time to stop training and have a little fun with pup.

Get pup doing these exercises between a year to a year and a half and you are on your way to a well-trained gun dog, one that your friends will love to hunt over, and you will be proud to show off.

To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Get the Newletter Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Gun Dog articles delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now