Retrieving can be a thorny issue for some gundog owners. And retrieving problems are common. Whether it is disinterest in retrieving or a more specific issue like delivery, there are lots of potential pitfalls when it comes to getting your gundog to fetch and return with an object.
The type of problem that your gundog is prone to could well depend to an extent on his temperament.
Being aware in advance of potential problems that could be caused by a dog’s temperament, means that you can take steps to avoid them before they become established.
The Low Drive Dog
Some dogs get bored with retrieving quite quickly and lose interest in playing ‘your game’ if you overdo things. Less retrieves, less often may perk up this dog’s enthusiasm.
It is very important with a dog that lacks intense ‘drive’ not to instil ‘steadiness’ too soon, or to fuss too much over ‘delivery’ of the dummy too early on in training.
Making a low drive dog sit and wait for ages before a retrieving habit is firmly established is likely to leave you with a dog that finds retrieving a total bore.
Fussing over how he holds and presents the dummy will lead him to conclude that your game is no fun at all.
So, get your dog passionate about retrieving first. Without the passion there is no point in steadiness or neat delivery, because you simply won’t have an effective retriever! Even if such a dog will carry out basic retrieves, he is likely to give up when retrieves get more difficult. Making it as fun for him as possible will make him feel a lot more enthusiastic about keeping at it when things get more challenging.
Within limits determined by your dog’s own unique genetic make-up, retrieving ‘drive’ can often be built up and maximised by judicious rationing of opportunities to retrieve.
Just like people, dogs savour opportunities to participate in activities that are precious. An activity with the novelty factor will become more highly valued simply through being restricted. And just like people, if the dog is always stopped from participating in your retrieving game whilst he is still really enjoying himself he will finish the game craving more of it.
The Keen Retriever
Sometimes we have the opposite problem. Some dogs just love retrieving so much that they feel ‘punished’ when the dummy is put away. For this dog, the answer may be more retrieves rather than less.
This young dog may become reluctant to deliver the dummy if you keep taking it away before he has had his fill. Carrying on longer and allowing him to work off his energy could be of great benefit to you in the long run, even if it is a little more tiring on your arms for now!
The keen retriever may also be helped by being allowed to walk along at heel with you holding the dummy for a while before getting him to sit and taking it from him. This will help to disassociate the act of coming back to you, with losing his prize.
The Possessive Dog
Some dogs are very possessive over the dummy right from the start, and find it very difficult to give it back at all. This problem may re-surface and get worse once the dog is retrieving game.
For this dog, ultimately, a trained retrieve using rewards may be the best answer.
You may be able to tackle possessiveness by repeatedly turning and walking away from the dog until he begins to lose enthusiasm for keeping the dummy.
This approach does not always work, and like many delivery ‘fixes’ if mishandled can lead to a dog that refuses to retrieve at all. However, some handlers prefer to try this before committing to the ‘trained retrieve’ process.
If you decide to use the ‘trained retrieve approach’ it is important that you allow enough time to complete the process and follow a properly constructed procedure to the end. If you stop part way through you will find your dog ‘spits out’ the dummy until you complete the process.
Because so many young gundogs have delivery issues of one sort or another, a growing number of gundog trainers, myself included, now teach a trained hold and delivery to all their dogs from the start, rather than waiting for problems to appear.
To avoid creating a ‘spitting out’ problem do not attempt to use food during retrieve training unless you are following a structured ‘trained retrieve’ procedure.
Recognising how much drive your dog has is not always easy to do until you have had some experience of different temperaments. But retrieving drive is a bit like toothpaste – it is a lot easier to take it out, than to put it back in.
It pays therefore to err on the side of caution and assume your dog lacks retrieving drive as it is much harder to build this up later in life. Ration retrieves and avoid steadiness training until your dog is rushing out with huge enthusiasm for retrieve after retrieve. Take your time and build up slowly.
If you prioritise drive in a working dog early on, you will hopefully find it pays dividends when he is a fully fledged retriever working by your side.