You’ve surely heard that every well-bred retriever comes with a strong “natural retrieving instinct.” Experienced retriever trainers, professional and amateur, treat this as an article of faith. So do most writers. Retriever breeders boast about how early this instinct manifests itself in their puppies. Clearly, there must be something to it.
Well, in a roundabout way, there is. However, in the most technical sense there jest ain’t such a thing as a natural retrieving instinct. Retriever folks use the term as a euphemism for a quite different canine instinct that they can, with appropriate early training, turn into retrieving that seems natural. Most successful trainers understand the true nature of this instinct, at least in a general way. Those who don’t understand it manage to succeed through knowledge of relevant training techniques. Unfortunately, many a neophyte, understanding neither the instinct nor the training procedures, expects too much of his first retriever puppy. In his ignorance, he goes from blunder to blunder, eventually ruining a youngster he could have developed into a good working retriever. Ergo, before buying his first retriever puppy, every beginner should acquaint himself with both the nature of this canine instinct and the consequent training dos and don’ts.
In the wild, after a carnivore makes a kill, he has two choices: dine in or carry out. The larger animals opt for the former, and for a couple of good reasons. First, a large predator normally kills prey animals too large to be easily carried off. Second, a large predator, having an 800-pound gorilla attitude, feels quite capable of protecting his kill from other predators. So, he eats his fill right where the prey animal fell. Then he wanders off, leaving the rest for family, friends, and assorted lesser beasties. The smaller predator necessarily takes the second option. Being too small to protect a kill from larger predators, he picks it up and carries it back to his lair, where he and his can consume it in relative safety. Thus, smaller predators, including canines, have a natural instinct to carry their prey to their lair before eating it.
Thus, what we euphemistically call “natural retrieving instinct” is really an instinct to carry a kill to the lair. Through selective breeding over the centuries, our forebears have greatly intensified this instinct in the retriever breeds. Yet, no matter how strong it may be in a particular puppy, it remains an instinct to carry-to-lair, not an instinct to retrieve to a person. A trainer turns this carry-to-lair instinct into retrieving by becoming the puppy’s lair as well as his “pack leader.” (Becoming the pack leader is the first step in training any dog to do anything, but that’s a subject for another column.)
HOW NEOPHYTES FAIL
Too often a first puppy buyer has no knowledge of the true nature of the “natural retrieving instinct” he has heard so much about. He probably watched the breeder work some of his mature dogs on amazingly difficult retrieves, both marks and blinds. He may even have seen his very own puppy retrieve a puppy dummy to the breeder. So he rushes home, takes little “Teal-Toter” out in the backyard and throws a puppy dummy for him to retrieve. But young T-T is unfamiliar with and therefore uncomfortable in his new surroundings. What’s more, he misses Mama and his littermates; and this excited stranger who’s acting really weird frightens him. Any of several things can happen, each of which our hero will almost certainly make worse.
First, the pup may not even go after the dummy. Our hero then panics, and pressures the pup to go out, or at least tag along, toward the dummy. In all likelihood, T-T won’t pick it up. So our hero tries to force it into the pup’s mouth. From there, the disaster goes into free-fall.
Second, the pup may go to the dummy and refuse to pick it up, which also panics our hero into trying to force the dummy into the pup’s mouth.
Third, the pup may go to the dummy, lie down, and begin to chew on it (the 800-pound gorilla reaction). Our hero rushes toward him, so the pup picks the dummy up and runs off. A wild chase ensues. Outcome? Two losers, no winners.
Fourth, the pup may go to the dummy, pick it up, and run off in any direction except toward our hero, leading to a no-win chase.
Fifth, the pup may make a perfect retrieve, bringing the dummy straight to our hero, who immediately snatches it from his mouth and tosses it again. This time the puppy doesn’t bring it all the way back, so a chase begins, and so on. As you can see, our uninformed hero can turn even a glowing success into a dismal failure.
HOW TO SUCCEED
If our hero understood the instinct with which he’s dealing, he would approach the puppy’s first retrieving “lesson” much differently. First off, he wouldn’t even begin until the youngster was comfortable in his new surroundings, had established a definite lair (usually where he sleeps), had begun to accept himself as the pack leader, and had become accustomed to wearing a strap collar with a lead attached. How long does all this take? The timeframe varies, but with each pup, it takes precisely as long as it takes, whether a few days or a few weeks.
With the above prerequisites in place, our hero would put the strap collar (with lead) on the puppy, take him to his lair, squat down, and introduce the puppy dummy. He’d let young T-T sniff the dummy, hold it, and even carry it around on lead. Then, he’d take the dummy and tease the puppy with it briefly before tossing it a few feet (less than the length of the lead). Young T-T, following his carry-to-lair instinct, would run out, snatch up the dummy, and turn toward his lair. However, with our hero blocking his way to his lair, he’d probably try an end run. (Nota bene: Should the puppy head in any other direction, our hero would gently guide him back with the lead, all the while speaking encouragingly.)
As T-T tries to run past him, our hero would slip a finger under the pup’s collar and stop him. Then, while allowing the pup to continue holding the dummy, he’d pet and praise him for at least a full minute before reaching for the dummy. Why? Look at it from the puppy’s perspective. He ran out, “captured” his quarry, and headed for his lair. However, on the way back, the nicest thing happened. His boss stopped him gently, let him keep his quarry while he praised and petted him until he forgot all about his quarry. Enough repetitions of such retrieves condition T-T to accept our hero as a lair superior to his former one. Of course, three or four retrieves per session are sufficient, lest T-T become bored. However, our hero can initiate several sessions per day.
Many years ago, I witnessed a wild verbal donnybrook between a pro trainer and one of his assistants over whether the assistant had or had not snatched a dummy too quickly from a four-month-old puppy. The two yelled at each other in mega-decibels for at least 15 minutes. At the time, I wondered what a nice guy like me was doing in a place like that. But ever since I’ve been thankful I was there, for that experience burned deeply into
my then youthful psyche that I should pet and praise a puppy a long time before taking a dummy from him.
The rest is simple. As the puppy accepts him as the preferred lair, our hero moves the retrieving sessions farther and farther from the original lair. Within a few days, he can go anywhere and toss the dummy, confident that the puppy will bring it back to him. Of course, for quite a while, he continues to praise and pet T-T before taking the dummy.
Jim Spencer’s books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf. Titles are: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows, Retriever Training Tests, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, and HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way. Jim is also featured in the Gun Dog video, Duck Dog.