Even if you’re very new to the retriever world, you’ve surely heard much about that wonderful “natural retrieving instinct.” Well, it’s time for a dose of reality. The term, “natural retrieving instinct” is a euphemism. No retriever has ever had an unselfish instinct to retrieve anything to a human being. However, every properly bred retriever has a different and totally self-serving instinct that, with judicious manipulation, can be sublimated into what we retrieverites call “natural” retrieving (as opposed to force-trained retrieving). To start your puppy on a path to greatness, you need to understand this instinct and how to transform it into natural retrieving.
To survive in the wild, carnivorous predators kill and eat prey animals. The larger predators consume their kills where they fall, for a couple of reasons. First, their 800-pound gorilla mentality makes them confident they can protect their kills from other predators. Second, they usually kill animals that are too large to transport elsewhere.
Smaller predators, lacking such self-confidence and killing more portable prey, carry their kills back to their lairs, where they can consume them safely at their leisure.
In the wild, canines, being relatively small, have this latter instinct — to tote their prey to their lairs. However, domesticated dogs, well fed by doting owners, can survive nicely without it, so the instinct has atrophied in most breeds. Fortunately, those benevolent souls who developed our sporting breeds, especially our retrievers and spaniels, took great pains to preserve and even intensify it, precisely because it can so easily be converted into natural retrieving.
But, you ask, how? Elementary, my dear Watson! If you convince your puppy you are his retrieving lair, he will happily bring you retrieved prey, namely retrieving dummies and birds. To become your new puppy’s retrieving lair, you should go through the following steps.
The Bonding Process
Before you can teach your puppy anything, you must bond with the dog. You must become both the dog’s best buddy and pack leader.
You become your dog’s buddy by spending a lot of pleasant time with him every day.
Feed and water him. Play with him. Take him for walks. Guide him through many new experiences: mall shopping centers, busy streets (on a lead, of course), other (friendly) dogs, new people, runs through hunting cover, and so on. Ideally, you should help him experience something new every day. This will not only facilitate your bonding with him, but it will also help him adjust easily to new training and hunting situations all through his life.
Dogs are pack animals. Therefore, if you don’t become your puppy’s pack leader, he’ll at least try to become yours, which would be bad news. You become his pack leader by firm, fair and consistent discipline. Set behavioral limits for him and enforce them, as gently as he allows, but always firmly and consistently. He shouldn’t chew on your hands or pant legs. He shouldn’t jump up on you. He should stay off of the furniture. And so forth. Also teach him his name, the meaning of “No!” and “Sit.” Introduce him to a strap collar and a lead.
While you’re bonding with him, you should also help establish his basic lair, that is, the place to which he retreats for rest or escape. This will usually be where he sleeps and eats. An outside dog’s basic lair is usually his doghouse. For an indoor dog, it’s usually his bed. If you also feed him nearby, as you should, it will soon become his favorite bed and breakfast.
Introducing a Dummy
Perhaps the worst mistake you can make is tossing a dummy for your puppy too soon — before you have bonded with him and he has established his basic lair. Even if he was retrieving for the breeder before you picked him up, he probably won’t retrieve for you right away. He would more likely react in any of several undesirable ways: He might refuse to go after the dummy; He might go to it, lie down, and start chewing on it (the 800-pound gorilla response); or he might pick it up and run off with it. These problems are more easily avoided than cured.
Only after you have bonded with the puppy and he has established his basic lair should you introduce a small dummy. And “introduce” is not a synonym for toss. Tossing comes later. First, you should help your puppy overcome any fear he might have of this strange new object and become comfortable with it.
To do this, put him on lead and have him sit. When he’s settled down and comfortable, show him the dummy. Let him smell it until he’s familiar with it. When he tries to grab, let him do so, but keep him sitting. If he starts chewing, say “No!” and remove it from his mouth for a few seconds before letting him hold it again. A few such episodes should teach him that you consider dummy-chewing a major no-no.
After he holds the dummy for several seconds without incident, let him carry it around awhile, but always on lead and near you. When this goes well, he’s ready for his first real retrieve.
Take your puppy, on lead, near his basic lair. Squat down and tease him with the dummy until he’s wildly excited to get it. Toss it a less-than-leash-length distance, so you can control him if necessary. Toss it in a direction that puts you between the dummy and his basic lair. He’ll fly after it, snap it up and head for his lair. But you’re in the way! If he tries to run around you, slip your finger under his collar and stop him beside you.
Now comes the critical moment: If you snatch the dummy away from him immediately, he won’t bring the next one anywhere near you. To him, that dummy is his prey, fairly captured, to which even his best buddy has no right. So, don’t touch the dummy right away. Instead, hold his collar with one hand and pet him with the other, while praising him softly. Continue petting and praising him until he loosens he hold on the dummy.
Only then should you take it. Toss it for him again and repeat the process. Three or four retrieves per session are plenty. Quit when he still wants more.
Look at this experience from your puppy’s perspective. He captured his prey and while he was returning to his lair with it, a wonderful thing happened: He chanced upon his best buddy, who stopped him and made a big fuss over him for a long time. That was so pleasant that he forgot about his prey — until his best buddy tossed it again. What fun!
Becoming the Retrieving Lair
ssible, you should give your puppy three or four well-spaced sessions per day.
Continue as outlined above, until he brings the dummy straight to you, with no thought of slipping around you to get to his basic lair. That means you’re becoming his retrieving lair.
Next, from the same starting position, toss the dummy off to either side, so you aren’t directly between it and the basic lair. If he comes straight to you instead of to his basic lair, great! You’re well on your way. In subsequent sessions, repeat these tosses off to either side until you’re sure he prefers coming to you rather than to his basic lair. Very important: Continue petting and praising him until he relaxes his hold on the dummy before you touch the dummy.
Next, move out about three leash-lengths directly in front of the basic lair and toss the dummy toward his lair. Keep your puppy on lead so you can control him if he goes the wrong way with the dummy. When he races out, picks it up, spins, and races to you and away from his basic lair, you have become his retrieving lair, which is precisely why you’ve gone through these steps.
Next, remove the leash and gradually lengthen his retrieves. Before moving into cover, he should be doing 100-yard retrieves on clipped grass, like in a park. When moving into cover, start in light stuff and shorten up substantially.
Jim Spencer’s books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf. Titles are: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadow; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests: A Handler’s guide to Success; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.