Nearly all retriever puppies have an inherent desire to pick objects up with their mouth. But only a small percentage have what I call "natural pick up and carry." The pups that do are those rare dogs that are always on the lookout for something to hold between their teeth. These are the puppies that would be just as happy holding on to a soda can as they would a mallard wing. They just want something clenched between their teeth.
The same goes for pure retrieving desire. Some dogs, usually those boasting excellent pedigrees, will show a much more natural bend toward bringing a tossed object back. Most pups, however, fall somewhere between no interest at all, and natural pick up and carry.
Both ailments have to be coaxed out of the dog and nurtured to lay the foundation for a solid retrieving game. Here's the rub: Nothing will replace force-fetching, or as I like to call it, "the trained retrieve."
I'm going to address the steps it takes to encourage a young duck dog to do what he naturally wants to, and what you want him to do as well.
PUPPY PROOF YOUR HOUSE
While having a puppy that wants to carry everything around is a blessing, it can also feel like a curse in the house because we don't want them picking up television remotes or children's toys. This is where things can go wrong in a hurry, so the key is to puppy-proof your house as much as possible.
This means putting objects you don't want him to carry out of reach, because you don't want to have to discipline your puppy for carrying something around. At a young age, he doesn't know he isn't supposed to pick up a pair of balled up socks any more than he knows he is supposed to pick up a dead wood duck. If you punish him for the socks he might lose his confidence later. That's no good.
Over time, if you manage the objects he has access to, you can begin to define what is right to carry and what is wrong. At first, you simply want to make sure that he only has a chance to pick up and carry the right objects.
NUDGE THEM TO RETRIEVE
Sporting breeds are naturally inclined to bring something back to you, but that willingness might disappear. This is due to the fact that they all eventually figure out that once you take something from them, they no longer have it. Even if they understand you'll toss it again, they may grow reluctant to bring it to you because they know it will suddenly be out of their possession.
One way to remedy this, especially when dealing with young puppies is to take a ball or a small puppy-sized dummy, and close up all of the doors in a hallway that leads off of a family room.
Sit at the entrance to the family room and toss the object down the hallway. The puppy should run down the hallway and grab it, only to realize it's more comfortable in the living room and not at the end of the hall. Naturally, he'll have to run back to you. When he does, pet him, give him lots of love, and then gently take the object. You can also start to incorporate the "drop" or "give" command here is as well.
It's important to note that even if your dog shows all the signs of being a retrieving machine, you shouldn't push it beyond two retrieves per session. Keep it fun, and keep him wanting more and you'll find that your dog does want more, which is good. Also, throughout this phase make sure to limit the access your dog has to objects. This means that when he does get to pick something up it's something special.
TAKE IT OUTSIDE
As your pup grows a bit older, it's a good idea to work on a few drills in the yard or the neighborhood park. One thing I like to do in the backyard is to toss a dummy and as soon as the pup runs off to retrieve it I turn my back and start to walk away. For young dogs, you're the security blanket and they'll perceive this as their safety is walking away and they'll almost always scurry to catch up to you. When they do, kneel down and praise them before taking the dummy. This trick works well for all pups, but especially those that have learned that if you're sitting down while working drills, you're not going anywhere and therefore they don't need to return to you.
The next phase of this drill is to find a place where mowed grass meets taller grass or cover. Toss a dummy two or three feet into the taller grass and send the puppy in. Their instinct will be to pick up the dummy and get out of the cover, which brings them right back to you.
Remember to avoid distractions during either of these drills and that your job is to instill confidence in the pup while ensuring he is enjoying the new tasks.
INTRODUCE WATER WORK
This process of encouraging natural pick up and carry doesn't end on land. Another drill I like to use, especially with duck dogs, is to find a suitable pond to work in (make sure you've done a proper water introduction). Ideally, the pond will slope gradually, but be deep enough where the dog has to swim and cannot touch the bottom.
Toss the dummy into the water and as soon as the dog goes after it, wade out with him. When he grabs the dummy, cut him off before he can reach shallower water and take the dummy as he swims up to you. This drill leaves him no option but to deliver the dummy right to your hand, which is a good thing.
Again, all of this work is a precursor to the trained retrieve, or force-fetch. There is no true substitute for force-fetching, but there is the chance to lay the groundwork for a dog that will learn that his job is to retrieve on command, hold an object as long as you ask him to, and eventually deliver that object to hand.
In other words, these are the first steps in developing a first-rate retrieving machine that not only wants to do his job, but understands how to do it perfectly whether he's in a boat on big water or a pit in a cut cornfield.