Mark Davis has invited colleagues with expertise in training flushing gundogs for the field to write for the next few editions. In his second instalment Rod Watt, a devotee of English springer spaniels and a national field trial judge, moves from learning manners to retrieving in the field.
Teaching your gundog to retrieve well in the field is of paramount importance — it puts the icing on the cake.
I like to train retrieving in a confined space to start with, as this gives you control and teaches the dog to be direct. You can also develop drive, speed and style if you handle your dog correctly while in this space.
Here are a few simple steps to follow:
- Find a dummy or a sock rolled up. Even an old slipper. In fact, anything that your dog likes to carry.
- Take your dog into a confined space (the side way of your house or the hallway).
- Get down on your knees and tease the dog with your dummy so the dog wants it. Tease the dog some more until he/she is chasing it around you.
- Throw it to the end of your confined space, and as your dog is going out to pick it up, say “fetch”.
- Once your dog has it in its mouth, encourage it back to you by voice and body language.
- When close to you, take the dummy from its mouth gently and offer praise.
This exercise must be made a game that the dog loves to play. This will develop drive, speed and style. You will notice with this exercise there is no “sit and stay” before the dog is sent or when it comes back with its prize. That comes later when you have developed a bold, keen retriever.
In this game, the dog will only get two retrieves. If you give anymore, your dog will become tired of the game and perhaps bored, creating a slow dog that makes mistakes.
Remember you’re teaching “sit, stay” in other areas of its training, so it won’t be hard to incorporate steadiness later in the retrieve.
Once this game is ingrained in your dog’s brain, then start to put the polish on!
Take your dog to an area like a park where you can find maybe two fences a metre or two apart, get down on your knees with your arm around the dog on your left side, and throw the dummy.
Count to three and let him go to the command “fetch”.
Your dog will quickly get to the stage where you can take your arm away, showing steadiness to the retrieve, and you will still have the speed and style.
The last part of the polish is to sit in front and deliver. In my section on whistle work, it’s explained how to teach a dog to sit to the whistle at a distance so when your dog is coming back to you with the dummy, a quick pip on the whistle as the dog gets to you should produce the required result.
Sitting in front, with a dummy in its mouth, quickly take the dummy. Don’t wait or he could drop it! You might need a gentle reminder by pushing the back end down whilst taking delivery.
All your timing must be right with this exercise and it’s important that the dummy goes in your hand. You can slowly extend the time between the dog sitting and you taking delivery as the dog learns this procedure.
To complete your retrieving, once your dog is waiting patiently for the command “fetch”, every now and then, instead of saying “fetch”, say “stay” and you go out and pick up the dummy. This will make a steady dog.
When introducing dogs to game for the retrieve, I like to start with a dummy covered in a rabbit skin for a month or so, then a cold rabbit for a month or so, then a warm rabbit. If you go from dummies to warm game, you’re putting your dog in a position where it could fail. Better to slowly progress to the real thing than having to fix problems!
My Golden Rules
Be consistent in your word, in your actions and in your training methods.
Don’t set your dog up to fail.
Too often I see people asking their dog to perform an exercise that is too difficult and are disappointed when their dog fails.
This is one reason your dog will lack confidence and go backwards in its training, then confusion sets in. Set your dog up to succeed.
By this, I mean give the exercise, but make it easier so he/she can do it, then build up slowly to what’s required. This should build confidence, trust and understanding.
Understanding how the mind of a dog works.
In training any dog to do anything, we should always remember that in order to control the dog’s body action, we have to firstly communicate with the dog’s mind. Understanding how dogs think is critical.
Given they don’t reason like humans, if you don’t correct them immediately after a mistake, then you will confuse your dog. Once confused, they could very well shut down.
Thus, it is paramount that you remember it’s the mind you’re training, not the body action. Here is an example of how their minds work.
Your dog runs in on a wounded rabbit, hunts it and returns to you triumphantly with the rabbit in his/her mouth, expecting your approval. Instead it’s met with harsh words and disapproval.
The last thing your dog did was to retrieve to hand, so it is undoubtedly the retrieve to hand and not the breaking to shot that you are chastising.
Taking small steps.
I believe the smaller the step we take, the better foundations we are building. Therefore, this should produce a better performance in the field.
Bonding with your dog.
Bonding is about spending time with your dog doing enjoyable things.
This could include playing with the dog, always feeding the dog, walking the dog and being the dog’s best friend. This is building a bond and gaining their trust.
Don’t blame the dog.
Too many people come to me saying. “My dog is doing this wrong!” It’s not the dog that’s doing anything wrong, it could be the trainer not getting the message across properly.
Your dog is just doing what they think you require. Go back over your training method and make it simple. Change it to something more basic, then go slow and show patience.
Short positive lessons are best.
Dogs haven’t the ability to concentrate for long periods, so keep the lessons short but often, reverting all the lessons into habits is how dogs learn the tasks we require.
Remember, it’s the mind you’re training, not the body action.
Essentially, you can get your message across by repetition, praise and patience.
In closing, I would like to remind you of the aphorism, “slow and steady will win the race” — take your time, don’t be frightened to take a step back to go forward, and if you follow this method, I wish you good luck and happy hunting.
Contributed by Rod Watt