As the pre-training days of puppyhood draw to an end and the long-anticipated beginning of formal retriever training approaches, be alert to a factor that can negatively affect the development of the natural hold: the shedding of puppy teeth. When the adult teeth begin to arrive, usually between 4 and 5.5 months of age, the pup's gums become quite sensitive. Terminate all retriever training for the duration of this period or the pup may develop the dysfunctional habit of dropping the bumper due to discomfort. They may even resort to chewing on the object.
When to Start
As progression begins to lead us into a formal training process, usually at about 6 or 7 months, don't worry about repetitive, meaningless retrieves or stylish delivery. Focus on obedience, providing only a few retrieves each week to keep up enthusiasm for both you and the pup. If the pup is unnecessarily dropping or mouthing the bumper, discontinue retrieving. Don't reward dysfunctional behavior with additional retrieves; you will only condition in problems that must be corrected later.
As the pup returns from a retrieve, coming in directly in front of you, accept the bumper by placing your hand under the pup's chin and lightly stroke and scratch the chin and back of the head simultaneously to encourage the hold. If the pup drops the bumper, don't become punitive or overreact. The pup's training progression and maturity - not age - determine when to begin hold conditioning. Read your dog and don't begin too early. Here are some general guidelines as to when to start:
1. Pup is proficient on all obedience commands.
2. Pup is enthusiastic about retrieving.
3. Pup confidently enters and exits both shallow and deep water.
4. Pup readily responds to recall and stop whistles.
5. Pup enthusiastically crosses barriers: small jumps, logs, ditches, heavy cover, etc.
6. Pup locates bumpers or balls quickly in heavy cover.
7. Pup has a good attitude about training and has developed a trust in you, the handler.
It is very important that the dog responds immediately to the here/recall command, both verbally and via whistle, from a distance of 50 yards prior to and during the delivery/conditioning phase.