By Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels

A desirable attribute of a good waterfowl retriever is the smooth delivery of downed game that is neither mangled nor crushed nor partially plucked. Both style and function dictate that retrievers not incessantly drop bumpers or birds on the return.

A gundog with a sloppy mouth attempting to deal with a lightly crippled drake mallard or pheasant will interrupt the hunt with an unnecessary frolic, possibly resulting in a lost bird.

Developing a dog that consistently delivers to hand is largely a matter of conditioning. Some pups will retrieve objects directly to hand naturally, while others bolt away with their prize and still others drop the bumper at your feet on the return.

Early on, natural delivery pups need only be encouraged while insuring that we don't interrupt that tendency with inappropriate behaviors or expectations. The sloppy-mouth pups will need a bit of gentle, repetitive, special attention to amend their behaviors before they become too entrenched.

Let's develop a gundog that always delivers undamaged birds to hand, never dropseven at the water's edgeand makes a stylish presentation upon return. We refer to this training sequence as conditioned delivery. View conditioned delivery as an important part of the training process, not as a piecemeal problem-solving activity.

Teaching appropriate response to hold and release an object on command is comparable to the importance of teaching sit, stay or down on command. All are natural behaviors in a dog, yet we want unconditional compliance on command. Conditional delivery training produces desired responses relative to the retrieve on command.

The Ounce of Prevention

If possible, it is far better never to let inappropriate behaviors begin in your pup relative to carrying objects in his mouth. A well bred retriever pup will show natural tendencies to carry and hold objects. It is up to its owners not to do anything to discourage this in a young pup. Understand that developing good delivery and a soft mouth in your retriever begins the day your puppy joins your home.

If the pup picks up and carries any item that is not detrimental to the pup's safety, regardless of its value, encourage him to bring it to you. Take it away slowly without scolding, and never pursue the pup. You want the pup to want to come to you with his newfound prize. If you don't want him to carry any specific items, limit accessibility. Remind the whole family of these conditions. If an object is of no consequence, such as a leaf or a stick, allow the puppy to continue to carry it as long as he likes.

A few other reminders:

  • No chew toys of plastic or cloth. How will the pup distinguish them when introduced to dummies?
  • No chasing pup with objects in his mouth or playing tug-of-war.
  • Never correct a pup for anything when he has an object in his mouth. Carrying objects should be pleasurable.
  • Likewise, coming to you should be a pleasurable experience for the pup. Never call him to you for a correction.
  • When retrieving, use small, lightweight canvas or fire-hose bumpers. A knotted sock will do. Only toss retrieves in confined areas such as a hallway to encourage direct returns.
  • When the pup is tired, hot and panting, don't toss bumpers.
  • Avoid repetitive, meaningless retrieves that extend to the point of boredom. The pup will pursue other interests or make a toy out of the bumper.
  • Never snatch anything from a pup's mouth. Gently encourage a release despite your frustration. Tell everyone else in contact with the pup to do the same!
  • Children should be supervised when playing with the pup, and keep a close eye on visiting friends. Their misguided interaction may play havoc with a pup's training.
  • Don't put your pup on birds too early. One mishap could make quite an impact.

Early Puppy Retrieves

When making two to three early retrieves per day, crouch down or sit on the floor in a confined area to encourage the pup to come back to you. Upon his return with the bumper, get the pup close to your body. Don't immediately take the dummy away. Let him keep it and share it with you as you lavish praise.

Stroke the pup under the chin and chest to encourage the hold. Don't worry about how the pup presents for delivery. Stylish delivery will come later. Gently take the dummy and occasionally immediately give it back if he will accept it. Continue the praise. Share the prize. Build the trust while encouraging natural hold. Use the same methods for early retrieving outdoors.

Field Tips for Young Pups

As you progress to the field, consider the following:

1. Keep your training area free of distractions.

2. Never let another dog have the opportunity to steal the bumper from the pup when retrieving.

3. If the pup won't exit the water with a bumper, accept the delivery at the water's edge or wade out a few feet to get it.

4. Find a bumper the pup enjoys carrying. If the pup is reluctant to pick up a particular variety, move to something more interestinga tennis ball, feather-covered bumper or small Dokken bird dummy.

5. If you have a persistent problem with a pup running away or playing with the bumper on the retrieve, cease retrieving sessions until obedience and recall are instilled.

In the early days of puppyhood, try to develop natural delivery as much as possible and be on guard not to condition something in the pup you must later train out.

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 maturitynot agedetermine 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.

The Beginning

Eliminate all retrieving during the entire hold-conditioning sequence. Continue to simultaneously work on items 1-7 with the exclusion of #2. Viable substitutes are non-retrieve exercises including sit to the flush, steadiness, honoring, recall past diversions, etc.

It is helpful to have a small, stable table to elevate the dog to waist height. A truck tailgate or picnic table will suffice. Let your dog become familiar and comfortable with elevation for a couple of days prior to beginning. Trust and confidence is important. Tie the pup securely to eliminate evasive movement. Note this very important point: Once the process is begun, it must be continued each day in one or two 5- to 10-minute sessions until the entire process is complete. Sessions should consist of about five repetitions.

Sequence 1

To avoid spoiling your pup's enthusiasm for training dummies, use a wooden dowel as the hold object. A wooden hammer handle will work too. Secure the pup on the table by the collar to prevent movement or lying down. Reach across the bridge of the dog's nose to open the mouth and insert the dowel just behind the canine teeth. Place one hand just behind the head on the neck, while using the other to apply light pressure upward under the lower jaw to assure closure. Be sure to clear the pup's lips from between his teeth and the dowel to prevent pinching. Keep a calm, soothing tone of voice and stroke the pup gently. As the pup begins to understand what is being asked, begin repeating the command, "hold," and gradually release the pressure on the lower jaw. Short repetitions at first, with lots of praise for small successes, will produce results. Tone of voice is very effective in communicating satisfaction or displeasure in this process. Positive reinforcement for results, no matter how small, is far more effective than the application of force for long-term compliance.

Now introduce the release command, "drop," "dead," "give," etc.just be consistent. Insure that the pup understands to maintain the grip until the release command is given. The objective in Sequence 1 is to have the pup:

1. Hold the dowel securely for at least 2 minutes continuously

2. Hold the dowel calmly while untied on the table

3. Continue to hold while you are absent from sight for brief periods

4. Totally understand the "hold" command and the release command

5. Hold securely as you approach and touch or tap the dowel

Sequence 2

Next, we reinforce the same skills while the dog is seated untied on the ground. After a few sessions the dog should be relaxed while holding the object securely as you walk about, touch the dog or create minor distractions. The outcome of this sequence is to be able to approach the dog, touch the dowel and command the release. We often conduct this drill with three to four dogs in group sessions with enhanced results.

Sequence 3

Now, condition the pup to heel while holding the dowel. This may take a bit more effort as it involves the new dimension of movement. Here, the outcome is to be able to heel the dog considerable distances with turns and the occasional sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Include crossing a few small obstacles as well.

Sequence 4

Put the dog in a sitting position, place the dowel in the mouth and command, "Hold." Walk a short distance away from the pup and call the pup to heel. Occasionally, as the pup approaches, remind the pup to "hold." As the pup reaches you, have him finish by sitting by your side or in front of you (your preference) and carefully take the dowel with the release command. Reward successful completion of the exercise profusely with much excitement. Gradually extend the distance out to 50 yards and remember: no retrieves yet. If problems occur, simplify by shortening the distance or returning to hold/heel.

Sequence 5

Now that the pup reliably delivers the dowel to hand from remote sit and makes a stylish recovery for delivery, we repeat the entire process using a small canvas or fire hose bumpertable, ground, heel and recall. This should progress quickly if preliminaries were properly instilled. Next, include the carrying of a variety of objects from remote sit to hand deliveryweighted bumpers, dead fowl dummies, frozen birds of various sizes and finally freshly killed game.

Upon completion of Sequence 5, we should now have a pup that:

  • Understands the "hold" and release commands
  • Delivers bumpers and birds to hand from remote sit
  • Stylishly delivers to hand in a desirable finished position

Ready for the test? Attempt a simple, straightforward retrieve to demonstrate the result of your work. We want to find out if our conditioning has modified the behavior for the desired results of solidly picking up the bumper, holding the bumper while carrying it, delivering the bumper to hand and releasing the bumper properly. If so, we are ready for the final phase with no further retrieving at this point. If not, revisit the appropriate sequence for further conditioning.

Our final phase of conditioning will take us to the field and water to apply the newly shaped behaviors of delivery to practical situations.

Retriever transitional training processes are designed to transfer learned behaviors and skills from yard work and other controlled environments to practical field-hunting situations. Although these exercises usually lack multi-level concepts or actual hunting scenarios, they do involve elements that will be confronted in the field. Individuals occasionally fall short in this aspect of retriever training. They work hard on skills, drills, patterns and conditioning.

Then they pitch the young prospect directly into the exciting atmosphere of a hunt test or actual day's shooting. The outcome can be less than desirable. With this in mind, one should progress systematically and concentrate on transitional exercises, which will benefit a young dog's skills by reinforcing learned behaviors in a variety of practical situations.

As we begin the transition to delivery-to-hand conditioning, it is important to be absolutely consistent in the manner in which delivery is accepted, as well as the use of the command, "hold," and "release" (or "drop," "give," "dead"). If one decides upon the side delivery/finish, work must begin on the various turns and alignments prior to involving the bumper. Then, once proficient in the recovery position for delivery, the bumper is added to begin hold/delivery sequences. It is important to accept the object (bird or bumper) from under the object and the dog's lower jaw. Release should only occur on command. Handlers should avoid making a habit of delicately grasping a bird's wing or foot to accept delivery. By taking a firm grip from underneath the dog's jaw, the hunter stands less chance of losing those boisterous wounded drake mallards or cock pheasants that the retriever has worked hard to deliver to hand.

Front delivery is popular with spaniel and bird dog handlers. There is obvious merit to this delivery position for waterfowl retrievers as well:

1. It is fast and accurate. Straight in, sit, deliver and recover to heel.

2. Wet dogs will shake in front once the bird is delivered, not on hunter.

3. Usually handlers can grip the bird better from the front position, as both hands are available.

4. Side delivery is often useless in hunting situationstight quarters in blinds, pits, boats, deep water, etc.

The aspiring gundog is now delivering consistently to hand and finishing nicely in yard work as well, so now we move to the field. The suggested exercises are designed to facilitate the transition of delivery-to-hand skills developed thus far to practical field situations. Other exercises exist, but these, reinforced in a positive manner, will effectively transfer newly established behaviors into enduring habits relative to hunting situations. If sequence I and II have been successful, these transitional exercises will progress quickly and enjoyably.

1. Recall from sitSit the pup 50 yards out and place the bumper in his mouth with the "hold" command. Recall the student from remote sit to heel while holding. Insure a direct route is taken without dropping. Require a smooth finish (side or front) and delivery on the drop command.

Additional options:

A. Stop to WhistleIncorporate a stop and sit to the whistle on the recall. The dog should sit, hold, and remain seated until recalled without dropping.

B. Diversion bumpers should now be tossed as the dog advances from remote sit. This is a great way to introduce diversions and prevent switching. Add cold game and gunfire to create more attractive diversions. Other distractions should be implemented as well, including other people, other dogs working at a distance, kids playing and/or other dogs honoring at the line. The pup's attention must not regress and compromise proper delivery.

2. Water workLocate a water source with a long, shallow bank. Practice hold-heel and recall drills along the bank in the shallow water, requiring the pup to bound in the water on the return. Also include recall across deeper water while working in waders in waist-deep water to accept delivery.

Water exitPlace pup in chest-deep water and walk out on the bank, recall out of the water and get delivery to hand. No drops or shaking should occur at the water's edge. Begin close to the water if necessary, then extend to 40+ yards.

3. ObstaclesSet up situations that require the dog to recall and negotiate various types of obstacles while holding. Begin with the pup at sit/hold, cross the barrier yourself along the desired route and recall. Include practical situations such as jumps over fallen logs and rail fences; crossing steep ditches; punching through thick, tangled grass or briar patches; and negotiating under fences. Use a variety of hold objects in this drill such as Dokken duck dummies, heavy bumpers and cold game.

4. Land/Water/Land DrillsPlace pup at sit/hold on land, then wade across a narrow body of water to the opposite bank. Be sure the channel of water extends long enough to discourage running around the bank. Recall the pup directly across the water and accept delivery. Lengthen land distances on both sides as you progress. Occasionally incorporate diversions such as gunfire, decoys, other dogs or throwing a bumper, and controls such as a "stop" to the whistle command.

Finally, our retriever prospect is naturally quite comfortable with deliveries to hand in a stylish manner without the pressure of force-fetch methods. Retrieving exercises now may progress with reasonable assurance that delivery behaviors have been successfully modified.

The sequences and steps outlined may seem a bit involved, but they are not. Phase II and III may take only a week for the talented pup with a natural mouth, while three to four weeks may be required for other young dogs. It is important to get delivery skills properly instilled in all retrievers of waterfowl and/or upland birds in the early stages of basic training. Through patience, persistence and consistent application of each of the outlined steps, success will embrace you and your future hunting pal.

"A dog believes you are what you think you are." Jane Swan