In the popular imagination, retriever puppies take to the water immediately and without hesitation. They’re as happily at home in it as ducks are.
In the real world, though, it’s not always that simple. “I’ve seen three-month-old pups swim 25 yards to retrieve a bumper,” acknowledges professional trainer Chris Yielding, of Backwater Cypress Retrievers in Ward, Arkansas. “But most pups need more time than that to develop their confidence in the water. It’s something you have to work up to gradually.”
The importance of introducing your pup to water at an early age can’t be overemphasized, Yielding says. “You want him to get his feet wet when he’s young and impressionable. A pup that’s been exposed to the water at an early age, say two months old or so, has a real leg up in his training compared to an eight- or nine-month-old pup that’s never seen the water.”
Here’s how Yielding describes his basic process: “After you’ve had your pup for a couple of weeks, take him to a pond or other body of water where the bottom slopes down very gradually from shore. Wade out into it yourself, splash around a little to pique the pup’s interest, and encourage him to join you in the fun. Toss a small bumper or tennis ball a few feet from shore and let him get accustomed to wading out to get it. Then, when he does, praise him up one side and down the other. You want this to be the most positive, enjoyable experience he can possibly have, and you never, ever, want to insert anything negative into it. All that will do is set you back.”
Once your pup is comfortable splashing around in the shallows, you can start to increase the distance that you toss the bumper. What frequently happens, says Yielding, is that the pup will get to the point where he can retrieve the bumper while still keeping all four feet on the bottom, but that’s as far as he’ll go. This is when Yielding begins stretching the distance in the smallest possible increments, literally inches at a time, to let the pup’s desire to retrieve conquer his fear of the unknown.
“You have to go at the dog’s pace,” he adds. “It may not be the pace we as trainers would like to go, but you can’t be in a hurry. I worked with one dog for nearly three months to get him to overcome his fear of the water. I can still picture him stretched out on his tippy-toes, trying his darnedest to retrieve that bumper without leaving his feet. Once he got past his fears, he became as automatic a water retriever as you’ve ever seen.”
If your pup needs some extra help in taking that last step, Yielding recommends donning your waders, wading out just deep enough so that the pup will have to swim, and calling him to you while clapping your hands, using the most encouraging, enthusiastic tones you can. “A lot of pups,” Yielding explains, “feel more confident swimming toward you than away from you. You’re their security blanket at that age, so you can turn that to your advantage.”
Another proven tactic is to get the pup’s competitive juices flowing, whether by holding him on a lead while an older dog makes a few retrieves or even letting him get in the water with the older retriever.
You can also sweeten the pot by taping a wing to the bumper, throwing an actual bird (although a mallard-sized bird may be too big a mouthful for a young pup), or tossing a wing-clipped pigeon, whose frantic action on the water is irresistible to all but the most reticent pups.
“I’m a schoolteacher as well as a dog trainer,” Yielding notes, “and I tell my training clients that dogs and kids aren’t that different. They all learn at their own pace, and what works with one may not work with another. The bottom line is that you need to do whatever you can do to entice that pup to pull the trigger and decide for himself that he’s going to do this.”