Spend enough time working with enough retrievers and you're bound to encounter a dog that seems to lack focus, eagerness, or intensity. His attention tends to wander, and it's obvious that his heart's not in it. In extreme cases, he may even lose interest in the act of retrieving, which is a deal breaker for a dog whose job is to fetch birds.
You see this most commonly in younger dogs, but even veterans with several seasons of experience are not immune. And while problems along these lines are often attributed to a lack of prey drive, professional trainer Gary Ruppel, of Kiowa Creek Kennels in Colorado, says that's almost always an overly simplistic diagnosis. Genetics play a role, but environmental factors are equally influential—if not more so.
Ruppel points out that all dogs have some measure of prey drive and retrieving instinct. During his 36 years of experience, it's been extremely rare for him to encounter a dog from hunting stock that didn't have the right stuff to become a serviceable gunning companion.
"They're all individuals," Ruppel emphasizes. "You can't use a one-size-fits-all approach. You have to tailor your program to the qualities and abilities of the individual dog." Where people get into trouble, he says, is by using the same program over and over. What worked for the last dog may not work for the next dog. And if it's not working, the typical response is to push harder and over-train—a recipe for disaster on both ends of the leash.
"It's the trap of expecting too much too soon," Ruppel explains. "The owner gets frustrated and angry, the dog gets confused, and if the dog's a little on the sensitive side, he's likely to shut down completely."
One of the most common mistakes the typical owner makes is giving a young dog too many retrieves. "You want your dog to be happy," Ruppel says, "but you want to keep him hungry for more. As a rule, I tell people to stop after four or five retrieves. Certainly some dogs will keep retrieving for as long as you let them, but most dogs, after a while, will become distracted and want to do something else. That's what you want to avoid."
If motivation does become a problem, Ruppel stresses, you need to step back, take your foot off the gas, and make sure your dog is having fun. It can be as simple as switching up the routine. For example, instead of a steady diet of bumpers, give him an actual bird to retrieve. Frozen birds work well and are something that the average retriever owner can keep on hand.
Another tried-and-true method for revving up a dog's enthusiasm is to pull a few primary flight feathers from a pigeon, throw the bird, and let the dog chase it around. Ideally the bird will be able to fly just well enough to stay out of the dog's reach and make him have to work a little to catch it. "Dogs just light up when you do this," Ruppel says.
Water work is another terrific way to maintain or rekindle the fire. "They love it," Ruppel says. "I probably do 90 percent of my summer training in the water. The dogs have a blast, and it's great exercise too."
Ruppel offers this final advice for keeping your dog happy and engaged: "Relax, enjoy what you have, and train at a pace your dog can absorb."