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Retrieving Drive for Gundogs
by Joe Law
4 May 2010

If you want to get started with your Gundog in Retrieving Trials or Retrieving Ability Tests you’ll need a dog with good retrieving drive. This may seem obvious, but we’re looking for a dog that will go out hard to retrieve and come back just as hard. Retrieving has to be the dog’s total focus. You don’t want a dog that strolls out or back with the retrieve. Nor do you want a dog that finds but deliberately passes by the game: this is referred to as “blinking”. Another fault is a dog that hunts an area that it has already worked or sniffs around other scents: this is called  “pottering”.

So how do we build the retrieving drive in a dog so that it goes out swiftly, with purpose and enthusiasm? Firstly, let’s look at a young pup that you are starting out with around 8- 10 weeks of age. In most Gundogs the retrieving instinct should be there in the dog and we want to bring this out so that the dog grows to love retrieving. This is his purpose.

DriveJust get the young pup by your side, sitting or standing, and get an object to throw. Retrieving on flat grass at the beginning is best as pup can see what’s going on; it’s not about scenting at this stage. Make sure he sees it in your hand. Wave it under his nose if you like. Throw it out in front and the little guy should take off after it. Use the word fetch and as you repeat this over the coming weeks he’ll quickly learn what this means.  Don’t worry about the other obedience commands at this very early stage. He doesn’t have to sit and stay or even heel by your side. The idea is to have fun and get him mad keen to go after the retrieve. The obedience can be put in over the top later, once we are building the drive. 

When your pup has picked up the item he may just come running back to you. If not, call him. Move backwards or even run away to get him to follow you. As he comes in to you, take the item and say “give”.

What to get your pup to retrieve? It could be almost anything. A puppy size retrieving dummy or rolled up socks (the ones you have worn all day should be especially nice) are useful. You may use an old slipper or thong.  Be careful with the last two as your dog may end up carrying your shoes around all the time (chewing on them?). I don’t recommend using sticks as when the dog is out working at a retrieving trial but can’t find their retrieve it may find a stick and think that will do.

As your pup grows retrieving dummies can be used and distances can be gradually increased. At this stage try to get someone out in front to throw the retrieve item. Let your young dog see clearly what is going on and use a “watch”, “mark” or similar command. He should be going out and back fast by now.

If you have an adult gundog that hasn’t had the retrieving drive brought out, it’s best to start in a similar manner as you would with a pup. Don’t worry too much with “heel”, “sit”, “stay”. Get his interest. Throw fun retrieves. Swing a retrieving dummy around until he really wants it, throw it and let him go. Use a fun up beat command like “hup hup”.  Bring the obedience control over your dog after he is going out hard.
It’s all about bringing out the natural retrieving instinct in your Gundog, and the drive to retrieve. Your dog will want to do it. And he’ll thank you for it. After all, this is what he was born to do!


Photo by Rod Drew of Steve Hall's Labrador "Case", 2013.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Dogs NSW magazine.

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