Prerequisites For Early Retriever Training
by Joe Law
30 January 2012

One of the main attributes that distinguish retrievers from other breeds of dogs showing strong hunt and pursuit characteristics is the retriever’s ability to retrieve game with a soft and gentle mouth. This is an extremely important attribute to a hunter of game birds that must be retrieved in a condition fit for the table.
Soft mouth is fundamentally a breed characteristic that needs to be maintained and bred on and therefore given careful attention in any breeding programme of retrievers. It would also therefore be wise to look for good mouth habits in the parents of any retriever pup you may seek to buy.  From an early age some pups will show a natural instinct to want to carry objects around with a soft and tidy mouth and this is often a good sign. That having been said, young pups will often bite down hard on a bird and then grow out of that tendency when raised properly and learn not to consider game as their food. Early retriever training is therefore usually best introduced on training dummies with only an occasional opportunity to experience retrieving fur and feather.
It is questionable if an inherently hard-mouthed dog can be changed into a soft-mouthed dog with training. Certainly, steps can be taken to avoid mouth problems developing and it is wise to avoid any rough tug-o-war type games when playing with a young dog.  From an early age a pup should be encouraged to bring objects it finds to you and be rewarded with much praise when it responds in a correct manner.

Retrievers love the thrill of the chase and will happily chase after objects that are cast for them. Young retrievers can also love to be the one who is being chased, and this aspect of play is to be avoided and discouraged. A young dog must learn early that it is not part of retrieving for it to run off with a dummy and we simply don’t play that sort of game!  The “Come” or “Here” command is a very important part of a young dog’s early training and by using praise and reward a correct response should be taught and maintained both on and off lead and be reliably established before formal retrieving training commences.

The “Fetch”, “Hold” and “Give” commands need to be taught with the dog responding to these commands with a firm but soft mouth.  The trainers own demeanour while teaching these commands needs to firm, patient and consistent with short and frequent sessions producing the best results.  Inexperienced trainers often overdo the use of force in attempts to hasten the process but this usually has an adverse effect and only slows progress. Excessive force can also result in other faults such as the dog adopting a stand off position at the point of delivery and even freezing on the bird. The use of food as a reward motivation during this process is not usually recommended, as its presence seems to only encourage the dog to spit out the dummy in its anticipation of receiving a treat. Only when the correct responses are well established can food be offered as a final reward.

Once these basic fetch, hold and give responses are routine then it will be time to combine fetching, carrying and delivering the dummy with other basic obedience exercises of heeling, sitting, staying and coming. When these basic skills are in place a dog is ready to be introduced to the excitement of retrieving sighted articles that will be cast and retrieved. The retrieve will now become the reward for properly executing all the basic commands and food rewards can be reduced and eventually omitted. From now on the dog should only be released on command to retrieve when the retrieve is being carried out in conjunction with excellent line manners and steadiness.

Finally, once these basic training behaviours have become routine, there will be a whole new and exciting world of retrieving opening up for you and your dog.

Photo by Lara Sedgmen

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Dogs NSW magazine.

This page is provided by Working Gundog Club Inc. (Affiliated with Dogs NSW)