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I Simply Wish These Dogs Would Retrieve! 

Todd and Riley the springer spaniel

Over the past few years, we have observed a consistent problem with the dogs we get in for training at Craney Hill Kennel. The problem is exhibited in many fashions, such as butter-mouth, hard-mouth,  refusal,  avoidance,  playing,  etc.  However,  the problem is the same in all instances. These dogs will not retrieve. As you might guess, my philosophy on retrieving is different than most opinions. First of all, I believe that retrieving is the act of leaving from one place to go to another and pick something up. The item may be thrown, as in a mark, or just an object lying out there, as in a blind retrieve. Once the dog picks up the object, I believe retrieving is over and obedience begins.


The other big difference I have regarding retrieving is the term “natural retriever” that is thrown around as a cliché to promote the sale of a breeder’s or trainer’s dogs. The fact is that what we think of as a natural retriever is not natural at all. In nature, the dog picks an object up and runs off with it. Unless it is bringing food back to a litter of puppies, there is no retrieving in nature. So the next time that your puppy runs out and picks up an object that was thrown and then runs off with it, remember that HE IS ACTING LIKE A NATURAL RETRIEVER.


I think that this is a fundamental problem with the dogs that we see coming in for training. I am left to theorize (albeit with many years of experience) that many of the problems stem from a lack of understanding of what a dog is. We have covered some of this before, but again, your dog does not want you to have the bird, training dummy, stick, tennis ball or whatever. Most dogs have a genetic desire to run after the object because they are canines (PRONOUNCED PREDATOR). If left completely alone, most dogs will also pick the object up.


The training problems begin once WE try to get the dog to bring the object back. We yell instructions, whisper sweet things to encourage them and then there is my personal favorite; the proverbial “hunt it up” command. If the dog survives all of the “encouragement” and picks the object up, it is generally then subjected to another rash of hooting and hollering to try to get him to bring the object back. All of this talking is making the dog apprehensive because it does not know what you are saying. Your voice tends to increase in volume and you may start moving towards the dog. Once that happens, the dog either drops the object or runs further away. If the owner continues to work with the  dog  and  continues  to  give  all  of  these  commands (PRONOUNCED PRESSURE), it is very possible that the dog will stop picking the object up all together or will start to damage birds.


I propose that there is a better way to get your dog to retrieve. I will save all of the discussion of rolled socks in a hallway, building a retrieving corridor in the yard or running away from the puppy to get him to follow you. These are all easy training tools that have been written about more than enough and you should be able to easily find information regarding them. Our plan evolves only two rules…start early and do not move.


Scott and Fuller (1965, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog) made a very surprising discovery when they were not able to start a retrieving experiment as early as they had hoped. They originally  planned  on  completing  the  experiment  when  the puppies were nine weeks old but had to delay it until the puppies were 32 weeks of age. The result was that only 11.0 percent of the dogs retrieved the object and released it to the owner. Now I think this is an impressive study; however, all dogs can be trained to retrieve so if the low success rate was the only result, we could just train the dogs to retrieve. However, the most important result of the study was that Scott and Fuller also observed that the puppies that began retrieving at 32 weeks of age were harder to train. This means that if a dog does not learn to retrieve at an early age, it has missed the imprinting stage and the lack of learning during this impressionable period is largely irreversible.


The importance of retrieving is also voiced in other arenas. The single most reliable indicator of a puppy’s general temperament and potential as a companion or working dog is revealed by the puppy’s willingness to retrieve. As an evaluator at Biosensor (U.S. Army Superdog Program), Lindsay (2000, Handbook of Applied Dog  Behavior  and  Training)  opined  that  the  most  reliable predictor among young puppies (eight to ten weeks) for success as military  dog  prospects  was  an  avidity  for  ball  play.  Also, Pfaffenberger  (1963,  The  New  knowledge  of  Dog  Behavior) reports a strong link between retrieving at a young age and later success in training as an adult guide dog. The conclusion is that starting retrieving at a young age has positive behavioral training benefits as the dog ages.


When retrieving with your young puppy, you will of course start by tossing the object only a short distance. As you will begin retrieving prior to ten weeks of age, I will assume that the puppy will pick up the object. Initially, the puppy will bring the object back to you, or reasonably close. In a short time, your puppy that was retrieving so well will become a “natural” retriever and start running off with the object. A certain amount of this would be acceptable and if you have shown the puppy in the past what “here” means, it is relatively easy to solve. However, I cannot stress enough that going after the puppy or yelling at it is a mistake. I suggest that you take a seat and in most cases the puppy will come to you after a little time (having a few treats in your pocket to give him when he returns will help for the next time). As I said, DON’T MOVE.

These two rules, when used together, will significantly improve your puppy’s retrieving. It will also make your trainer happier and your wallet fuller. It is simple economics. If your trainer needs to spend time teaching the dog basic retrieving, it is time and money not spent on other things. Since you will generally have the puppy until it is five or six months of age anyway, YOU will be the one to teach the puppy to retrieve correctly during the imprinting period of its life.



Teach Your Dog To Be A Problem Solver!


If you train to a high expectation, you can get the dog to solve problems and correct to provide the desired behavior.

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