Solving hunting dog (gundog) delivery problems with retrievers
Do you have a retriever puppy or older dog that loves to retrieve but never seems to bring the bumper or bird back to you? Dropping the bird on the way back to you or running away with the bumper are behaviors that can quickly become frustrating. Even if your dog brings the bird back and drops it at your feet, it is very unlikely that will remain a consistent behavior. It is far more likely that your dog will gradually increase the distance away from you that he/she drops the bird or bumper. So, how can you get your dog to deliver the bumper and birds directly to your hand?
My puppy won’t bring bumper all the way back
Dropping the bumper or bird almost always begins when the dog is a puppy. Unfortunately, many people dismiss the need to teach their puppy how to retrieve correctly. But left uncorrected, any behavior allowed or acceptable when a puppy is 8 weeks old will continue to deteriorate as the pup ages. If you are interested in how to correctly teach your puppy to fetch, check out this post.
Here at Otter Tail Kennels, we raise a few Labrador Retriever puppies each year as Custom Trained Hunting Dogs. We pick these puppies up from the breeder at 7 weeks old and train them until they are ready to go home to their owners at around 9-months to a year old. We rarely have a problem with these puppies not delivering to hand, even when they are young. Why? Because we teach the puppies to retrieve at a young age and encourage them to come back to us with praise, petting and letting the puppy hold their prize (the bumper) for a few moments. We are not in a hurry to take the item from their mouths, and when we do, we immediately throw it again for them. The result is that the puppy quickly learns the retrieving game and is less likely to play the drop or chase game.
Proper teaching of fetch will encourage delivery to hand
If you start teaching your puppy to retrieve at a young age and follow our suggestions of using a long hallway or at least a very long lightweight lead or leash, then most of the time your puppy is not going to get away with not bringing the bumper back to you. A hallway is optimal because there is only one way out, so if your puppy grabs the bumper there is only one way out and that is past you. You can easily stop your puppy by grabbing his/her collar. Then take time to pet and praise your puppy for retrieving the bumper, slowly take the bumper from him/her, tease a bit, and throw it again.
If you are using a long lead, once your puppy picks up the bumper you want to encourage him/her to come to you by gently pulling him/her toward you if he/she does not come on her own.
Build and refine your dog’s retrieving desire
Doing too many retrieves will result in sloppy delivery and decreased desire. Instead, limit the number of retrieves you do with your puppy/dog. You want to leave your dog wanting more. This is particularly important. Even if your dog would happily retriever 50 times, don’t do it! You are far better off to get 3-5 good retrieves where you dog is doing all the mechanics correctly and delivering the bumper or bird to you hand than to do 50 so-so retrieves that your dog is doing his/her own thing with no regard to you as handler.
Dog dropping bird or bumper near fall
If your puppy picks up the bumper but then quickly drops it again, and never brings the bumper back to you, your best course of action is to quit for the day. Sometimes young retrievers take a few weeks to get interested in retrieving. This is nothing to worry about, but don’t try and force it. Just try again tomorrow.
If you dog is a little older and he runs out and drops the bumper or bird near where it fell, you have a larger issue at play. Once a dog has learned that he/she does not HAVE to retrieve the bumper or bird, you will usually see a slow decline in all areas of retrieving. The best way to address this type of problem is with a complete force fetch program. All our hunting and hunt test programs here at Otter Tail Kennels include a force fetch program. It is one of the most important training procedures for hunting or competition retrievers. It is as vital as obedience training.
The best solution for dog that won’t retrieve to hand
A force fetch program will teach your dog the commands HOLD and FETCH. The benefit of this is that by the end of a force fetch program your dog will deliver birds and bumpers into a HEEL position and hold them until you take them from his/her mouth. It creates a clean crisp delivery and gives you the ability to enforce the HOLD and FETCH commands. In our opinion, there is no real substitute for this training, and it is worth every dollar it costs to have this professionally done.
Alternate ways to get your dog to deliver to hand
If you are not willing to invest in training for your retriever, there are a few things you can do that may encourage your dog to deliver to hand. But these are not likely permanent solutions. It will still depend on whether your dog wants or decides to do the work. Without force fetch, there is no way to force your dog to deliver to hand.
Having said that, here are a few training techniques that may help to encourage a better delivery.
Teach your dog HOLD
HOLD is a command that teaches dogs to hold an item in their mouth until we, the handler, takes it from them. It is the first step in the force fetch program. It requires little pressure or correction. The process is mostly taught by attrition or repetition.
The process is simple and straight forward. Have your dog SIT and hold on to his/her collar. Hold an item in front of your dog’s mouth, then put the item inside your dog’s mouth. Tap your dog under his/her chin and say HOLD. The goal is to get your dog to hold the item with little to no other mouth movement. We start this process with a leather glove, then move to a plastic buck, bumper, then bird. Say the HOLD command and tap your dog under his/her jaw several times encouraging your dog to hold the item. Repeat the command and correction any time they move the item in their mouth.
Some dogs resist strongly, some don’t resist at all. It is important to vary the length of time you make your dog HOLD the item. Each time you take the item from them, say GIVE. Remember to give your dog praise and petting while they are holding the item to help them understand that they are doing the right thing and you are happy with them.
Teaching your dog HOLD does not mean they will automatically start delivering to hand. In fact, it is likely that the HOLD command alone will make little difference and that a force fetch program will still be needed if you want your dog to consistently deliver to hand.
Retrieve to hand drills
If you can teach your dog HOLD, the next step is to reinforce that HOLD while your dog is moving. You can do this by incorporating HOLD into obedience drills. This is, of course, assuming that your dog has been obedience trained. If not, your first concern should be obedience.
Walk with HOLD
You can take your dog on short walks and have him/her hold a buck or bumper during the walk. Stop occasionally, command GIVE and take the object from his/her mouth. Then start again.
Remote SIT to HEEL drill
You can also work on the HOLD command while working on SIT to HEEL drills. For these drills have your dog SIT, put an item in your dog’s mouth, and command HOLD. Next, using a 6-foot or longer lead, command SIT and walk away from your dog. Turn to face your dog and command HEEL. Work with your dog to encourage him/her to come from the remote sit position to a SIT position at HEEL on your left or right side, whatever you prefer, still holding the item.
Make sure you give your dog lots of praise if they HOLD the item all the way in and until you take it from them. If they drop the item at any point, say NO, move them back to the exact spot they were sitting prior to the drop and start again. It may take A LOT of repetition to get your dog to do this, but persistence usually pays off.
Some dogs are very compliant and will learn this quickly, others will refuse and resist so much that you will wonder if it is worth it.
Enforcing HOLD in the field
If you can get your dog to HOLD an item and perform the drills above, you can start working to incorporate the HOLD command in the field. As your dog runs toward you with a bumper or bird, wait until they get within 10 to 20 feet and start saying HOLD command to remind your dog to HOLD as you direct him/her into HEEL. With encouragement, some dogs can make this transition. But not all.
Run away from dog during return
Some young dogs simply need a little encouragement to come all the way in and deliver to hand. For those dogs, we use a technique that involves running away. As the dog is running back with the bumper, when they are about 20 to 30 feet away, we start running backward saying HERE, HERE, HERE.
Young retrievers often cannot resist and are encouraged to run toward you faster. When this happens, you stop suddenly. The result is often that the dog comes right into your legs before he/she even realizes it. You should then quickly take the bumper from his/her mouth with a GIVE command and throw it again. Using this technique, some dogs will start to understand that if they bring the bumper all the way to your hand, they get another retrieve, but if they don’t the game stops. This only works if you are consistent to stop all retrieves each time the dog drops the bumper on the ground.
Stop retrieving when dog is teething
With retriever breeds, it is especially important that retrieving never cause the dog pain. For this reason, with young puppies, when they start losing their puppy teeth, we stop all retrieving until the new adult teeth come in. Forcing HOLD or fetching when a dog has sore teeth is cruel. If your dog retrieved before his/her puppy teeth started falling out, you need not worry that he/she will not want to retrieve after.
Final thoughts on how to get my dog to deliver to hand
Most dogs that deliver consistently to hand have gone through a force fetch program. Force fetch is a clear and concise way to encourage your dog to fetch each and every time and delivery the object to hand usually in a HEEL position. It is vital training for hunting and competition dogs, but it must be done right. A professional trainer can complete this process quickly and the results will last long term if you are willing to continue to enforcement.
If you are not ready or willing to invest in a force fetch program for your dog, the tips I included may help you get better results than you have in the past.
If you are looking for a professional retriever trainer with proven hunting and hunt test programs, check out our training programs or give us a call 651-303-6459.
Until next time, happy retrieving.