What to do when your hunting dog stops delivering the birds
Retriever breeds, as their name suggests, generally have an innate desire to retrieve. This can be fun for playing a game of fetch or exercising the dog, but there is also a more practical side. Retrievers make great duck dogs or gun dogs for hunters. Their natural desire for birds and their love to retrieve make them perfect for the job. But what if your hunting retriever will not fetch?
Believe it or not, this is a common problem. We are constantly fielding calls from hunters who want to hunt with their Labrador, Golden or Chesapeake Bay Retriever but somewhere along the way the dog decided to stop retrieving. This can be a huge problem and, unfortunately, is not an easy one to fix.
Why your retriever stopped retrieving
There could be many reasons why your retriever stopped retrieving. In fact, it could be a combination of reasons. Before you pursue training to correct the problem, however, you should first try to determine why your retriever stopped retrieving.
Is there a health problem?
It is important to rule out any health issues first. If the reluctance to retrieve started suddenly, it is possible that your dog is not feeling well. If your dog is older, he or she may be developing arthritis and running may be difficult or painful. Or, his or her teeth may be rotting and picking anything up is painful. A vet visit may be helpful to rule out any underlying health issues.
If your dog is younger than six months, it is possible that they are teething. Their baby teeth are falling out and their new big teeth are coming in. It is not uncommon for dogs this age to temporarily stop retrieving because of mouth pain. If your dog is teething, you should severely limit retrieving until the new teeth come in. You do not want your puppy to associate pain with retrieving.
If your dog seems to be in pain, or overall lacks energy and desire to play, be sure and address these symptoms first.
Are the genetics there?
Just because your dog is a retriever, does not mean that he or she will love to retrieve. Unfortunately, there are breeders out there that do not care about bettering the breed. They breed to achieve a certain look or color (or for money) without regard to the proven ability of the parents. The result is that some retrievers just do not have the genetic desire and drive to retrieve.
If your dog has never had a desire to retrieve, it may be that he or she lacks the retrieving genetics, or the genetics are just not strong enough. Unfortunately, there is no fix for this. Your retriever may still be a great family or companion dog, but it is unlikely that hunting is in their future.
If your retriever previously retrieved with enthusiasm, it is unlikely that this is the issue.
Have you overdone it?
Some retrievers have such a drive to retrieve they will literally retrieve until they collapse. Dogs do not have the discipline to stop retrieving when they are tired or hurting. Unfortunately, some owners love the game so much that they get overzealous and do too many retrieves in a row, they work the dog too hard.
When this happens, your retriever may lose interest as they become tired and fatigued from the repetition. We see this most often when owners use balls or Frisbees as their retrieving item. But it can happen from retrieving anything.
Watch your dog carefully. When he or she starts showing signs of fatigue or heat exhaustion, you need to be the responsible one and stop.
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Boredom with retrieving item
Retrievers do love to run after balls and Frisbees. These items roll and bounce and bring out a retriever’s prey instinct. However, only retrieving these items can result in a retriever that easily loses interest in the game. This can be a huge problem if you plan to use your retriever for hunting.
A shot bird that falls to the ground may not produce the excitement your dog expects. If a dog is used to only retrieving things that excite him, he may balk at doing the job he is required to do when hunting. Use bumpers for retriever training and never let them play or chew on the bumpers. Use them only for retrieving.
Is your dog confused?
If your retriever was punished, either intentionally or unintentionally, for retrieving anything, he or she may simply be confused. A badly timed correction may result in your retriever thinking you do not want him to retrieve or that he will get in trouble if he does.
An example of this is when your retriever retrieves your best pair of shoes (with a few nibbles along the way). It is natural to get frustrated and angry that your dog has destroyed an expensive pair of shoes, but if you yell at your dog as he is bringing the shoe, he doesn’t understand that it is the item he is carrying that made you angry. Rather, he will most likely think that the act of retrieving made you angry. And thus the confusion.
This is usually something that can be fixed but it often takes some professional guidance to get it right.
None of the above
It is possible that none of these reasons ring true. Many retrievers will, at some point in their life, decide that they do not want to retrieve. Often you will have no idea what has spurred the decision to stop retrieving, you just see the result.
In these cases, the dog decides on their own not to retriever, and the owner has no way to make them retriever. Unfortunately, once your retriever realizes that he does not HAVE to retrieve, it can often create a downward spiral that is difficult to fix.
The best way to get your retriever to fetch consistently
Most professional retriever trainers use a process called force fetch to correct this problem. The best way to understand force fetch is this.
When you taught your dog to SIT, you had several options for ways to make your dog SIT should he/she refuse. For instance, you could push down on his/her bottom . Or, you could pull up on the leash. The end result was that you could make him/her SIT.
If you throw something for your dog to retrieve, and your dog says “not today”, you have no way to enforce that command.
The force fetch program gives you a way to enforce the fetch. It teaches FETCH as a command that can be enforced. It is an essential part of the training process for hunting, hunt test and field trial training.
It is usually best if a dog goes through a force fetch program early on, under a year of age is best, preferably no older than two.
Unfortunately, force fetch is not an easy process, and if you don’t know what you are doing, it can cause more problems than it may help. I recommend that you seek professional help if your dog needs to be force fetched. We have trained hundreds of dogs over the years and force fetching is by far the best way to fix problems with retrievers that will not fetch or selectively fetch in the field.
How can I teach my puppy to fetch?
If you have a young puppy and want to get him or her started out right, we provide a very specific process for teaching your puppy to fetch. You can start working on fetching with your new puppy almost immediately after you pick him up from the breeder.
This video shows me working with a 7-week old puppy.
The goal is to develop a strong desire to retrieve.
How can I get my older dog to fetch again?
If your dog is six months or older, here are some things you can try to get him or her retrieving again. But the only way to ensure that the problem will not occur again is to have the dog force fetched.
Stop retrieving for a while
If your dog is not retrieving at all, the first step is to stop. Take away all retrieving objects for a week or more. Then, take one of retrieving items, preferably a bumper, and do a short throw. If the dog goes out and retrieves the item, great. Put it away and wait another week.
The goal of this process is to rebuild your dog’s desire for retrieving. Take it slow and severely limit the number of retrieves you give. Always stop with your dog wanting more.
Moderate how many
Any retriever that has shown a decreased or limited desire to retrieve should always be restricted on the number of retrieves you throw for him. You want to focus on quality over quantity. If you notice that his interest wanes after 3 retrieves, stop after 2. Again, always leave him wanting more.
Use the right retrieving item
If your retriever is a hunting dog, then we strongly encourage you to not use balls, Frisbees, sticks or toys for retrieving. We occasionally use a ball to encourage a very young puppy (7-10 weeks), but quickly move away from it as the desire increases. Hunting dogs should be retrieving bumpers or birds. Learn What kind of bumpers/dummies should I use to train my retriever?
For retriever breeds, the retrieve should be the reward, not the object. Do not build an expectation of excitement by using items that bounce, roll or spin. And do not use treats to encourage retrieving.
Bumpers, dead-fowl trainers, and birds are the best items to use for hunting dogs.
Chose a good location
If your retriever runs out to get the item but does not want to bring it back to you, that is a separate issue. To address delivery issues, get specific on the location where you do retrieves. For puppies we use a hallway with all the doors closed. The puppy has no distraction and no way to escape except coming back to you. A similar philosophy can be used on older dogs. Use a long skinny location with no escape or put a long lead on the dog and gently pull him back to you once he has picked up the item.
Another thing that often works is if you start running away from your dog after he picks up the item. Retrievers will often run towards you if you run and call their name.
Once your dog brings the item to you, DO NOT take the object from him right away. Instead pet your dog while he/she holds the item and praise him/her with GOOD DOG. Let your dog hold the prize a little while before taking it from his/her mouth.
And when you do take it from your dog’s mouth, immediately throw it again. Your goal is to teach the dog that bringing the item back to you means more fun, more retrieves.
Never punish your dog for retrieving anything
You must be incredibly careful with corrections when your retriever is retrieving. You never want your dog to think he or she is being punished FOR retrieving. If you give a correction to your retriever for an obedience infraction, such as HERE, while the dog is delivering a bird, he may think he is being corrected for bringing the bird to you. So, make sure that you use good timing with any corrections your give while your dog is in the middle of a retrieve.
Final thoughts on my retriever won’t retrieve anymore
We must always remember that dogs are dogs. There will be days when they are stubborn. Days when they will test you and everything you are asking them to do. And while some people will probably argue this point, you cannot reason with a dog. They see the world in black and white, based on what you allow them to do. They live within the boundaries we set for them, and they are happy to do so.
Retrievers that stop retrieving is a common problem. If the dog is a family dog or companion dog, not retrieving is probably not a big issue. But if your retriever is a working or sporting dog, one that you depend on in the field or in a competition, not retrieving is a massive problem that needs to be addressed.
Professional retriever trainers are equipped with the skill and knowledge to fix this problem. If the problem is less severe, some of the above suggestions may help, but if you find that your hunting dog is gradually getting worse and worse at doing his job, give us a call. We can help.
You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time, happy retrieving.