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 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 not uncommon. Clients often call us for training and help because they 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 multitude 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 there may be some other underlying health issue.
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 the mouth pain. In fact, if your dog is teething, you should severely limit retrieving until the new teeth come in. You do not want the puppy to associate retrieving with pain.
If your dog seems to be in pain, or overall lacks energy and desire to play, be sure and address this 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 some breeders out there that do not care about bettering the breed. They breed to achieve a certain look or color without regard to the proven ability of the parents. The result is that some retrievers just do not have the drive or desire to retrieve.
If your dog has never really had a desire to retrieve, it may be that he or she lacks the retrieving genetics, or the genetics are just not strong enough. But 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 just stop because 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. When this happens, the retriever may lose interest as they become tired and fatigued from the repetition.
We most often see this 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 stop.
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 supposed to do when hunting.
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. 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, decide that they do not want to retrieve. The dog decides on their own not to retriever, and the owner has no way to make them retriever. Once your retriever realizes that he does not HAVE to retrieve, it can 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. Force fetching a dog teaches them 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.
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 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.
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. The 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 so. Then, take one of retrieving item, 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 the desire for retrieving. Take it slow and severely limit the number of retrieves your retriever is given. Always leave him or her 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. 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 he brings it to you, DO NOT take the object from him right away. Instead pet him and tell him GOOD DOG. Let him hold his prize a little while before taking it from his mouth. And when you do take it from his 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 (email@example.com) 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.