By far the most common problems that I see in my gundog training classes are owners struggling with dogs either not wanting to go pick up a retrieving item or, funnily enough, not want to bring it back.
Bearing in mind that the dog is a social predator and has a “what’s in it for me” philosophy, along with pretty much the rest of the animal kingdom, training them to retrieve something has to be motivating for them.
It could be that they think it’s fun or that they want to please you, however it’s not always the case… why, for example, should your dog run out and pick up a toy when there’s a flock of birds at the other end of the field that it can go and chase? Why should it put the item in your hand when there’s the most amazing smell six feet away from you that needs to be investigated and licked first?
And as for a gundog training dummy! Really? You expect your dog to gently pick up a canvas bag of sand, bring it back and put it in your hand… with nothing in it for the dog?
I tend not to treat a dog for bringing back a retrieving item; actually that’s not strictly true – I never give a dog a treat from my pocket for retrieving something for me, and I never use treats for retrieving unless I’m working with a problem. Most puppies and young dogs are motivated enough by the owner, it’s once they hit adolescence and the ‘Kevin’ phase then it starts going a bit pear shaped.
Why not from the pocket? Because dogs are clever enough to realise that if you have a treat in your hand that it’s for him and he can’t eat it when he has something in his mouth, so, out comes the dummy…
I’ve worked with a number of dogs that simply haven’t wanted to pick up anything; toy, dummy, ball, rabbit ball not a thing did it for them. And then we threw a packet of treats for a dog to retrieve. She brought them back and the owner picked them up (not to hand initially) and gave her a treat from the bag. The dog that I’m referring to is none other than the little red Working Cocker in the Retrieving Roll demonstration video.
We tried the same technique with some of the other dogs that trained with me that weren’t motivated to retrieve and managed to get a couple of them to progress to a prey dummy; not Foxy though, she simply wasn’t interested.
A prey dummy is a bit like a pencil case that you fill with treats, however, some dogs would crunch and chew at them or pick them up by the end and give thema shake; none of which we want to instil in our gundogs retrieving.
It was as a direct result of these dogs, and especially of Foxy, that the Lez Graham Retrieving Roll was created. The Retrieving Roll is a canvas wrap that can be rolled up tight and used on its own or wrapped around a toy, a ball, a dummy, a slipper; pretty much anything, including birds. The beauty of the Retrieving Roll is that is has a little pouch which you can put a treat in; the only way for your dog to receive the treat is to bring back the retrieve.
By tapping into the dogs’ innate “what’s in it for me?” attitude the dog now has a reason to return the retrieve. Once he’s got the hang of bringing it back it’s a case of extending the training and not giving him the treat until he puts the retrieving roll in your hand.