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Puppy Retrieving (Part 3)

More Early Retrieving

This evening I watched my four and half month Labrador bitch fumbling for the first time with a puppy canvas dummy. It  had slipped out of her mouth while on a retrieve and she was having problems picking it up. I encouraged and laughed at her antics, she was trying so hard, and then I realized the problem. She is teething. Many trainers stop retrieving during the teething month and I have known some trainers that will not start retrieving until after the dog has got its second set of teeth. Myself I find this a waste of valuable time and learning experience so when teething occurs I often will give just one or two retrieves on dummies covered in a soft sock to help them grip easier and if they continue to drop the dummy  I stop for a few days or a week to let things settle down.

So often we encounter problems with retrieving. Some we create, and some are part of the dog’s natural character and behaviour.  During these early days retrieving provides you with an opportunity to  ‘read your dog’. How willing is he to work with you and share retrieves? How easily is he distracted? How attentive is he? If you watch your dog you can actually see the relationship you are forming and the type of dog you have. From these observations you can then begin to adapt your training and the management of your dog so that you can begin to shape or re-shape the attitude and skills you are training for.

Over the years I have had many different ‘characters’ of both retriever and spaniel. No one training method is the best and although there are actions that will often encourage the right behaviour you have to be able to adapt, change and be creative. I find that it is only when you make a big issue over a problem (especially showing a loss of temper) that even bigger problems occur.

If your pup shows little interest in the retrieve or in a particular part of the retrieve then you have to motivate the pup to want to do it. Generally this means having fun with the retrieve and ensuring that when you do, the pup sees playing with you as being far more interesting and enjoyable than any other moment in the day. A rolling tennis ball or a dummy covered in a dry rabbit skin can create far more interest and temptation for the pup. Let him chase and enjoy the moment. Make sure you let pup know you are pleased instantly when he does something you want – even if he picks the dummy up for merely a second or shows an increased enthusiasm. Some puppies will be more interested in a squeaky toy or an old sock or slipper. There is nothing wrong with using these initially until pup becomes interested and then you can attach it to a dummy or parts of it to a dummy so that the dummy becomes familiar and recognized for the pleasure it creates.

If pup picks up the dummy but does not want to return, although we may think the pup is being possessive, it is usually the result of a lack of ‘basic obedience’. Your pup does not feel ‘obligated’ to come when you call. In cases like this return to your basic recall training by attaching a long but light rope to the collar to guide the pup back to you when you call. Initially get the recall good without the dummy and then do it on the retrieve. Once pup is coming in on the long line, you can reduce the length of the line or let it run loose, only picking it up when you need to, to ‘reel’ pup in if he begins to avoid you. If you do simple recalls and sits with pup on a standard leash, often letting him retrieve with the leash ‘still attached’ but not held gets the desired result. Pup will realise the leash is attached and be more under control. As mentioned in the last issue, narrow spaces also help guide pup back to you, and do not throw retrieves too far until you and pup get this stage right.

At a young age pups can sometimes mouth, shake or play with a dummy. When he does this, one way to catch his attention is by clapping your hands and calling enthusiastically, backing away as you do. If you only throw the retrieve a short distance, the moment your pup runs to the dummy follow up after him so that you are closer to him and then start the enthusiastic recall  and back away. Watch your pup and if he is coming nicely to you, be much quieter in your praise. If he starts to mouth, move closer quickly catch his attention (Clap you hands and call) and then back away as he looks and encourage him up. The idea is to break the habit through distraction and then encourage when he is doing it right.  Most dogs will grow out of this problem but the quicker the habit disappears the better. Don’t confuse dropping the dummy because he has a very soft and gentle mouth, with playing with the dummy. If the dummy slips out of the pup’s mouth and he has problems picking it up, don’t worry. Try a different dummy or cover one with a sock. Sometimes packing an old sock with other socks to make a big but soft and light package helps pup get the hang of holding gently and correctly. With a pup that chews on the dummy I will often make a larger dummy or use a heavier one so that it is difficult to chew and he has to concentrate on carrying, therefore forgetting to chew.

Some pups decide that running around you when they return and playing  ‘keep away’, is great fun. When this occurs never grab for your pup or the dummy, and do not chase. Back away, put a fence or wall behind you and then encourage and wait. When pup comes close enough, touch your pup, even a scratch along the rear end is usually enough to distract from circling and create confidence in coming closer. Pet and praise and never be too quick to take the dummy. Always touch your dog, and as it comes closer guide him gently into your body praising softly. If you have done some good basic training and pup enjoys sitting for you often a soft ‘sit’ or sit whistle (provided it has been taught) can again obtain the desired result. I introduce the whistle for the recall and sit commands very early, in fact almost immediately as I start play training with a pup. This has its advantages as it is so different from all the confusing verbal noises and commands the pup hears. A light ‘sit’ whistle if it has been correctly taught can over-rule any messing about your pup is doing, and actually stop the unwanted behaviour.

I have had a few dogs especially cockers that would drop the retrieve on the return and start hunting.  With any pup that drops a dummy close and does this, I will kick the dummy or pick it up and make it interesting by throwing it just a small distance and insisting it is brought up to my body. When a dog is more interested in hunting than retrieving it is advantageous to not allow any hunting at all until the retrieving is well habituated.

Your hands should always be friendly and one of the big problems I regularly see with clients is where a pup does not want to put the dummy in a trainers hands or wishes to avoid them completely. To minimize this, you need to get your pup to accept your hands reaching forward to his head. With pup on a leash in front of you, slowly at first move one hand forward cupped, palm uppermost under his chin and stroke gently and slowly, then take your hand away. Do this two or three times. Then use both hands and put them either side of the head, slowly and gently rub with your fingers under his ears. Do this regularly each day until you create confidence in your reaching forward and putting your hands near his mouth and head. Never go over the top of his head, go to the side and underneath. If he will take a dummy from your hand, again do the same while the dummy is being held. Occasionally remove the dummy and give it back. With pup on the leash throw the dummy only a few feet away and let him pick it up, encourage verbally and guide him back to you with the leash. Gently control his head with the leash while you reach under his chin and stroke his chest before taking the dummy with a ‘drop’ command. Once your pup is doing well on the leash you can then do it without the leash.

Getting a good retrieve is built not just on inherited skills but on the dogs confidence in you and the partnership you are developing. So often trainers want a dog to be at Retrieving   University when they have not even been through Kindergarten. Where your pup lacks enthusiasm, increase it by making it fun and letting him chase. Where there is too much excitement and pup ‘plays’ too much ensure the basic lessons are well learned – the ‘sit’ and ‘recall’. Look for ways of creating the right behaviours, do it in small stages and be patient.