You and your pup have mas­tered the ba­sics and the ‘spe­cial re­triev­ing chair’… it’s now time to step it up a level with some blind and mem­ory re­trieves

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Here in the UK we can al­most take it for granted that the work­ing springers, cock­ers and re­triever lines that we choose our work­ing stock from will be nat­u­ral retriev­ers. By that I mean that at eight weeks, if you sit on the floor and gen­tly ‘bait’ the puppy with a knot­ted hand­ker­chief and then throw it a few me­tres, the pup will re­trieve it, bring­ing it back to your lap.

We can’t open an ar­ti­cle with those com­ments with­out in­dulging in a bit of pa­tri­o­tism and re­mind­ing our­selves that hun­ters come from all over the world to get their hands on our healthy, beau­ti­fully bred, en­er­getic, ath­letic, hard-hunt­ing, hard-re­triev­ing, soft-mouthed, eas­ily train­able Bri­tish gun­dogs. Be proud boys and girls; be very proud! At the risk of sound­ing a lit­tle pa­tro­n­is­ing, let’s make sure that we stick to­gether and sup­port each other. Where there are prob­lems, let’s try not to be nasty to each other. With the right ap­proach, we can all have our var­i­ous likes, opin­ions and ideas but, im­por­tantly, stay united!

In our Sport­ing Gundog sec­tion, we have pro­duced a se­ries of puppy de­vel­op­ment ar­ti­cles that might give you some ideas to as­sist with the train­ing of your gundog puppy. Ini­tially, this was ba­sic train­ing – come, sit, watch, fin­ish, heel – then last time we sat our­selves down in the ‘spe­cial re­triev­ing chair’ and looked at how to build a nice re­trieve and de­liv­ery to hand. Achiev­ing this ‘straight out, straight back’ re­trieve is es­sen­tial be­fore we move for­wards.

With the right ap­pli­ca­tion, it might be pos­si­ble to achieve all of the above by the time the puppy is only 12 weeks old. It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that this will, of course, be on a minia­ture scale as you’re work­ing with a tiny puppy. Slowly but surely, we can in­crease the dif­fi­culty of the re­trieve.

If you opt to start the puppy’s train­ing as early as this, I would en­cour­age you to push to make the re­triev­ing more com­plex rather than in­crease

the dis­tance too much – we do not want to dam­age the young­ster’s phys­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.

There are, of course, dif­fer­ent views on how old a puppy should be be­fore you start for­mal train­ing, but mine is that you have a rapidly de­vel­op­ing lit­tle brain that is con­sum­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge, and pro­vided you keep things fresh and en­joy­able for the young­ster then his preda­tory mind will flour­ish with this re­ward-based train­ing.

Ini­tially, we start with a ‘marked re­trieve’ and the puppy sim­ply watches the fall of the dummy and uses his eyes to get to it. Next, we can throw the dummy into some cover, short grass or amongst a few scat­ter cush­ions if you are train­ing in­doors. This means that he has to make some cal­cu­la­tions; sim­ply be­cause he can no longer see the dummy he has to make his way to ‘the fall’ and then hunt un­til the dummy is found. Th­ese are skills that you will need to help him de­velop through suc­cess. Keep things sim­ple and grad­u­ally build the dog’s con­fi­dence to keep hunt­ing un­til he gets his prize. If you make things too dif­fi­cult he will be un­suc­cess­ful, give up and come away.

It’s been fas­ci­nat­ing over the 35 years that I’ve been study­ing gun­dogs to watch the hunt­ing in­stincts and ge­net­ics de­velop. With only a small amount of en­cour­age­ment some lines, par­tic­u­larly the spaniels, are noth­ing short of re­mark­able to watch in their un­re­lent­ing pur­suit of a dummy.

The abil­ity to mark is es­sen­tial. If we de­velop the mark­ing abil­ity of the dog then he will be much more ef­fi­cient in lo­cat­ing a re­trieve quickly and ef­fi­ciently. We need to en­cour­age the puppy to hold the area and use his nose to lo­cate his prize.

Some young­sters, par­tic­u­larly those with a high prey drive, will do a quick flick around the area and if they don’t find the dummy im­me­di­ately will run around like head­less chick­ens, adopt­ing a strat­egy that if they cover enough ground they will find their prey. This is some­thing that can be­come un­de­sir­able; we want the dog to hunt a rel­a­tively small area to avoid dis­turb­ing other game in the sur­round­ing area. The ex­cep­tion be­ing, of course, if the bird turns out to be a run­ner; in which case we need the dog to learn to take the line (blood trail) and find it.

You can use clearly de­fined, small ar­eas of cover or corners of fields to help to en­cour­age the puppy to hold an area and keep hunt­ing.

Go­ing in blind

Our over­all ob­jec­tive is to train the dog to trust and un­der­stand our in­struc­tions enough to be able to make blind re­trieves. This is a re­trieve that the dog has not seen fall and so will rely on the han­dler to di­rect it into the area. In a well-trained dog this is fan­tas­tic to watch and a re­ally use­ful as­set to have.

The mem­ory re­trieve is an ex­cel­lent tech­nique to de­velop the young­ster’s con­fi­dence. Dis­tance to the dummy, and the time frame from the fall of the dummy un­til be­ing sent, make the re­trieve more dif­fi­cult. Sim­ply walk the puppy to the area that you want him to make the re­trieve from, sit him up and let him watch you throw the dummy into the cover. Now keep him at heel and walk a short dis­tance away be­fore about-turn­ing and send­ing him. The puppy should race back, con­fi­dent that he knows where the dummy is. Grad­u­ally build the dis­tances on this ex­er­cise un­til the dog is con­fi­dent to re­ally ‘get out’. I use 200m as my bench­mark, but some of the top re­triever train­ers will need more.

If you use the same area over sev­eral train­ing ses­sions, you will reach a point where you can pre-plant a dummy in the cover. This, of course, is the be­gin­ning of our blind re­trieve. Once the dummy is in place, bring the dog rel­a­tively close to the area, set him up and cast him. As­sum­ing you have built his con­fi­dence, he will trust you; in fact, he will be trust­ing his own in­stincts, recog­nis­ing that this area has pro­duced dum­mies for him be­fore and will sim­ply give it a go. There is still a long way to go be­fore you will be able to ‘line’ him across ground that he has never been on be­fore, but things are now right on track.

Use nat­u­ral lines, hedgerows, foot­paths, tram­lines and tracks to di­rect and guide a young dog. If you’re lucky enough to have your own piece of ground then you can mow re­triev­ing lanes to help en­cour­age a young­ster to run straight and true. Be care­ful not to be lazy when prac­tis­ing re­triev­ing as it’s not un­com­mon to see dogs that have got into the habit of only go­ing a cer­tain dis­tance be­fore they start hunt­ing. This dis­tance will usu­ally be as far as the owner can throw the dummy so make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

This early and in­ter­me­di­ate re­trieve train­ing is all about pro­duc­ing a dog that has a fast and con­fi­dent ‘out run’; a dog that be­lieves that when you set him up and cast him you are some­one he should trust to help him get a dummy in his mouth; and who will run in a straight line un­til he hits scent or you tell him to stop and hunt an area.

To achieve this, you will need to spend qual­ity time on the train­ing field, pa­tiently show­ing your puppy how to be suc­cess­ful. Get it right and you will have a ‘fly­ing ma­chine’! All we need to be able to do now is con­trol all that power. Watch this space! Have fun and keep train­ing.

Re­triev­ing comes nat­u­rally to many gun­dogs

A pup’s rapidly de­vel­op­ing mind will flour­ish with re­ward-based train­ing

Keep things fresh and en­joy­able for the pup

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