Is it your pup’s first time in the water? Instead of launching your hound in at the deep end, use Howard Kirby’s guide to introducing your gundog to the exciting world of water retrieves
Teaching your gundogs to swim and retrieve from water is something that you really need to put some thought into. If you are going to work your dog in the shooting field, then having a dog that is experienced at dealing with game in and around water is incredibly useful. If you wish to compete with them, with the exception of pointers and setters, water work will be essential.
All of that aside, just as with children, being able to swim could save a dog’s life. So if we are all agreed, we’d better take a look at how we are going to make a success of teaching the dog to swim.
Let’s deal with the easy stuff first. There are some who choose the ‘throw them in at the deep end’ approach, both with swimming and introduction to gunshot. Some dogs survive this baptism of fire, while others will remain terrified for life. Clearly, this is a risk I would never encourage you to take, so if only for the poor little dog whose life you may be about to ruin, please don’t do this.
At Mullenscote, we try to co-ordinate the arrival of a pup with the spring and summer months. The warm, dry weather makes house training and life in general with a puppy much easier. On hot days, we put out a water tray, encouraging the youngster to play and even retrieve things out of the water. Clearly, he is not swimming, but the pup is learning to enjoy water in a controlled, safe environment. If you’ve ever played apple bobbing, you’ll know that grabbing something with your mouth out of water is at best tricky. The use of the water tray will help to develop this simple but important skill.
Delivery from water
I’m going to talk about delivery to hand and the importance of the retrieve at this really early stage. I spend a lot of time devising ways to help people whose dogs drop the dummy to shake the moment that they leave the water. This is a major problem for those of us that wish to work or compete. A dog that drops a pricked duck at the water’s edge could well find itself having to spend another 10 minutes looking for the duck. It’s highly likely that the duck will dive straight back in and disappear. My point being that with careful and considered practice, the puppy will never learn to put down. One problem with retrieving from water is that the moment the puppy climbs out, it wants to shake, but, actually, there’s a bigger problem that many people fall foul of. For many pups, the first time they have to swim is when their owner plays a nasty trick on them. Here’s the scenario: a nice warm day, the puppy has really high prey drive, the owner baits the pup with his favourite dummy and then launches it into the water. The poor unsuspecting puppy races out to retrieve the dummy. Splash! Suddenly it’s submerged in water, quite literally fighting for its life. “Welcome to the world of water, how did you enjoy your introduction to drowning lessons?” Earlier, I mentioned the ‘throw them in at the deep end technique’ – and clearly that’s what you’ve just achieved. The brave ones will recover, but what about the others? “He doesn’t seem to like water,” they say. Well, there’s a surprise.
Earlier, I mentioned that it’s really important to ensure that you have thoroughly established the marked retrieve before sending the puppy into water to fetch something. Thoroughly means just that, as if you have limited control and a poor
delivery to hand, then retrieving from water will only serve to further emphasise these issues.
Using water trays and shallow streams, you can encourage and build a youngster’s confidence in water. You will need to carefully select an area of water that offers safe pools and, in a perfect world, the opportunity for the pup to just get its feet off the ground for a few stokes of swimming.
Once this has been achieved, and the puppy is keen and confident, stand in the shallows with the puppy and throw a small dummy a short distance away from you. Ensure you encourage a nice clean return and delivery to hand. Remember that most delivery problems usually come as a result of the dog wanting to shake the water from its coat as it leaves the water. This is less likely if you are in the water with the pup.
Once the puppy is retrieving to hand in the water, you can start to take the delivery on the water’s edge. Gradually make your way up the bank ensuring you generate enough enthusiasm to get the dog racing up to you with the dummy in its mouth.
I know I keep going on about it, but this enthusiasm comes from that early retrieving work that I hope was established first in your kitchen and then progressed to the great outdoors.
For those of you that target train, you can use a hoop or a place board – this will of course be ideal to get the puppy thinking about getting to the target for a reward.
Reconditioning an old habit
If an older dog has got into the habit of putting down to shake as it leaves the water, your first priority should be to go back to basics on dry land. Ensure their Recall is perfect – you need to be able to put pressure on the dog to want to come straight to you as it leaves the water while resisting the urge to stop and shake.
Get the dog rushing towards you on a whistle command. As it arrives at your feet, offer a reward, a dummy or a feed treat. Once the dog is racing to you excited at the prospect of the
‘Stand in the shallows with the puppy and throw a small dummy a short distance away. Then, encourage a nice return with a delivery to hand’
reward we can transfer this recall exercise to water.
Sit the dog on the opposite bank of a river or pond – you may need to enlist the help of an assistant to take the dog on a lead to the opposite side. Then, get the dog lined up and then Recall. Meet the dog on the water’s edge and reward before he shakes. Gradually move further back up the bank until the dog is racing from the water to get his reward.
Stating the obvious, we are reconditioning the dog, changing one established behaviour to something completely different. It’s going to take time, patience and a consistent training programme if we are to teach the dog to leave the water and come to you before shaking.
While we’re on the subject of conditioning, let’s just stop and have a think about it. If we regularly take a young dog to play in water, the moment the dog climbs out, it is establishing a stop and shake habit. For the perfectionists among you, why not train your puppy to rush to you for a food treat before he has a shake?
Now that we have the behaviour we want, it’s time to introduce the dummy. With some dogs, you can drop the dummy on the bank before recalling the dog to swim across the water, lift the dummy and deliver to hand. For others, as they pause to collect the dummy it reminds them that they want to shake – with this type, try throwing the dummy into the water.
This exercise is all about energy; we want the dog’s enthusiasm to get to you with the dummy for the reward to be really high. The more he wants the dummy in his mouth and the reward for retrieving, the easier it will be to get a result. As the dog climbs out of the water, try running away, encourage it to run to your side – sit down, lie down, use a target, do whatever it takes to get the dog to want to be with you as quickly as it can.
Don’t rush to drop this high-energy delivery as it won’t take much to encourage the dog to stop for a quick shake.
Gently make small changes to the way you take the delivery. Remember that with most deliveries, your dog will interpret that if you reach out he should release the dummy. Encourage him to be with you for as long as is reasonably possible before asking for a delivery.
Changing an established behaviour is almost always more difficult than creating a completely new one. Here, at Mullenscote, we just don’t have problems with delivery to hand from water. It’s not magic, it’s not because we are dog whisperers, it’s simply down to making sure that the basics are covered properly.
Obedience, Recall, Sit, Stay and Focus all accumulate towards a nice straight out, straight back, delivery to hand. When coupled with a well-planned introduction to water, it leaves us with all of our ducks lined up! When asked to retrieve from water, all of these behaviours join together to give the result we want.
It’s likely that most training articles make reference to either establishing or returning to basics to teach or change a behaviour. This is for good reason. Top quality retrieving from water requires you to do everything properly, so don’t cut corners. If things haven’t gone to plan, be prepared to go back to the drawing board.
A cool, calm and clear approach will ensure you don’t muddy the waters! As always, have fun and keeeeep training!
Gundogs with the ability to bring a bird to you from the water are valuable members of the team
Use a shallow water tray to give your puppy the opportunity to get used to splashing about in water