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

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

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.

Clear re­trieves

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?

High oc­tane

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

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