Retrieving Steps

by Ed Bailey

Printed with permission

All is on leash, first 6' then 30' until you get to step 8 when you must go off leash.

Step 1: Have dog sit (preferably) or stand beside your left knee. Open dogs mouth with your left hand, press upper lips lightly against the teeth if she doesn't want to open. But this probably won't be necessary. Tell her to fetch as you place your gloved right hand palm up into her mouth. Don't push it back too far, the index finger should be about even with the canine teeth. One row of her teeth should be about on the base joint of you fingers, the other row should cross your palm about the middle of your hand. As soon as she relaxes, tell her to give or out, whatever word you choose as long as it's the same word always is fine. Repeat as often as needed until she opens to receive your hand as soon as you say the fetch word. Gradually increase the duration of the holding until it gets up to 15 or 20 seconds, then start randomising the hold time, say once 10sec. Next time 3, then 8, then 20, then 5 and so on. You don't want her to anticipate when to drop the hand, she must learn to do so only when you tell her to give it up. Praise her highly for doing it right. Ignore her mistakes by just repeating it with no notice of the faulty performance. Don't dignify it by even the slightest acknowledgment.

Step 2: Same as step 1 but now hold your hand just in front of her mouth so she must reach a little for it. Gradually move your hand farther away so she must stretch to reach it and even lift just a bit of her haunches.

Step 3: Start now with a dummy of some sort. I prefer a 1 or 1 inch dowel with 3/8 inch cross dowels inserted through at right angles to each other at each end of the 1 inch piece to start with.
Do just as was done with your hand, tell her to fetch and put dummy in as she opens her mouth.
Tap the dummy with your finger tips to entice her to drop it. After a few seconds tell her to give it to you and praise her. If she wants to spit it out tell her to fetch again and just put it back in.
Don't introduce any new words like hold it, hold, or any other words. Fetch or whatever word you use means to take it into your mouth and hold it until I tell you to spit it out. If she won't take the dummy as she did your hand, you might have to press her lips against her teeth again as you did for the hand.

Step 4: Hold dummy out in front a few inches so she must reach. Keep moving it out so she has to get up if sitting or take a few steps if standing beside your left knee. Have her hold the dummy as in step 3 and as she did with your hand. If she doesn't want to move off her butt to get the dummy you might try this: with her in sit or stand, move to the front of her and hold dummy a few inches in front of her mouth and with the leash fastened to the collar ring under her neck, pull her gently toward you when you say to Fetch.

Step 5: 'Till now the dummy has been at mouth level. Now, in addition to out in front, lower the dummy so she needs to reach and bend down. Proceed only inches at a time until you are holding the dummy down near the ground. Then hold the dummy close to the ground and farther to the front so she has to get up or take a few steps for it. Have her hold it for varying durations and have her give it to you. Again always praise her when she does the sequence correctly.

Step 6: Now comes the part that might be a problem - having the dog pick the dummy up form the ground when you are not holding it. If you have trouble, try just touching the dummy with your finger tip. If she picks it up praise her, walk her a bit on the leash while she carries the dummy, then stop, ask her to give and praise again. Then try again this time with your finger an inch or so away from the dummy.
If she balks at reaching down to the ground, you can try it with two bricks of normal size 2x4x8" set first on end with the dummy setting on top of them, one brick supporting each end of the dummy. You might need to touch the dummy with your finger tips again or just have the hand close to it. Then set the bricks on their side so the dummy is now 4 inches high, then bricks flat, dummy 2 inches high. Then move the bricks out so the dummy is on the ground between them. But the bricks still serve as a sort of crutch, as does your hand.

Step 7: With her on the 6' leash, and sitting or standing at your left knee, have her stay and you walk the dummy out a few feet, return to the dog's side and tell her to fetch. She should go out pick up the dummy and you lead her back on the leash. You can bring her straight to you and stand or sit in front of you holding the dummy until you tell her to give, or you can lead her around your right side, behind your back, and around to your left side to sit or stand holding the dummy until told to give. Gradually increase the distance until you must take a few steps so she can get to the dummy with the short leash. When she is coming toward you, take a few steps backward to make the carry back longer. Then switch to the 30' leash (I use a lunge line like used for horses) and keep increasing the distance of the retrieve. Don't tell her to come or anything else, remember the command to fetch means the whole thing - go out, pick up, bring back and never let go until you tell her to.

On any of these steps with the dummy it's a good idea to walk the dog on the leash and let her carry the dummy. You might set up some low hurdles and have her jump them with the dummy in her mouth, and go up and down stairs. All this is to get her used to carrying the dummy over obstacles, up banks or down, through brush and never releasing it until you tell her to.

Step 8: She should now be read to do it all without leash. Start first in a closed in area like your fenced in yard, or in the house even if you don't have access to a fenced area. When she is totally fail safe you can go into unfenced areas like a field with no game in it. Later still in a place where there is the distraction of bird scent or even birds. Have her sit or stand and stay off leash and carry the dummy out and drop it where she can see it, say 25-30ft., return to her side and tell her to fetch it. Don't say anything more than you did when she was on leash, you must demonstrate to her by your body language that you have complete confidence in her. If she hesitates when getting close to you don't say anything, just back up a few quick steps and she will come on toward you. If she drops the dummy, just go to her and pick it up and put it into her mouth with the word fetch and turn and trot away. She will chase you to get the dummy to you. Whatever delivery you used on leash you must also insist on when she is off leash. Have her give the dummy to you and praise her. Then you might walk her at heel for a bit before setting her up for the next trial at a greater distance.

Step 9: Repeat as in preceding step but carry dummy out and drop it into taller grass or behind something so it is not in sight for her. Return to her side and tell her to fetch as before. Keep increasing the distance and the difficulty so she has to work harder to bring the dummy back to you. This can include a ditch, low fence, a downed log or anything you can take advantage of to make it harder. Don't throw the dummy, always carry it out and lay it down.
Carrying does two things, first it gets away from the play element so the dog is concentrating better, she isn't playing ball or chasing down a frisbee, and secondly your track gives her a guideline to the dummy so she is learning to use clues to get to it. It will be a great help when you want her to track down a crippled bird like a tough old Nebraska rooster or even a winged quail.
Any time after she has been picking up a dummy off leash or even when on leash, you can start using other things to retrieve - boat bumpers of different size and weight, plastic bottles filled with sand, scrub brushes, other weighted dummies, I even use a broom so the dog learns to balance a bulky thing, dead birds, squirrels, road kills of about anything except a rabid skunk. But, always carry it out or have someone else carry it. Thrown things are ok for water retrieve where, unless your special connections will allow you or a friend to carry it, throwing is more practical.

Step 10: Now you can start laying dragged game tracks. Start first with a short, 30 or 40 yards, nearly straight one with a path of some sort to help steer her on the track. Then go to longer more s-shaped drags until she is comfortable going out 300 to 400 yards and retrieving whatever is left at the end of it. You can use dummies for this as well as game if you don't have a dead critter handy.

Step 11: At the same time as the drags are going on you can also carry along dead frozen birds or other game and dummies for that matter, when going on a walk with the dog. When she is out in front and doesn't see you do it, drop a bird and just keep walking, then another 100 yards or so further on, then another and so on 'till you have 3 or 5 or so along the route. On your return, keep on the down wind side so she can smell them as she goes by. The first one or two you might have to tell her to fetch when she indicates she smells them. After that she should pick them up and bring them to you without command. It is a good drill or exercise to keep her sharp on the retrieve. Another exercise you can use is drop something, say your glove, go 50 yards or so and then call her in. Aim her on your back track and tell her to fetch it. Dogs that are co-operative love this little drill.
This is really force training to retrieve. But you don't really use any force, it is really shaping the dog and should not be called force because none is involved. But this is my idea of force training, to a lot of people force training means beat the dog senseless, pinch the ears until the dog yelps, or shock the dog into submission - totally the wrong thing to do.

Dr Bailey is a Professor of Animal Behaviour, and a founder of the Nth American Versatile Hunting Dog Assn.