At Craney Hill Kennel, the first thing we start with our gun dog puppies is introduction to birds and retrieving. Retrieving is the easier of the two to start and studies have been done that show remarkable results in the ability of a dog to learn later in life when retrieving is started early. It also helps if your dog has basic retrieving completed so it is less of an effort to get the bird back from the dog. Trust me, if your dog retrieves a dummy, a ball, a sock or other item well, retrieving a bird the first time will go relatively well. However, the more birds your dog gets, the more it will want to keep it for itself.
Let’s start with an interesting study regarding the benefits of early retrieving. There was a study done in 1965 (yes in 1965 and people still want to try other things!) in which a group of puppies did not start retrieving exercises until 32 weeks of age. Only 11% of the group took to retrieving and the scientists found the entire group to be more difficult to train for other things later in life as compared to puppies that began retrieving at 9 weeks. The U.S. Army Superdog Program has found that many “gifted” puppies will retrieve after the first or second try if started at 9 weeks of age and the evaluators believe that a willingness to retrieve is the single most reliable indicator of a puppy’s general temperament and potential as a companion or working dog. The point is don’t put off basic retrieving training with your dog!
We start retrieving with a young puppy in the house. Try using a rolled up sock and toss it down a hallway with all of the doors shut. Roll the sock if you have to, but remember your puppy is just a little guy and will lose sight of the sock if you throw it like you would to an older dog. Your puppy NEEDS to see it because it will want to watch your hand in the beginning and not the sock. A couple of things that work well are to lie on the floor and to back up when your puppy is coming back to you.
The single BIGGEST mistake we see people do with retrieving is reaching for the sock. This carries forward to dummies, balls and the bird. YOU DO NOT NEED TO TAKE THE OBJECT. Let the puppy hold the object while you love it up! Gently open the puppy’s mouth and throw the object again. If you threw the sock three times a day and did it three days a week you will likely have a very happy retriever by 16 weeks of age.
Depending on the dog, you will move out of the hallway at some point and you will move on to other objects. No future gundog should have squeaky toys, as it teaches the dog to "squeeze" to get the desired sound. This will potentially create "hard mouth" in your dog. Other things to avoid are stuffed toys and tug-of-war.
If your puppy or older dog always brings the object to you, then that is great. However, it has been my experience and I have NEVER had a really good dog that at some point decided that it did not want to bring the object back to me. Many people seeing me train have witnessed me lying out in a field for a VERY long time out waiting the dog. Most dogs will eventually come to you, particularly if you are lying in taller grass and the puppy needs to locate you. The hardest part will be resisting your urge to reach out as the dog gets close. It will get close initially for no other reason than to test you. You need to understand that he WANTS you to reach for it because it perpetuates the game. If you lay still, the puppy is likely to run onto your chest.
Another thing we have done is to build a "hallway" outside. Take some snow fencing and build a corridor as long as you can afford so that it is about four feet wide and closed at one end. Start using the corridor as you did the hallway in the house. What I have found with this is that it works initially because you can prevent the puppy from running by you. However, in a short time the puppy associates that by running to the other end it can avoid brining the object to you.
As a last effort, we will teach the dog the "here" command. In my little world, I believe that retrieving is ONLY the act of chasing after something and attempting to pick it up. Butter mouth or hard mouth will be dealt with later. If the puppy will run out after something and pick it up, then I believe the act of retrieving is over and it then is simple obedience for the dog to come when it is called. If a dog will not bring the object to me then I would contend that it does not know the “here” command. Do not misunderstand me; we will give young dogs a lot of latitude and freedom. However, there comes a point when the problem prevents being able to accomplish other things, particularly when we start bird introduction.
So now you have a dog that generally retrieves objects. If you have an older dog (say over 6 months) I would want the retrieving more clean than with a young puppy. If you are starting with a 7-8 week old puppy, I would do the bird introduction while you were working on the retrieving.
When we have a litter of Springer spaniels or Labrador retriever puppies, we will start the bird introduction between weeks 6 and 7. We want the puppies that are sold to have at least been exposed to pigeon scent. At this age, we take one puppy at a time and we use a locked-wing pigeon. This is a term for a pigeon that has its wings crossed over so they will not flap (you can also tape them but I like to have no object other than the live bird so that I can eliminate any variables should there be a problem). I tease the puppy with the bird and toss it about five feet. At this point, ANYTHING can happen. We have had puppies run out and pick the bird up and bring it back. We have had puppies bark at it. We have had puppies eat it. Whatever happens…DO NOT WORRY ABOUT IT! If the puppy brings it back, we put the puppy away. If the puppy shows interest, but does not pick the pigeon up, we will try the same drill again. If the puppy does not pick the pigeon up the second time, we put the puppy away.
I would estimate that we do this drill twice a week until the puppy is about 10 weeks old. We then move to a clipped-wing pigeon (a pigeon that can flap its wings but not fly). Do not move to a clipped-wing pigeon until your puppy/dog is comfortable with the locked-wing pigeon. We essentially repeat the process that we did with the locked-wing pigeon. Again, we will probably do this twice a week but only for a couple of weeks. We are trying to get the puppy comfortable with the flapping wings so that we can move on to quail. When the puppy is AGGRESSIVELY going after the clipped-wing pigeon, we are ready to go to the bird field, or as we call it, the quail course.
Our quail course is comprised of pen-raised quail in a recall pen that we "train" to come back to the pen by providing food and water in the pen. We start by holding the puppy and letting it see a couple (3-4) of quail walk out of the pen. We then let the puppy go. Usually, the puppy runs in and flushes the quail. At this point, a couple of things can happen. If the quail only fly a short distance (this would be great), the puppy may chase them and flush them again. Initially, the puppy may not chase at all. In almost every case, the puppy will return to the pen because it has associated that the pen has birds.
We will repeat this twice a week for an indefinite time period. We are looking to create a dog that when we get it out of the truck, it hits the ground running and hunting for birds. For a while, the puppy will want to keep going back to the pen, but in a short amount of time, it will discover it is more fun to find the birds and chase them. After a couple of times, we will let the birds out first and then go get the puppy and start our "puppy walks."
I said that we will go on "puppy walks" for an indefinite time period. We are looking for a puppy to AGGRESSIVELY quest and chase the quail. I cannot tell you how long it takes as there are too many variables. On average, I would say that our puppies have about 200 or more quail flushes before we take them off the "puppy walks" and go to gun introduction. Get going on the "puppy walks" and it will accelerate your puppy’s desire to quest game.