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Misty Morning Retrievers
Written by Steve Earick
How many times have you been hunting with a “breaking dog”? The birds come in, you jump up to shoot,
and the dog is there to catch them as they fall. Or worse yet, no birds fall and you must convince the dog
that there is no retrieve. It is a common problem. I recently watched a hunting show that took place on a
cold, snowy day in Missouri. There were more mallards flying than I have seen in a while. I was really
enjoying watching the birds work their set-up, but every time the hunters jumped up from their layout blinds
to shoot, the dog would jump out in front of them. It made it hard for me to watch. It has been said that
there are two kinds of dogs, those that have broke, and those that are going to break. You could not have a
more true statement. With that being said, how do we build a retriever that is not a “breaking dog”?
The cornerstone of building a steady retriever begins with three components: attitude, expectation, and self-
multi-faceted task beginning with his attitude in general. Is he having fun? You want your retriever to love
what he does while still realizing that you are in charge. Secondly is his retrieving attitude. This will be a
variation of one of two extremes, with either no interest in the retrieve, or a retrieving maniac. Both of these
can be equally as frustrating to deal with.
The rule of thumb to keep in mind when dealing with the puppy’s retrieving desire is to be the opposite of
them. With a puppy that has less interest, you should become the retrieving maniac. Get as excited as you
can with him. Make it a race between you and him to the bumper. Try tying streamers to the bumper to
make it more exciting. If that dosen’t work, try a live pigeon. Remember that this is a good excuse for you to
act as goofy and excited as possible. When he starts to run out and pick it up, run away from him to get him
to follow you. As he becomes more interested in the retrieve, you begin to back off, becoming more
subdued, while showing him the attitude you expect from him.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the retrieving maniac. This, at times, can be an even bigger problem
to deal with. Sometimes this may lead to a vocal, unsteady, “breaking dog”. This type of attitude needs to be
handled in a very calm and patient manner. This will help convey to the retriever the attitude you expect
from them. This dog should receive very few if any fun bumpers.
As soon as we find that our retriever likes to retrieve, we begin teaching them to be steady. This is done
through the dog’s expectation of the retrieve. The retriever needs to learn not to expect the retrieve. So
many times when we get a new puppy, retrieving becomes their training. We throw it, and they go get it. The
retrieve needs to be the reward for being calm and steady.
We begin this process along with our basic obedience training. We teach sit-stay, and as part of reinforcing
this, we have them be steady to a tossed bumper. The two keys to this are to have the retriever on a check
cord, and for you to start out between the retriever and where you toss the bumper. Hold your hand up as if
to loom over the retriever as you keep repeating the sit command. You then walk out to pick up the
bumper. If your retriever moves, you place him back by either picking him up and placing him back, or just
leading him back. The reasoning behind picking them up to place them back is to emulate how their mother
carried them around. They seem to get more sense of a correction this way. Remember to always stay calm
with a simple “no, sit”. You are trying to convey the attitude you expect from them. As your retriever begins
to accept you picking up the bumper, you can begin to reward their steadiness by sending them. Do not give
them too many retrieves. Monitor their attitude and reward accordingly. While going through this don’t focus
too much on delivery. Concentrate more on their obedient return. As they become steady, begin to move
closer to them until they are at your heel. Always keep a high standard on being steady. If they so much as
wiggle, say, “no, sit” and you pick up the bumper. This is also a good time to introduce a duck call or gun
fire. Be sure that you start far away from your retriever when introducing gunfire. You can reload spent
shells with primers only. This is an affordable way to incorporate gunfire in your training (never use live
shells when training your retriever. It is too easy to become distracted and create an unsafe situation).
The third component to building a steady retriever is your self-discipline with keeping a high standard. As
you begin throwing longer marks, training with other people, or worse yet, hunting, your standard begins to
deteriorate. This is when it really pays off to not reward being unsteady. Correcting the retriever with either a
heeling stick or an e-collar and then sending them is not a very effective way to build steadiness. The
retriever learns to take the correction and then be rewarded with the retrieve. There are certainly times while
hunting when it is not practical to make the retrieve yourself. However, when possible try not to reward
being unsteady. If you are hunting with another dog, let them make that retrieve. A few years ago I was on a
hunting trip in Kansas. Early in the trip my dog Kate broke on a bird. I was able to stop her and walk out to
pick the bird up myself. She hunted the next two weeks there and never broke again.
Hunting with an obedient, enthusiastic retriever can be a very rewarding experience. Developing this is just a
process of constantly monitoring your dog’s attitude to be sure that they always love what they do. Always
keep the retrieve the reward for being steady and obedient. All it takes is a little self-discipline on your part.
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