Small-sized working cocker spaniels have become very popular in recent years. And you can see why – they’re busy little dogs with eye-catching appeal.

Whichever way you look at it there will always be advantages and disadvantages where small cockers are concerned. The advantage is that small dogs do not take up much space in the car, or in the home. The disadvantages though become apparent when it comes to retrieving larger birds such as a cock pheasant.

Yet no matter how bulky the bird might be most small cockers will overcome the problem by themselves: all we as owners need to do is give them plenty of practice on cold cocks and then follow up with lots of retrieves on freshly shot birds.

If my experience is anything to go by, little cockers generally develop their own technique of bringing a bird back to hand. But not always; some dogs will continually fumble and mess about with retrieves regardless of the amount of practice they get.

That said, we need to be extremely careful here and not confuse this failure with other retrieving problems that crop up from time to time. What we are experiencing here is a genuine inability on the part of the dog to successfully lift the pheasant and bring it to hand.

It’s as simple as that.

Over the years I have noticed that if a dog can almost close its mouth on a retrieve it will tend to hold things a lot tighter than if it was trying to carry something with its mouth almost fully open. It’s a trait I have used to advantage in devising a way to persuade small dogs to pick a pheasant either by its neck or a wing.

Cocker spaniel and pheasant.The last thing you want to see is the dog mouthing and rolling the bird in a messy effort to pick the retrieve

They are now able to hold it a lot tighter without trying to get the whole body into their mouth. I would be the first to admit that this doesn’t look such a tidy retrieve but it does give the dog confidence to bring things back – and this has got to be better than having a dog that takes ages messing about trying to pick a big bird, eventually giving up and then coming back without it.

There are two ways of teaching this lesson:
The first is with an empty plastic bread bag where you cut a small piece off one of the corners.
Put the pheasant beak first into the bag, pulling its head and crop through the hole, leaving the rest of the body inside the bag.

What I’m relying on here is the fact that most dogs prefer to pick up feathers – or any part of the pheasant that’s exposed – rather than the plastic bag.

Pheasant Placing the dead bird into a bread bag reduces the surface area the dog will want to hold on to

Start the lesson by doing fairly short retrieves so the dog does not have to carry them too far then gradually, over a period of time, build up the distance you send the dog to fetch the retrieve.

The second method (a variation of the first) is to make two small holes opposite each other in the bag and then pull the pheasant’s wings out through each hole. The dog now has the choice of holding it by the neck, or by a wing, to carry it back.

Instead of the plastic bag I have experimented by wrapping cling film around the pheasant’s body. This is a very effective ruse if the dog has learnt how to stick its nose inside the open end of the bag and pull the pheasant out by the tail. Cling film can be wrapped tightly around the pheasant to stop this happening.

After a considerable amount of practice with various pheasants in the plastic I then practice without the plastic on and usually the dog will still turn the pheasant to gain a hold on the neck or wing where it can get a good grip and bring it back. If the dog shows any inclination not to do this then there’s only one solution – go back to using the wrapped or bagged pheasant, and start again.

Puppy with pheasant.Placing the bird in the bag now encourages the dog to pick it by the neck. With practice he will learn to hold it by the shoulder

And another thing – I use a variation on this theme when puppies insist on carrying the dummy by its toggle, or consistently take hold of it at one end.

To encourage them to pick it by the middle I simply tape a small plastic bag around both ends of the dummy (including the toggle) and leave the centre exposed.

Another ploy is to wrap both ends of the dummy in cling film and then secure it with plastic insulating tape, again leaving the centre part uncovered.