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When your gundog won’t retrieve

A reader is having problems with retrieve refusal with a gundog puppy. What does professional gundog trainer Graham Watkins say?

Black Labrador puppy

Pups can become bored and disinterested if they're made to do too much too soon

“I recently got my first gundog puppy and I started training her straight away. To start with she would go and pick up a tennis ball, but now she just sits or lays down with it and refuses to bring it back to me. Is there anything I can do about this annoying habit when a gundog won’t retrieve?” MR C Cooling, Hertfordshire

Why a gundog won’t retrieve

This is not an uncommon problem with novice owners/trainers, but it is a situation that needs to be rectified before the behaviour of either not retrieving or running away with the retrieve becomes an ingrained habit. Here at Gamegoer Gundogs we do spend a lot of our time rectifying training issues that have been caused by the “enthusiasm” of the owner; it is always easier to never create a problem than to try and correct it.
Over the years selective breeding has produced various breeds of gundogs that should have a natural ability to retrieve, however in some breeds such as HPRs and spaniels the desire to hunt can overcome their retrieving desire. Therefore, different breeds may need a different approach to their early training.

By far the most common problem with young dogs is that owners do too much too soon, and as a result the pup soon becomes bored and disinterested. They need time to mature, both mentally and physically, to enable them to deal with the training.

Disinclined to bring back a retrieve during training

There can be another factor if the pup lives indoors with the family, especially if it is keen on picking-up various items such as shoes or slippers and it’s constantly being told off. This can create a reluctance to not only pick anything up, but more likely the pup may be disinclined to bring back a retrieve during training because it thinks it will be told off.

Bear the weather in mind when you are training your pup during the summer months. If it is too warm the little dog will get tired very quickly, early morning and late evening are best and if it is particularly warm then leave the training for another day.

As a young pup develops it has a natural desire to explore its environment and quite often that can be far more stimulating than a tennis ball. Pick your training area carefully so that the most exciting thing for the pup is the retrieve.

Successful gundog training

First of all it should be understood that any form of proper training shouldn’t really be undertaken until the pup is both mentally and physically able to absorb the lessons – this would normally be around six months depending on the personality of the dog.

That’s not to say we can’t start to condition a young pup as soon as it comes home and this can be simple things such as coming to its name, sitting and, of course, some very basic retrieving, but all of this should be done in moderation and in very small doses.

Gundog training

In your particular case I would suggest that you stop all retrieving and you start to concentrate on just getting your pup to come back to you when she’s called. Gundog training is all about building foundations and in this case you need to get your puppy really confident and consistent in coming back to you. So, when you go back to throwing 
a retrieve for her, it should become a second nature for her to run 
back to you when you call her.

Labrador puppy gundog training

Assuming you have carefully chosen your new gundog puppy, it should have a basic desire to pick things up – a trait bred into the genes of the dog for generations. It is down to us, as trainers, to further develop it. The choice of gundog training equipment can be bewildering, but it doesn’t matter what retrieving item you use as long as it stimulates the puppy. A pup will often choose a favourite toy and you can use this to your advantage as long she doesn’t become protective over it.

Gundog training puppy

I personally like to start with a simple knotted cleaning rag. The knot gives the dog a central point to pick up and they are nice and light, which encourages pups to hold on to them. Try and find an area that has little distraction for the dog – a path or hallway can be good. Initially hold the pup back when you throw 
the retrieve and let her go as soon as it 
hits the ground. This will stimulate and 
excite the pup more.

Gundog puppy retrieving

The next stage is very important. As soon as the pup picks up the retrieve immediately encourage him back to you – this is why it is important that you developed the recall before moving on to this stage. It should be second nature for the dog to come back to you when called and if you have done your foundation work properly she shouldn’t even be thinking about the fact she has something in her mouth.

Gundog training

Once she is back to you do not take the retrieve from her straight away. Give her a lot of fuss, but let her hold on to it. Don’t worry about trying to get her to sit and deliver properly, you do not want to put any pressure on her. Don’t be tempted to keep repeating this exercise – stop once you’ve had success. You want to finish with the dog always wanting more. It’s all about taking your time, letting the pup develop at its own pace.