Introducing Puppies to Birds, Water, and Throwers

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Introducing Puppies to Birds, Water, and Throwers

by Amy Dahl, Ph.D.

Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of The 10-Minute Retriever - How to Make an Obedient and Enthusiastic Sporting Dog in 10 Minutes a Day.
Birds, throwers, and water are all features of retrieving work which are best introduced while a retriever is still a pup, impressionable and flexible in its thinking. As with all puppy work, the most effective approach is to set up the circumstances so the puppy is likely to get it right. Success leads to rapid learning as well as promoting confidence. If your puppy responds "wrong," i.e., in a way you don’t want it to, keep your temper – and plan the next session so that it won’t include a temptation to that behavior. With more mature dogs, we sometimes make a point by setting up a temptation and then correcting the dog for giving in, but this is inappropriate for puppies. Remember – the most important goal of puppy work is to build desire by making retrieving enjoyable for your pup.

Starting your pup on birds before the age of six months is desirable, as after that age some dogs seem to lose the capacity to become really birdy. We like to use a freshly-killed pigeon. Tease the puppy with the bird and toss it, as when you were first teaching your pup to retrieve. Resist the temptation to sing out encouragement as your puppy approaches and sniffs the bird; you will only distract it. Praise, cheer, clap, etc., only after your pup has picked up the bird. If, after sniffing the bird for a little while (maybe 10 seconds) your pup doesn’t look like it will pick the bird up, go pick up the bird by a wing, make sure your pup’s attention is on it, and toss it from that spot with a little spin. After three or four throws, put the bird away – whether your pup picks it up or not.

Little puppies usually develop a lot of enthusiasm for birds in the first session or two. If your pup grabs the bird and runs away, use one of the techniques we described last month for getting puppies to come back. Check cords usually work well on bird retrieves – while the constraint may cause a pup to drop a dummy, most puppies will "stick" to a bird. You may have trouble getting the bird from your pup’s mouth. Don’t worry if your pup seems to have developed lockjaw or even to have a "death grip" on the bird – this does not mean it will be hardmouthed. Its hold will become more reasonable after its adult teeth come in. Usually picking a puppy up will cause it to drop the bird or relax its hold enough for you to roll the bird out of its mouth. If you must use force to get a bird away, do so in a way that will not hurt the puppy. Grip the bird with one hand and press the jaw down while holding the muzzle with your other hand, with your thumb and middle finger in the space behind the upper canines. Be careful not to pinch your pup’s lips against its teeth.

A fresh pigeon is ideal for early bird work.
Photo by: Author
We find there is no substitute for a real bird. Dogs raised on dried bird wings or feathered dummies will sometimes refuse to pick up a whole bird. Once your pup is eagerly retrieving birds, use a bird once every week or two in place of a dog training dummy. If your puppy starts playing with the bird and mishandling it, use the bird less often.

If the breeder has not already done so, you will need to introduce your puppy to water. While an early introduction to water usually ensures that your pup will swim well and not be one of those rare individuals who struggles to learn to swim, it is absolutely critical that you wait until the water is warm (60 degrees or above). With many puppies, all you need to do is wade out into the water and encourage them to follow. Some retriever pups are more hesitant. We recommend that you not force the issue. Wait a couple of weeks and try again. If your puppy will go belly-deep, try throwing a dummy parallel to shore to introduce retrieving in water. Frequently it is easy to switch to throws where the pup needs to swim just a couple of feet, and then lengthen the swimming distance.

If this fails repeatedly and your puppy gets to four or five months without taking to the water, try wading out, carrying the puppy and a dummy. Set the puppy down in water deep enough that it will have to swim. Probably it will swim straight to shore. Try calling it; if it doesn’t come, go get it and wade out again. Tease it with the dummy, try to get it swimming after the dog training dummy, and toss the dummy a few feet in front of the pup, towards the middle of the lake. After doing a few short retrieves when it is already swimming, your puppy will soon be able to retrieve in the water from shore. Do not be discouraged if your puppy needs extra work to get going in the water. Many dogs who are initially hesitant become good water dogs.

Very young puppies take to swimming readily.
Photo by: Author
As soon as your puppy can retrieve as far as you can throw, it is time to teach it to retrieve from a thrower. This will enable you to extend its range, and also teach it to direct its attention out into the field where the action is. If you can get a reliable helper, we feel it is preferable to have a human thrower, rather than a mechanical bird launcher, at this stage. It is extremely important that your young puppy succeed on all of its retrieves, and a live thrower can help your puppy when it is confused and in danger of failing.

There are various ways to set up a pup’s first throws. One which works is to have the thrower stand the distance of a short throw in front of you and off to one side while you restrain your pup. On your signal, the thrower calls, "Hey, hey!" and throws the dummy across in front of you. This way the fall is closer to you than to the thrower, which may help your puppy get the idea of returning to you, not to your helper. It helps if the thrower watches your pup to make sure it is looking at him or her. When the dummy is almost on the ground release your pup – then when your puppy finds the dummy, start whistling and calling the pup back to you, so it does not get confused and go to the thrower.
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