Myths and Misconceptions About Retrievers

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Myths and Misconceptions About Retrievers

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.
Most "common knowledge" concerning retrievers, their abilities, and attributes, has come from books (old and new), hearsay, and lore handed down from generation to generation. The majority of these information sources have slim basis in practical experience. Fact has become mixed with fiction, so that much of what is heard, while possibly entertaining, is of little practical value in working with your own dog. Two sorts of unfortunate consequences commonly result from mistaking retriever mythology for retriever fact. Owners are led by unrealistic assumptions to expect more of their dogs than any dog can be reasonably expected to accomplish. The result is disappointment, frustration, and sometimes embarrassment (if they were so blithe as to brag to their hunting buddies). Worse, in many instances the results have been serious abuse resulting in a ruined dog, sometimes even in the dog's death from training abuse or from hazards or exposure while hunting.

While this article is sufficient to address only a few of the many common misconceptions, my real intention is to make you a skeptic with respect to statements you hear or read about retrievers. I strongly suggest you refuse to apply anything you hear or read to YOUR dog without thinking it through and checking other sources.

First, don't expect your retriever to be super dog. The "Rin Tin Tin" image, for those of you whose memory of dog-hero movies goes back that far, often subtly works on the minds and expectations of dog owners, and they begin to believe in super dogs that can do everything but answer the phone. Belief is bolstered by tales of bloodhounds following a three-week-old human scent trail through New York City, and by knowing that your dog's own pedigree includes three-time National Field Trial Champion and Dual Champion Shed of Arden (probably true of all American Labradors). Extraordinary feats performed by dogs of any breed are rare, and the tales of them often exaggerated. Sure, those of us who have spent a lifetime with hundreds of dogs have seen a handful of unbelievable performances by spectacular individuals, but these occurrences are far from what we expect in the ordinary course of events.

When holding your retriever up against the dog heroes of legend and folklore, consider the stunningly wonderful piece of dog-handler teamwork which is a well-executed retrieve....and recognize that the dog never lived who could retrieve perfectly, every time, under all conditions. A really good dog comes to you with tractability, affection, courage, drive, and a small amount of built-in instinctual behavior which can be developed and refined by hard work and repetition by dog and trainer.

The reference to natural retrievers is often used by the less knowledgeable people in the sport. For all practical purposes, there are no natural retrievers, some just come to you with a better starting point, i.e. better mouth, nose, water-going traits, bird interest, and so forth. In 25 years of professional training, I have had only two out of hundreds of retrievers that retrieved naturally -- and kept doing it. Many puppies will retrieve naturally for a short time but quickly realize other activities are more interesting. Those that retrieve well, naturally, into adolescence soon start dropping dummies, refusing to go, taking a deviated route back, etc. when the pressure to do things right is applied. Therefore, almost all dogs must be force-fetched -- a procedure that will take anywhere from ten days to a couple of months depending on the aptitude of the individual.

There is little question that, in order to arrive at the desired goal with a retriever, you must embark upon, and continue, a sensible, regular program of careful training. When you see a dog perform beautifully, and consistently, you can bet that he wasn't born that way, nor was it an accident. It takes more time than many people think or are willing to invest. Not only must a dog learn what to do, he needs to practice to become proficient...and then he must practice more to establish the habit of doing it correctly despite all of the distractions and temptations he will face when hunting. Fred Woodall, of early Chesapeake fame, wrote me years ago, in response to the many ignorant questions I asked him about the ability of his dogs that "these dogs are exactly what you make of them."

Another phrase we often hear is soft mouth. The issue of soft mouth is to a large extent a false one in the respect that almost all retrievers have an acceptably soft mouth. Many retriever mouths are gentle to a fault, the dogs being neither aggressive enough in their pick-up nor firm enough in their hold.

More desirable is a dog with a good, solid, confident mouth and eagerness to grab and hold things. In my life as a trainer I have had only a small handful of bird-mashers that could not be taught to handle a bird properly. These truly hard-mouthed dogs are so rare and easily identified that the problem does not deserve a lot of attention. If you get really unlucky and get one of these outlaws, and persist in training it, I wish you luck because it rarely works.

I wouldn't like to go too far making generalization about the quality of mouths in the different breeds of retriever, but some variation can be observed. Labs used to come with a good aggressive, firm mouth as a rule, Goldens with a slightly flawed soft mouth, and Chesapeakes with a tendency to hard mouth. At present, Lab mouths have slipped some to an unpredictable level, possibly because the advanced force fetching methods of today make rigorous breeding practices for good mouth unnecessary. Goldens seem to come by and large with a good, happy-medium mouth -- firm, fairly quick pick-up and easy to force fetch. Chesapeakes, on the other hand have become somewhat loose in the mouth with lots of bird-dropping and readjusting. My experience is that the looser the mouth, the more difficult and time-consuming the force-fetch procedure is.
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