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Puppy Retrieving: Getting Started

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.
In this our first column for Tri-Tronics on retriever work and retriever training, we start at the beginning, with puppy work. While most of us find puppy play to be a lot of fun, it is also a chance to build the foundation for a good attitude and streamlined learning later on. The wise trainer doesn't miss this opportunity. This month we will focus on the underlying goals of puppy work, and getting started with a little puppy only a few weeks old. In our next couple of columns, we will address introducing a puppy to water, birds, gunfire, etc., work for older puppies, and problems of puppyhood.

To do a good job raising a puppy, it helps to keep in mind your goals for the pup whenever you start a training session. You want your pup to grow up to be confident, to be responsive to you, and to have plenty of initiative. Going overboard in pursuit of an immediate lesson usually is not compatible with these, so make a practice of using restraint. Don't try to exert complete control, but don't let your pup run wild and undirected, either. In particular, avoid losing your temper. Young puppies are not rational creatures, and harsh treatment will teach them only to fear you. Punishment of any kind is pointless, as a young pup lacks the sophistication to understand it as a consequence of its behavior. Chances are everything your puppy does is normal puppy behavior, not spite or cussedness. Remind yourself of this frequently!

The primary goal of all puppy work should be to condition your puppy to love retrieving. While many training procedures for adult retrievers use force, it is the positive reinforcement of making the retrieve that keeps the dogs working, and working happily, under force and pressure. We call it desire. Any experienced trainer will tell you that a dog which lacks desire has limited potential. Every retrieving session needs to be planned around the primary goal of building desire, and any immediate purpose that conflicts with it must generally be abandoned. For example, almost all good puppies decide at some point not to bring back the dummy or bird. You could train your pup rigorously to come when called, then call it in on a retrieve-but even if it doesn't drop the dog training dummy on the way in, its enthusiasm will be dampened. In a later article we will recommend some strategies for getting the puppy back without discouraging it.

Getting your pup started retrieving is easy. Restrain the puppy with one hand across its chest while teasing it with a good retrieve object: a knotted white sock or a canvas puppy dummy. Wiggle the object enticingly a few inches in front of your pup's nose. When the pup is struggling to get at the dummy, flip it forward a foot or two and release the pup. Once your puppy gets the idea, you will be able to rapidly increase the distance of your throws. If you have trouble getting your puppy to come back to you, try throwing retrieves down a hallway where the only place it can go with the dog training dummy is back past you. Outdoors, try running away from your pup once it gets the dummy in its mouth. Next month we'll give more detailed strategies to address the problem of getting a pup to come back without any harsh treatment.
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