The Trained Retrieve

One of the primary reasons for hunting with a trained dog is to insure that every bird that we shoot is recovered and bagged. It is unethical to leave shot birds, dead or alive, in the field, period. Having a dog that is reliable in bringing birds to hand that have been shot dead while hunting will certainly put a few extra birds that would have otherwise been lost in your pocket each season. Having a dog that will do this as well as apply himself to finding wounded birds that scamper off or worse, fly off and land some distance away, out of sight in some instances is a true tribute to the value that his owner puts the hunting tradition. A dog that will do all of this ON COMMAND is truly worth their weight in gold to everyone concerned.

You may say to yourself, "This is a HUNTING DOG, he finds birds, I shoot them, he brings them to me...I don't have to teach him how to retrieve!". True enough, but as anyone who has hunted more that about one weekend in their life can attest, there will be times and situations that come up where a dog that is generally regarded as a "natural retriever" for one reason or another, simply will not follow through on a hit bird and the bird will be lost.

To be clear, my standard for a retriever is a dog that will quickly go out, seeks, find and bring the bird back and put in in my hand, everytime. Hot, tired, three feet of snow, bird in the water, bird over a cliff, birds coming out of her ears, mutiple birds dead on the ground at once. I don't care. Unless the bird comes down dead in the middle of I-80 or crumples into the tiger pen at the Henry Doorly Zoo, I expect my dog to get it back to me quickly. It is a general contention in birddogdom that even the best retriever can be made better by training the dog to retrieve on command. If the dog is not retrieving on command, he is retrieving at his leisure and discretion and sooner or later you will find yourself having shot a bird in a situation where the dog simply decides NOT to get if for you and the bird will be lost.

Think about it. Have you ever seen your "natural retriever" fail to pick up a bird because; She was hot and tired while hunting and the last thing she wanted is a mouthful of feathers, or more commonly, there were simply more birds to hunt in the cover and she figured a live bird is more fun to find than a dead one (that you can find yourself, Mr. Twolegs!!) and so she just decides to hunt on. How many times have you heard about someone's dog being sent to find a bird and instead of dutifly bringing it back to the boss, it run's off with it and comes back without it a half-hour later?

I am reminded of a lab I once knew that served duty on large dove shoots back home in Pennsylvania when I was a child. The dog retrieved dozens of birds each outing, traveling around the shootng field to the shooters stationed about and bringing in their birds as the action got hot without any instruction from his owner, who was usually up at the house having a cold one.

Even this eager 20 week old Shorthair will have to be force trained to retrieve if one expects her to bring every bird shot directly to hand without question.
The only caveat in this dog's remarkable performance was his unwritten rule that he got to EAT the first bird that he retrieved for you. After that, he dropped them all at your feet. He would then move on to the next shooter and collect the birds dropped at that station, again exacting his little "toll" for his efforts in the process. Charming? Yes. Annoying? Certainly. The last I heard he still had never been cited by the warden for bag limit violations, but such displays would definitely put me over my limit if he were mine.

And how many of your out there can say for sure that your dog will bring back to you any bird you drop into the water? How about one that he doesn't see go into the water? What, you don't want that bird? Just shoot another one will you? How good is your dog on multiple retrieves, like on quail coveys? And just try using your untrained pointing dog on a dove or duck shoot. You won't get many birds in the bag unless the normally very active pointing dog is under complete control with a clear picture of what she is there for.

Unless the dog knows without question that he is expected to retrieve game to hand when commanded to do so, hunting the crippled bird down if necessary, bringing it to you post haste and without question and before even thinking about hunting on or taking a powder, YOU ARE GOING TO LEAVE SHOT BIRDS IN THE FIELD EACH SEASON. You will then shoot more birds to fill your bag, in effect, killing more than a daily bag limit. This situation is unacceptable as you will shooting birds that should be left for another time or someone else (like me!!), perhaps even to winter over and reproduce next years crop of birds. Thankfully this state of affairs is completely fixable.

I have trained every dog I have owned to a trained retrieve and to "hunt dead" on command. This month will deal with the retrieve part, that is, to go get something and bring it to your hand on command. Next month, I will deal with the "hunt dead" part, which is easy enough tacked on to your dog's repitoire of skills once the forced or trained retrieve is instilled in him.

I have been truly amazed at the lengths the dogs will go to get shot birds once they are conditioned to it like everything else in their life.(come, heel, whoa etc.) They would rather die than disappoint the boss in a task they have been trained and commanded to do. In the time I have had dogs, I can recall just one bird, nearly 10 years ago, that I am certain I hit that was not found and put in the bag. Strangely, it was a quail that I am positive came down dead over the point of a dog of mine that had just finished runner-up in the National AKC GSP field futurity (a retrieving stake) about a month prior. I am still unable to explain why this dog, who was likely one of the best bird finders that has ever been, did not find that bird that I and my grandfather saw bounce and roll in the leaves, not 15 yards from the end of my gun. We looked for an hour and even in the dark I can still take you straight to that spot about 50 miles from my house. I was so bewildered by this turn of events that I remember missing whole coveys out in the open later in the day and quitting early. I hunt by that spot with my current dog every year and I will not be surpised one of these times when Freck brings that phantom bird in after all this time!

In the meantime, the dogs have brought in to me dozens of birds over the years that would have been lost if they had not had some specific training in the area of tracking and retrieving.

Even the worlds best Field Trial Labrador Retrievers are put through a thorough course of trained retrieving to enhance their natural instincts and desires for retrieving. With due apologies to all the owners of "real bird dogs" out there, a lab has much more retrieving ability and desire than just about any pointing dog. If those guys train them to retrieve, I don't think such training will do anything but help one's pointings dog's field performance.

The first word of caution I will give you in this matter is to wait until the dog is AT LEAST one year of age and maybe even has a hunting season under his belt before going through this. With that in mind, just choose your shots very wisely during the pups first season, killing his birds carefully, which you should be doing anyway. It can be a lengthy, stressful process and to subject a young dog to this (like I did) can simply take away from all the good things that should be going on with a younger dog. (Such as bonding with the boss as his new best buddy and learning to come, whoa and heel!!)

I start this training with the dog up on a waist high table of 4 x 8 plywood. This table has two 6' high poles in the center of either end. There is a guywire taught between the tops of these poles, running right over the center of the 8' length of the table. From this wire, on a sliding "O" ring, hangs about a 15" length of chain and a snap bolt.

You also need:

This is about a 6 or 8 week process. Read all of this several times before you begin and often as you go.

Another word of caution on using this set up:

Never ever leave any dog unattended chained on the table. If you set it up right; 6' posts, 15" chain (make it adjustable as some dogs are taller or shorter) with snap and put stops on the guide wire about 24" in from each end. If your table is 4' wide the dog should never be able to get three of his feet off the edge of the table at once and hang himself. However, Never, ever leave a dog alone on the table as it would only take a minute or two to kill the dog if it did go off an edge and you were not there.

Step #1)

Put the dog on the table and bolt it's collar to the snap and also bolt a short lead to it's collar. Praise the dog lavishly and walk her up and down the table for a few moments. Take the dog down and repeat again later in the day. Repeat over several days until the dog is at ease on the table.


Hook the dog up as before and take the wooden dowel. Command the dog to fetch and place the dowel in her mouth for a few moments, making her hold it with your hands if necessary. Give lots of praise and petting as she calms down. Command "Thank you!" or "Give" or "leave it", and take dowel out and praise. Repeat this about six times.

Doing this twice a day will speed things up. Don't let the dog chew the dowel. After a few days the dog should hold it on her own. When she spits it out, command "fetch" and place it back in her mouth and make her hold it. Praise her for holding it, praise her more when you take it out. ( I prefer "thank you" as a release command as it sounds much nicer than "leave it" or "out" or "drop". I see so many folks barking "leave it" at the end of a retrieve and I think the dog must be thinking "geesh, you twit, why did you tell me to pick it up if it' s going to upset you so?") Once the dog is holding the dowel for a bit on her own and not fussing when you place it in her mouth. (this should take a 2-4 days) move to step #3

Step #3)

The force begins. This involves putting some pressure on the dog's ear to make the dog give a little yelp. You command "fetch", you present the dowel and squeeze the ear (be very gentle, it does not take much at all, usually) and when the mouth comes open, in goes the dowel and the pressure is immediately released and the dog is praised as she holds the dowel on her own. Throughout this training the dog is taught to simply choose to take or go get the dowel or whatever and please you and get the praise and thus, avoid the pressure on her ear. When she spits the dowel out, immediately put pressure on the ear again and command "fetch" and make her take and hold the dowel again.


I prefer to use the buckle on the dogs collar to pinch the ear against as you have greater control of the dog's head. You don't end up dragging the dog by his ear if you grab the collar and just pinch the ear with your thumb and control her head with the collar. You will be surprised how agile your hand will become at snatching that collar and nailing that ear against the buckle in one motion, at first you may need two hands to get this done. Your hand goes around the collar and the thumb nabs the ear. In this way you can manuever the dog and apply the necessary pressure with your thumb at the same instant. (You may find it necessary to take a small file to one of the four corners of the buckle and give it a bit of an edge. I like to use the upper corner on the side nearest the ear. Most buckles these days are made very round on all edges. This filing of an edge helps you in that you don't have to press very hard then to give the stimulation. On those round edges, some dogs will just stare at you all day as if to say...and this is supposed to do what?...hurt?, sorry..... as you squeeze your thumb blue!) put your dog on the table and hook her up as before...grab the end of her ear between thumb and corner of the buckle with one hand (this takes time to get the hang of, be patient). Command her to "fetch " as you present the dowel to her and apply pressure on the ear against the corner of the buckle, when the dog opens her mouth to yelp, put in the dowel and immediately release the pressure. Praise and make her hold it. Command "thank you" after several moments and take the dowel out and praise her some more. I would suggest you repeat this procedure about 10 times a day for two days. Starting on about the third day it helps if you begin to hold these sessions twice a day for about another week. Gauge your dog, you will have to judge how much pressure and stress to put her under. We really don't want the dog to dread this too much. They idea after all is to get her to want to do this to please you. I miserable dog will not be interested in doing anything but leaving.

Step #4)

Once the dog is opening it's mouth to let you put the dowel in on command with minimal pressure. Begin to make the dog move on it's own to get the dowel. Start with the dowel about 1 inch in front of the dog's nose and command 'fetch'. Start the pressure. The first time the dog will freeze, I guaruantee you, so go easy here. Increase the pressure just a bit and with the dogs collar, move her to the dowel and place it into her mouth. She will be yelping by the time she get to the dummy, so again, go very easy on that ear. After a few days of this, she will be moving on command to take the dummy. Always, praise her when she has the dowel in her mouth. Make her hold it there for a few moments and then command your release and remove it gently and praise her even more. Repeat this many times, increasing the distance she must move until she is going a full arms length or more to get the dowel. Step #4 may take a week or more

Step #5)

Once she is going the distance to get the dowel with minimal pressure on command. We must get her to pick it up off the table. (at this point I want to mention that it helps to go back everyday when you start and make her take the dowel from 1 inch in front of her nose, then 6 inches , then a foot etc., before going to full arms length retrieves. She will need a little "refresher" everyday. Gives lots of praise for obedience!!) Start from holding the dowel right in front of her nose again gradually move the dowel down toward the table in each instance you command her to "fetch". You will need to move her head to the dowel with her collar at first until she gets the hang of the fact that the dowel is beneath her chin. Within a few repitions she should be starting to look for the dowel on the command of "fetch". Soon you will be placing the dowel on the table. keep your hand on the dowel as she goes for it as for some reason they need to see your hand there as a visual cue to the whole situation. If you don't keep your hand there, the whole "picture" just looks very different to them and the dog will hang up in her progress at this point.

One trick to get them to pick it up off the table.: Once they are moving to get the dowel on command, move the dowel lower and lower over a week. When you are about 2" from the table with the dummy, command "fetch" and as the dog comes in to take it from your hand (right before she grabs it) drop the dummy to the table (or ground) and take your hand away and just point at the dummy (say nothing). The dog should just follow through and nab it up. For some reason they still need to see your arm pointed at the dummy at this point. Supposedly dogs, associate events with "pictures" in their minds. They hear a command and thier mind reels through a set of stored mental images and compares them to the images they are actually seeing to find the proper response. Since they learn the response to this command at first by taking the dowel from your hand, your hand is a large, important element in the picture. It seems to be at least as important as the dowel itself at first and if it is not there in front of them with the dowel on command, the "picture" is not a match to what she has stored in her "mind's eye" and the dog will not associate the proper response.

(For crying out loud, thank you Dr. Pavlov!......NEXT!!!.........jeeesh!)

Gradually increase the height of the drop through repititions up to dog's eye view. Also at this point, start commanding "come" and make her bring the dowel to you to release it. Use the chain or attach another lead to the collar. Make her hold it awhile while you move to the other end of the table and call her to bring dowel to you before releasing it. This is a major step along the way, remember to give lots of praise for every correct performance. If she tries to drop the dowel and come without it, take her back and make her take it again and shorten up the distance she has to travel to bring the dowel to you. You may have to very gradually increase this distance until she is comfortable traveling the entire length of the table with the dowel in her mouth.

Once reliable on this, hold the dummy over the table (or ground in later steps) about six inches up and drop it in front of the dog and take your hand away and just motion with it to the dummy while you command "fetch". As before, gradually increase the distance that the dog has to move on the retrieve and soon the dog will be going an arm's length or more to get the dowel on command. Remember, we are now gradually changing the dog's mental image of this command to where your hand is less and less part of the cue for the command, so go slow. Step #5 may take a week.

Step #6)

The dog must learn that she has to obey when you are away from her when you give the command. Start by removing you hand bit by bit from the dowel when you command her to fetch. (By this time, all you will need is your other hand on her collar. The instances that you really have to enforce the command with ear pressure should be few and far between by this point in her training.) When you command "fetch", motion towards the dowel on the table and point to it from about an inch away. Gradually increase this distance until the dog will obey with you a half step back from the table. Command "fetch" and point to the dowel (you will have let go of the collar too!). If she doesn't obey, go grab the collar, pinch the ear and move her to the dowel while applying increasing pressure, as before. As soon as she has grabbed the dowel, release her ear and praise her, especially when you have to enforce the command.

Increase the distance over the course of about a week until you are giving the command from about 20 feet off and she is at least 90% reliable. The dog should get the idea in a day or two. Soon you can set the dummy down and walk 20 feet away, leaving the dog on the table, and just motion to the dowel and command "fetch". This works slick as later on you can use this same motion to direct the dog to "hunt dead" in the field and he will know that you want her to go there, find something and bring it to you. Remember; give the command, motion with your arm and hand to the dummy, and enforce it if she doesn't immediately comply. Give lots of praise. At this point the dog should be over 90% reliable on command on the table. It helps, at this point, if the dog is "whoa trained", that is, trained to obey this command by standing still until released by another command. Step #6 may take a week or more.

Step #7)

Now, we move to the ground. Leash the dog on a longish leash, get on your knees at the dog's side if you can and go back to step #1 and go through all the steps again on the ground until the dog is moving over the ground about 20 feet to make the retrieve and bring the dowel to you while you give the commands from about 20 feet away. Enforce the command quickly if she balks be going to her and grabbing that ear and drag her by the collar across the yard to the dowel and placing it in her mouth in necessary. Praise even after this BIG scene.

The rest of this will go very fast.

Once the dog is very reliable getting the dowel on the ground and bringing it to you, and then waiting for you to command for the release you must.

Put the dog back on the table and repeat ALL of the steps using a canvas DUMMY instead of the dowel!! Within a week the dog should be as reliable on the ground with the dummy as it was with the dowel. Notice, even yet, once the dog is moving over the ground to get the dummy, we are not throwing anything for the dog to retrieve yet. Once the dog is reliable going over the ground to get the dummy and completing the retrieve properly with you a ways off, you must go back and using a fresh, but stone cold dead pigeon, repeat the whole process, starting back on the table. At this point you should only have to rarely enforce the command and she should hold whatever she has been told to get almost indefinitely until you ask for it with "thank you". Alway motion with your arm to the bird and command "fetch", regardless of distance to the dog or to the bird.

Steps #8 and #9)

The last day or two, use a live pigeon, being careful to spend time on the table making sure she is gentle with it in her mouth and releasing in promptly on command. You can lock the birds wings together behind it's back to keep it from flying off for those ground retrieves.

Now you can start doing short tossed retrieves of dead birds starting with the dog at your side and on a lead. Gradually increase the distance of the toss and add blank gun pops as the bird is falling. If she is whoa broke, the real test is to set her up on whoa, move about 50 yards away, chuck the bird long and high away from her and fire the blank gun and send her for it and make her come in with it. Graduate by repeating by throwing a live bird and shooting it as it flies off for her.

You now have a completely reliable retrieving dog. Take her out the the field and let her retrieve a shot bird over one of her points. Remember all the basic premises and enforce the retrieve if necessary.

Now you have to get her to do this when the bird falls in the water. Start shallow with a dummy (summer is good when the water is warm) and get in with should be able to figure it out from there....

Introducing your dog to birds

-The Bird Dog Bookshelf-