Sue’s Positive Retrieve Work


Photo by Sport Dog Photography
After Sue’s successful NAVHDA Natural Ability test, I decided we would spend the fall just being a puppy and working on basics, like a solid recall and building retrieve drive. Come winter, I wanted to spend some serious time on ensuring a strong and solid retrieve. How to train a retrieve is like the politics and religion of the bird dog world. In retrievers, you force fetch your dogs. No question. You’re basically a weirdo if you don’t. It’s a little more split in the pointing dog world—not everyone force fetches their pointing dog, but many do. Some pointing dog people don’t even really care if their dog has a nice retrieve, depending on which game they play or how they hunt or what breed they have. Retriever people on the other hand want a perfect fetch, hold, and delivery to hand. If I am to go on in NAVHDA to Utility testing, a solid, perfect retrieve is essential. The entire test requires many different retrieves—in the field, in the water, and on a drag outside of the supervision of the handler.

I have a hard time with this. I don’t like using pressure to compel a behavior. I personally prefer using reward based methods, where the dog is given a choice, has to reason, and is rewarded for the correct choice. A dog uses more reason and decision making when working to obtain a reward rather than franticly trying to shut off pressure or pain. Operant conditioning works, period.. Anyone who has questions or wants more information on operant or classical conditioning I would be happy to provide the names of books, links, etc. There is a ton of information out there on it. But basically it works because, science. As I stated in my introduction, I am not a 100% positive trainer, I do use some pressure and force when needed, when the behavior is learned and understood but the dog makes other choices. But I do much prefer to use operant conditioning, reward based methods when first teaching a behavior as I feel it will be better understood and imprinted when the dog has to figure out what you are asking for in order to obtain the reward. I also have a hard time understanding why dogs bred specifically for retrieve work have to be pressured into doing it correctly. I know this is an unpopular view and most lab people would laugh at me, but I also have not been offered a viable explanation for this. How many labs are worked or tested without force fetch? Are we breeding this in as a required factor now?


I mustache, do I need force fetch?

When it comes to retrieving with my GSP’s, I failed my older dog Ozzy. I never really worked a trained retrieve as I should have, and didn’t address his issues like he needed. He’s still a real puzzle to me as to how to fix his problems. This dog lives to PLAY at retrieve. He will play chuck it and disc til his heart explodes. But when it comes to shot birds, not so much. In the field he’s incredibly inconsistent. He always goes out to the bird balls to the wall, like going to fetch is the greatest thing in the world. But when he gets to it he might pick it up, he might mouth it, he might bring it halfway back, or every once in a while he might shock the hell out of me and deliver it to hand! I think there are many things at play here, and I might be reading into it but I have theories. I think first of all I failed as a trainer to get him to see retrieves in the field are just the same and just as fun and rewarding as play retrieves with a disc or ball. Somehow, it’s been equated as work to him. I think it became more complicated by him later equating a retrieve after a shot with end of fun time. How to fix him, I still don’t really know. What I did learn however that the next dog would need a solid retrieve across the board from the beginning, and would need to see retrieving shot birds as a reward and fun.

So what to do? Because force fetch is the primary method used by the majority of retriever trainers, there’s not much alternative information out there. The one positive retriever trainer book I found was not very helpful. However, I did find, and was recommended by a few others, a book called “The Clicked Retriever” by Lana Mitchell. It’s a book written for obedience, but if you think about the retrieves required in obedience venues, the expectations are about as high as they are for bird dog work. She even talks some about using her method for bird dogs. I actually got it a few years ago for Ozzy, but I made a few mistakes with it. First off, I should have done this at a much younger age with him (just as most do force fetch). I let him basically understand the commands but I don’t think he understood them completely—only in relative terms to certain things. He really needs a better understanding and also enforcement—that fetch means fetch regardless of the situation. Secondly, when I did read “The Clicked Retriever” and applied the program to him, I skipped steps because I thought he understood them. I believe this was a mistake and these steps are all needed to lay the proper foundation.


Ozzy practicing a hold

Yet another example where I learned from my mistakes with Ozzy and remedied them with Sue. I made sure to lay the fetch foundation in his first year, and if I was going to follow “The Clicked Retriever”, then I needed to follow all the steps. The book lays it all out pretty well, but I think it is best suited to someone who has a pretty good grasp of clicker training—how it works, why it works, etc. The first steps involve a lot of shaping. For those not familiar, shaping is where you basically set the stage for the dog to offer the correct behavior without a lure or other direction. So for example, you start by simply holding the dumbbell and rewarding when the dog even looks at it. Some dogs are going to move past that pretty quick—so click + reward when the dog touches, sniffs, licks the dumbbell. I think it’s fairly natural for a dog to move to mouthing the object, I know with Sue it was pretty quick.

One thing I have found is my dogs, particularly Sue, are super responsive to clicker work. It’s like it turns a light bulb on in them and makes them extremely offering and enthusiastic with their behaviors. Sue gets into super work mode—not only does he work his little butt off trying to figure out how to get the reward, but he is incredibly HAPPY and having a blast with it as well. He really is a fun dog to train and work with. He made it hard to not skip steps but I made sure each step was solid before moving on to the next. One thing I like about positive training work is making sure a behavior is solidly understood before attaching a cue to it, whether that’s done through shaping or luring. Once you get to the point where the dog is consistently putting his mouth on the object and holding it momentarily is when you start asking them to fetch, i.e attaching the cue to the behavior. From there I started building duration of the hold, and started adding movement in increment. I started with one step, holding the dumbbell out, asking for fetch and taking a step back so the dog turns back to you while holding the dumbbell. This is starting to build the hold and carry. Positive reinforcement is all about building behavior in small increments so the behavior is solidly built and understood. If you move to the next increment that makes the task harder and the dog has trouble, you lower your criteria and back up a step.

This was a great exercise to work on with Sue through the bitter cold winter months as it gave us something to do inside. We did a lot of this and worked on some basic obedience work as well. He has a very strong natural retrieve, but taking him through the formal steps gave him parameters of what was expected in a working retrieve, and set the bar for moving on to actual birds in the spring. April rolled around and our weekly NAVHDA training nights started, along with a NSTRA trial for fun in May. Sue was picking up shot birds and bringing them to hand like a pro. June rolled around and I took Sue for a trial run at duck search training with fellow NAVHDA peoples that I have learned a lot from, Nick Moe and chapter president Craig Jones. He did fantastic and was an absolute natural. He also got to do his first real marks that day. Marks meaning where the retrieve object is not thrown by the handler but out in the field or over water, ideally by a launcher or someone hidden, to simulate hunting, so a dog has to pay attention to the horizon and “mark” where the bird has fallen and go to that spot to retrieve it. Sue’s first mark on water threw him off a bit but he was soon getting the hang of it. His retrieves were awesome, but his marks needed a little work. I was certain with a little work he would soon be ready to run in a Started Hunting Retriever test in HRC, and we set our sights on a 2 day test in Kalamazoo.

Sue at a training night

I joined one of the best training groups I have worked with outside of my NAVHDA chapter in the Great Lakes HRC. The club gets together once a week on a lovely piece of property that has both ample land and water for various mark set ups, from started work to finished. Awesome trainers in the group that offered a lot of insight and help. I can’t say enough for this entire group: everyone pitches in and helps and everyone gets plenty of training time with their dogs. All are welcome, even those of us with non-Labradors 🙂 Sue got a lot of practice in through the month of July. We got some work in closer to the test with an HRC trainer that I greatly admire, Ken Youngs. In less than 2 months, I had a non traditional HRC breed ready to run a started test at 14 months old.

I don’t know why, but I get super nervous at certain dog events, and HRC is one of them. I think that’s likely because Ozzy passed every single one of his HRC tests by the skin of his teeth. I had nothing to worry about with Sue. While he was a typical GSP and sometimes took his own path back on the return retrieve on a few of his marks, he still brought back every bird to hand. He earned two of his four passes needed for his title that weekend, and really did a phenomenal job. He represented the versatile bird dogs quite well in a sea of retrievers (he was the only pointing dog at the whole test, though there were a few Standard Poodles.) I heard a lot of comments that weekend: “What kind of dog is that?”, “Oh I didn’t know GSP’s could run in HRC?”, and my favorite that I’ve heard at a few tests and became a theme: “Can that dog swim?” That one just made me laugh because swimming is the least of my worries with Sue. In fact he had one of the best water entries of all the dogs running in Started 🙂


Sue’s spectacular water entry (Sport Dog Photography)


A few weeks after the great weekend in Kalamazoo, I ran Sue in a test on the other side of the state, north of Detroit. Again, another easy pass. We had three down and only needed one more. In early October there was a test in Ohio where Ozzy had finished his SHR title. I thought it was a perfect place to finish. Here was where my perfect GSP would decide to test me. The morning started with water, where he ran a flawless test and got me way too confident for the afternoon. The land test was where Sue decided to figuratively, but not literally, give me the bird. I will say, the set up on this test was not ideal. We were set up on a field that looked like a golf course cut to lawn length, with no cover whatsoever. Sue ran to his first mark, brought it about halfway back and didn’t have a good grip on it. He dropped the bird to re-grip, picked it up, and got zoomies. He took off with the duck and had his own little party with it, bucking and tearing around. After two circles he finally brought it back to me. Second mark, he ran straight out and back to hand perfectly. I found out prior to the results being given that Sue was not passed. Although I think he was a total dick on that retrieve, technically the judges should have given him the pass. Under started rules, there is nothing about the dog taking a direct path back to the handler, all they have to do is bring the bird back which Sue did. There’s a lot of leniency because these are truly STARTED dogs without a much formal training. While I disagreed with the judges’ decision, as happens time to time in dog sports, I decided that I would enter him the next day and try again. I hoped it was a fluke.

It was not. The next day was a repeat of the day before, but even worse. Again the water was flawless. Land in the afternoon (again on a golf course-like lawn with zero cover) and his first bird, he stopped about 30 feet away. This time he stopped and just stared at me. There was no re-grip on the bird. He looked directly at me and made a conscious decision to turn around and go the other direction with the bird. This was truly the dog equivalent of flicking me off. He ignored my recall and the judges told me I could go pick him up. He stopped and looked again and started to take off again. I really was not in for a game of chase in front of the whole test gallery, so I asked the judges to come out with me. The little turd would not come to me but at least he stopped and we took the bird from him. They told me I could run my second mark even though he failed, so I did. Of course, he decided to run that mark perfectly. He reminded me that day he was just a young dog, still unpredictable, and humbled me as a dog trainer which we all need from time to time. I’ve decided we won’t even finish his Started title but will move right on to Seasoned this year.


Learning to wait patiently for things to happen
Our test season was over, and it was time for real world hunting to put our test training to work. And time for me to go back to the drawing board to fix these issues that had arisen. Honestly? I think he was getting bored with the single marks and that was a large part of his problem. He also needed the hold and return to hand enforced. He understood that behavior very well and knew what was being asked of him, so here is an example of where I have no problem using some pressure to enforce his training. I got some used birds and did some marks in my back yard with an E-collar on. I had it set only to vibrate. The moment he started questioning coming immediately back to hand, I hit him on vibrate and got him quickly back to me. I worked this drill many times throughout the fall til I was soon able to do it collarless. I also have started working him on double marks which is way less boring than single marks and had him coming back quickly on each retrieve. I think we have nipped this problem in the bud but we will see in spring when HRC training resumes.

As to duck hunting, we only got out a few times but his first duck hunt, he was a pro on his retrieves! I learned he needs work on being quiet and steady in the blind for the long periods between ducks flying by—testing really does not prepare a dog for that. But when action happened, he was spectacular. The first batch of ducks that came through, we only saw one fall for sure. It was Sue’s first real life mark, and he missed it with all the action happening. We threw things, (wait let’s be real here) I threw a couple shells because we had no rocks, to direct him to the bird that was probably 50 yards out. He saw it and took a line out towards the bird. ¾ of the way out, he turned directly to the left and disappeared onto an island of reeds. The guys I was with were all upset he left that bird, but if I have finally learned anything from my bird dogs, it’s to trust them. We gave him a minute, and sure enough he comes out of those thick reeds with a duck in his mouth! He had caught scent of it on his way out to the first bird—this is one way a versatile dog works totally different than a retriever in a situation like this and will more independently work scent. I couldn’t have been more proud! After he gave us that bird, he went right back out to the original bird. Did I mention it was in the 30’s that morning and damn cold water for a GSP? Sue never hesitated or gave the cold water a second thought. He might not have gotten his title, but he put all our training and hard work to actual real world use, which is the real goal of all this testing and training. He truly redeemed himself to me and proved he is a true retriever in the real world, which means more to me than any title.


A very successful duck hunt for Sue!