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The Conditioned Retrieve

Once upon a time gun dog owners were told that pups were either natural retrievers or would need to be force trained. Then force breaking became the rage, and another natural aptitude was ignored in breeding programs. Well bred, natural gun dogs should display an instinct to pick-up and carry, and a temperament that predisposes them to bring it to their master with the help of some conditioning. In fact, most dogs from solid breeding can be shaped into reliable retrievers by teaching the conditioned retrieve. I’ve been teaching it to clients for thirty-five years, and have taught it successfully to every one of my own setters.

First, when picking your pup be sure that natural retrieving instinct is part of the genetic package. Do not be fooled by excuses that degrade the importance of retrieving, or by parents that have been force broke. The instinct is manifested when a pup will pick-up and carry a thrown object. Getting pup to do it on command and to bring it to you are products of training. The instinct is generally stronger in flushing and retrieving breeds. In pointing dogs it is secondary to the search instinct, but should still be present.


Starting early is critical in order to take advantage of the readiness stage in pup’s emotional development. An older dog that has not been properly conditioned may have to be force broke, so do not wait. Play retrieving is also something fun to do with pup while still training. Use a small dummy that pup can handle, and does not have access to at any other time. With pup on a checkcord, shake the dummy in front of pup to get it excited, then toss it a short distance and say fetch. When pup picks it up use an excited voice tone, body language and the checkcord, if necessary, while calling come, but keep it fun. If pup hesitates, turn around and move hurriedly away while calling come. Do not overdue it. If pup does it correctly two or three times, praise and quit. At first fetch is only being associated with the behavior of picking up. Later, fetch will precede the behavior, and become a command. The entire process is a combination of three commands- fetch, come and drop.

There are several basic principles that cannot be ignored. First, keep it fun. Pup should think that bringing the dummy to you is the greatest thing on earth. This needs to be in place before any discipline is associated with the procedure. Take time to build the fire for retrieving in your pup. Second, never approach the pup threateningly. Use the proper techniques explained earlier to get pup to you. If it feels threatened it is likely to not pick up or to short stop and drop. Third, never snatch the dummy away as soon as the pup reaches you. Do not allow pup to run around with the dummy or to chew on it. Get pup to you, get pup under control, then praise and stroke repeating fetch until pup looks ready to drop. Command drop and accept the dummy.

Once the basics are engrained and pup loves retrieving, the process can move ahead. There is too much to include here, but the object is for fetch to become a command that results in pup taking and holding on command until told to drop. At some point you can sit pup in front of you, and repetitively give it the dummy while commanding fetch. Pup should take and hold the dummy until told to drop. ‘Hunting dead’ is an extension of retrieving when your dog must search for, find and retrieve an object that it has not seen fall. This is a combination of fetch and directional signals, that can also be taught in the yard during puppy training.

In pointing dogs, only use a bare dummy (no scent or feathers), and stop retrieving work when field work on birds begins around five months old. Once pup is pointing staunchly, and its first birds are shot over point, revert to the retrieving commands and techniques used earlier with the dummy. Most pups will get the idea after a few birds. If pup does not catch on in the field, you can go back to your earlier work, and proceed a step at a time toward retrieving a shot bird. This includes putting wings on the dummy, whoaing the pup when tossing it, using the blank gun and other steps, being sure to only change one thing at a time so pup relates the new picture to the last step accomplished. Often confusion and mixed signals get in the way during those first points and kills. Picking the bird up and tossing it to replicate the yard work also gives pup a familiar picture, and a retrieve should result. If you did not condition your pup early, you will not have anything to fall back on when problems arise in the field. If it was not engrained earlier, pup may not respond to a dummy after birds have been shot for it. However, the pup that was conditioned to fetch, come and drop during the first months of life will respond to needed work at this point.

All of my setters are real grouse dogs, and they all hunt dead and retrieve. Wonderful Rose would hunt dead in a confined area for as long as it took to find a cripple, and most always succeeded. Her nephew, Tuck, thinks retrieving is his mission on earth whether it be birds, dummies, shoes, socks or water bottles. Neither was force broke. Like all my dogs, they were taught the conditioned retrieve as puppies, then received more work after being staunched and having birds killed for them. The instinct to pick-up and carry, a cooperative temperament and training will produce a satisfactory result in the companion gun dog, and a dog that retrieves in the field with a smile on its face!

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