A retriever that remains calm in a duck blind and concentrates on watching birds fall is a joy to hunt with. In a perfect world, that’s how all retrievers would behave. While a steady retriever is something that most hunters want, the reality is that very few retrievers are truly steady. That is unfortunate, because developing a steady waterfowl dog doesn’t have to be difficult, and it isn’t if you start your training the right way.
Developing good habits when your dog is young is the easiest way to ensure he will develop into a confident, mature and well-behaved retriever. At our house we start with a concept that is unbelievably simple for a puppy to understand. Here’s how it works. At feeding time, when we put the food down, we don’t just let the puppy tear into the bowl as soon as he wants. We lightly restrain him until he relaxes, and then give him the “OK” command and release him so he can go to the bowl. This is setting the stage for retrieving steadiness. The food is something he wants, just like later the bird will be what he wants.
This exercise at feeding time is something you can do literally every day. It’s very easy to connect that routine to retrieving a ball, a dummy or whatever the object is as you progress with training. And from there, of course, you’ll graduate to using actual birds. Regardless, your dog is learning that staying put is required before you’re going to give him the OK to go after his reward.
Steadiness training is tied to the “Place” command. When we move this drill outside as the dog gets a little older, we use a platform about 15 to 18 inches high. This makes the spot easy to identify, and the dog learns that staying on that certain spot is required as part of his obedience training. If the dog leaves that spot, he learns there will be a correction. This may be in the form of a leash or check cord at first, and then eventually the remote training collar.
Next, we use the platform as the place he retrieves from. By starting out using the platform as an obedience tool, it makes it easy for him to understand that if he breaks, he isn’t receiving a correction for wanting to go make the retrieve. He’s being corrected for leaving the spot. This is a very important distinction! You would never want your dog to think he’s being disciplined for wanting to retrieve. The platform helps him understand that.
When a dog thoroughly understands this concept, we next transition away from the elevated platform to a piece of cardboard or carpet because the “place” doesn’t need to be so obvious. And from there we eventually transition to using no place marker at all, because the dog’s place should be wherever you’ve told him to sit, and to stay sitting, until you say otherwise.
Now, even if you’ve followed these steps, you may still encounter a breaking problem. If it gets out of hand, remember that this is not a retrieving issue, but rather an obedience issue. The cure, as with most anything in dog training, is to go back to the basics using the leash or check cord and “Place” command and work back through the steps separately from any retrieving drills.
I can’t emphasize the importance of that last point. Obedience training has to come first! If all you do is reinforce “Place” in the context of retrieving drills, you could actually sour the dog on retrieving.
So, again, obedience first, retrieving second. If you remember that rule, start your dog out young and are consistent in your training, you should be able to one day have that calm, steady retriever that every waterfowl hunter wishes he had.