With the shooting season coming to an end soon, many pickers up are introducing their young gundogs to retrieving game and having them sit behind the drive to observe experienced dogs work the field. Getting used to the shots and watching birds drop down from the sky is an exciting time for the youngsters. They need to be familiar with the sights and sounds of the shoot day, and the last few days of the season, when the birds decrease in numbers, can be used for just that.
There are many other things young dogs need to learn and grow accustomed to; one of those is the presentation. Young dogs are still at the stage where they pick up the bird and then try to reposition it in their mouths, often dropping it repeatedly until they finally get a good grip on it. This is a common problem, and it’s partly due to the feathers and skin that are loose and roll around the fresh carcass, making it difficult for a young, inexperienced dog to get a firm hold.
The sensation of a mouthful of feathers can be a little off-putting too, particularly for soft-mouthed dogs. Of course, it’s important not to discourage their gentleness in any way, as hard-mouthed dogs are no good for retrieving game – they can crush the ribcage and damage the flesh.
So, how can this issue be addressed?
If a dog presents dummies in correctly, you can assume the problem lies with the dog being uncomfortable holding freshly-shot birds in its mouth. No amount of cold game training will help with this, because when the bird cools down, it becomes stiffer and the skin shrinks back. It will not help the dog get used to the loose movement of the bird’s feathery skin.
When my family and I take our young dogs out for the first few times, we often get them to carry fresh game all the way to the game cart. This gets them used to balancing the uneven weight of the carcass. Away from the field, we use unusually sized or shaped dummies for training, such as paint rollers and weighted old stockings with filled water bottles stuffed inside. The movement of the water helps the dog get used to the changes in weight distribution.
Perfecting the retrieve
Some time ago, I learned that you shouldn’t put your hands out for the retrieve, as dogs learn to anticipate that you want it and will often start dropping it too soon or quickly spit it at you. This is not a good thing, especially when a pricked bird gets delivered to you as it will make a run for it. Encourage your young dog into your legs before presenting your hands. It really does work!
A dog’s head will naturally come up to your hands so keep them up by your chest and don’t be in a hurry to take the retrieve. Remind your dog to hold it and be enthusiastic; make the dog feel excited about what it has achieved.
With a bit of time and patience, it will all come together, so if your shoot is getting a little quieter at the end of the season, ask the keeper if you can bring your young dog on a drive that will not overwhelm it.
I recommend you read the BASC Gundogs Code of Practice to learn more about training, the law and other important aspect any gundog owner should think about. The Picking up Code of Practice offers valuable advice on behaviour, the law and equipment you might need when using a dog to retrieve game.