The perfect retrieve

Janet Menzies

Janet Menzies

Janet Menzies is the author of Training the Working Spaniel; From Puppy to Perfect; and PsychoDog. She has established her own champion line of working cocker spaniels under the Gournaycourt affix and also writes regularly for The Field magazine.

As the shooting season gets into full swing, I’m enjoying visiting shoots all over the country. With birds plentiful and Guns shooting well, it is an exciting time for everybody – especially so for the dogs.

The dog work can be the pressure point on otherwise well-organised shoots. Imagine the confusion and chaos created by picking-up dogs running about aimlessly with little or no control of their handlers. The birds being picked and then dropped in favour of another, can result in dead or wounded game being left on the field, unnoticed. Even when the bird eventually makes it onto the game wagon, it may not be fit for the game dealer if various dogs picked it up, dropped it in all sorts of places and perhaps even bit on it too hard too many times. With our sport under such scrutiny already, it is vital that each and every retrieve is always perfect and efficient.

The basic steadiness training exercise detailed below will help you always control your dog and make every retrieve a proud moment to brag about:


  • Two dummies (more if you are doing the advanced exercises)
  • Two tennis balls

Exercise One

  1. Sit your dog (no lead) and throw one dummy out to your right as far as you can manage. Then, throw another dummy out on your left to the same distance.

  2. The dummies should form the corners of an imaginary triangle. This is important to get right as it gives you the chance to walk forward into the triangle to correct your dog if necessary.

  3. Now, send your dog for the first dummy. This may seem easy, but instinct will tell your dog to go for the second dummy first. This is the root of problems on shoots as many dogs will want to retrieve the bird they saw drop most recently first.

  4. If your dog goes for the second dummy, stop them, call them back, and send them again for the first dummy. Use an obvious hand signal to help guide them. You can step forward into the triangle to get between your dog and the second dummy in order to prevent them going for it again.

  5. When your dog returns with the first dummy don’t let them fetch the second. Go and collect it yourself. This teaches the dog the steadiness he needs when picking-up and to focus on just one bird at a time. Some dogs even try to pick both retrieves at once.

Once your dog has mastered this technique, you can move on to a more advanced stage with multiple distractions.

Exercise Two

  1. As the dog is running for the first dummy, throw another dummy high in the air into the middle of the imaginary triangle, making your pheasant whirring sound at the same time. Again, the dog must remain fixed on that first retrieve, and you can correct them as necessary.

  2. A variation of the exercise is to throw the distraction dummy as the dog is returning with the first dummy. This replicates the situation on the shooting day where birds may still be falling around them while the dog is on a retrieve.

  3. When your dog returns with the first dummy, send them for the original second dummy – not the distraction dummy.

  4. If you have a chance to train on live game with some friends, take it. It will be an invaluable experience for your dog. Work on steadiness by swapping retrieves between the dogs. Pay attention to your dog’s body language – if they’re particularly excited about a certain retrieve, make them wait. Send them to retrieves they pay less attention to instead. So, when the first bird or a rabbit needs to be retrieved and your dog is raring to go, ask your friend to send their dog first instead. Make yours wait until it settles down. Choose which birds your dog should retrieve – don’t let them assume or fall into a routine of choosing what they will and will not pick up.

All these exercises are straightforward, but they must always be followed to a tee to ensure your dog remains focused when working. If the basics get sloppy, everything will fall apart.

Header image by Nick Ridley