Graham Watkins gives some useful advice and tips on how to teach a spaniel puppy to retrieve.
Spaniels are “pre-programmed” to hunt, it is their most basic instinct. So many new owners might think that starting to teach a spaniel puppy to retrieve would be straightforward and simple. After all spaniels have been bred for generations to hunt out game from stick piles, patches of bramble and thick bracken banks. (Read our list of gundog training kit you might like to consider.)
However, if you do too much early hunt training with a young spaniel this can become the most important thing in its life and will overtake any desire to retrieve. (Read more on when should I start training my puppy to be a gundog.)
The recall is one of the most important parts of a young gundog’s foundation training when you first teach a spaniel puppy to retrieve. There will get to a stage at which you want your dog to come back to you no matter what it is doing. If he has become “all obsessed” with hunting, especially if he gets on some ground where there is a bit of scent, you may well find he will ignore your recall command. (Read more on teaching reliable gundog recall here.)
Steadiness is another foundation training element and – once again – if you have focused on the dog’s hunting skills it can be more problematic to instil steadiness at a later stage.
Balance and consistency
Training a gundog is all about balance and consistency. Therefore, you don’t want to be too biased towards either hunting or retrieving. Ideally, each aspect should be taught in conjunction with the other and, in fact, they can complement each other. If you have conditioned your pup to fetch retrieves, later in its training you can use this to encourage the pup to hunt up and to find a retrieve.
Teach a spaniel puppy to retrieve
1. It doesn’t matter what you use to encourage a puppy to retrieve. There are a mind-boggling number of different types of dummies on the market but I have found something as simple as a rag with a knot tied in it or even an old pair of rolled-up socks work well. To start with, don’t restrain the puppy and don’t throw the retrieve too far. Give it lots of encouragement once it has picked up the retrieve.
2. Crouch down to encourage the puppy back to you and do not be too quick to take the retrieve from him. A common mistake made by some novice trainers is to try to get the puppy to sit and make a nice delivery; this can be developed at a later date. Start it too soon and you can end up putting too much pressure on the dog and this can develop into a reluctance to bring the retrieve back to you.
3. It is important that you don’t overdo these early retrieving exercises as spaniels can become bored with constant retrieving of the same item. If this does happen, you may need to think outside the box and find something else the puppy likes to carry. At this stage it doesn’t matter too much what it is provided it works – you can always go back to more “traditional” dummies once he has gained his confidence.
4. Once your dog’s mad keen on retrieving, you can use this desire to develop his hunting skills. A good technique is to throw out a dummy (fur-covered tennis balls work well for this) into an area of rough grass. Then, just before the dummy hits the floor, cover the pup’s eyes. He will know that when something is thrown he will have a retrieve but, in this case, he will have to hunt for it.
5. You can then use this technique to teach the dog to start to hunt in light stock piles and thicker areas of cover. He will learn quickly that he will find something in areas like this. For now, it is a fur-covered ball but later it might be a rabbit or pheasant. As his confidence grows, you can leave it longer before you send him out. This is the first stage towards developing the skills needed for memory retrieves.
6. Another way of conditioning your pup to retrieve initially, which can then help in its hunting training, is to get your pup really keen on retrieving tennis balls. Once this has been done you can start to hide one or two in some rough grass. By encouraging him to investigate the areas where you have hidden the balls, he will start to develop a loose quartering pattern that can be further refined as he gets older.
This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.