Yesterday was a big day for Angus. He finally was introduced to real birds. Accidentally as it happens but sometimes training opportunities crop up when you least expect them.
As I've said many times I am not a professional Retriever trainer. I'm an enthusiastic amateur with a little experience and a lot of study. Especially Richard Wolters (PBUH). Take what I say with a grain of salt. It may or may not work in all cases and there are certainly those who would take violent exception to my methods. I do things the way that work for me and I make no apologies for that though YMMV. Ok, weasel words out of the way on to today's lesson.
Introducing a retriever to birds can be tricky. Live birds can scare a young dog and if that happens curing one that is bird shy can be harder than fixing one who is gun shy. I start out a dog with wings and dead duck trainers. Wings smell intriguing to a dog and get them used to the taste and feel of feathers. The dead duck trainers get him used to the size, shape and general feel of the birds plus the floppy head and feet/legs.
I throw the trainers and generally tease him with them so he gets the
idea that things to retrieve may be different from the usual bumper or
ball and gets him excited to fetch. I let him mouth and tote the wings around but not chew on them.
The wings are crunchy and if he is allowed to chew them it may lead to
being hard mouthed where every retrieved bird comes back with every bone
in its body broken. Not a good thing. Labs are naturally soft mouthed
and it's much easier to keep things that way than to try and fix the problem after it's developed. Canvas bumpers are also tricky because of that very issue. Ever seen a Lab with a canvas bumper who bites at it and makes it pop? Think bird bones and you get the idea why they can be problematic. I tend to fixate on the idea that the easiest issue to fix is the one I never let develop. Know your dog and pay attention at all times to what he's doing and what you're teaching. And don't doubt that letting him do something he shouldn't is most assuredly teaching him bad things.
From there we go to dead birds in controlled settings. I usually buy dead ducks that haven't been processed yet. If you freeze them you can use them a couple of times before they get too nasty to use. Introduction is gentle and stress free. Let the dog approach it at his speed, smell it and then mouth it. Tease him with it after he's gotten the idea that it won't hurt him. They work just like the dead duck trainers and wings. After introduction take him and the bird out and in a training setting throw it just like you would a bumper or retriever trainer and let him go get it. Lots of praise and enthusiasm are keys here.
Yesterday Angus got his first dead duck experience and it was totally accidental if not unexpected in hindsight. I was apprehensive at first but it ended up working out well.
We were at the pond, walking and chasing the ducks that are resident there at this time of the year. Angus loves them and swims out in pursuit as we walk along the shoreline. At one point I lost sight of him for a few minutes. When I caught up with him he was in the shallow water near the bank, intensely interested in an object just in front of him. I looked closer and discovered it was a dead duck. Well, actually it was a Grebe but a waterfowl by any other name is just as fascinating to a Lab.
At this point I must apologize. I have this really small camera that tucks into a pocket that I'm supposed to carry around on these outings for just such occasions. Yeah, it was at home so no pictures. Sigh.
I decided to go ahead and let him explore and see what happened. It took Angus a good 10 minutes before he took the actual plunge as it were. He'd circle it, nosing in and out with quick jerks and starts without ever actually touching it. Then he'd run back to me with a "Did you see that? What is it? I'm going back!" look on his face and very, very bright eyes. A dead give away for a Lab that he was having ultimate fun.
Finally he took a tentative nibble at a wing. Remember, we introduced him to the concept of real birds with actual bird wings so he was on fairly familiar ground here. A "Hey, I know what this is!" kind of thing. He got to the point that he started to tow it around by a wing. Good. Then he moved to the feet. Again, this was familiar ground as we'd given him dead duck trainers that have, wait for it....feet! More towing around and much joy was had by all. Except maybe the Grebe but he was dead so he didn't get a vote.
After about 20 minutes I figured we were about done and headed up the bank and back on to the trail, satisfied that Angus' introduction to birds had gone reasonably well. Suddenly a black blur sped by dripping and generally flinging water for miles in every direction. Clutched in his happy mouth was a dead Grebe. He ran up the bank past me and then circled back to proudly display his trophy. "Look what I got daddy! Aren't I a good boy? Huh, huh? Aren't I?!" I laughed, praised him and decided that this warranted an attempt to take the lesson to the next step. Would he go out on command and retrieve it?
Now before anyone goes "Eww, Ick, How Nasty" let me assure you that working with dead birds is all a part of retriever training. It's difficult if not impossible to take a dog from balls to bumpers to wings to trainers to game in the field without adding in real dead bird training in there somewhere. Waiting until you've downed a duck on opening morning 50 yards out on open water is a bad time to find out your dog also thinks dead birds are Icky. 35 degree water makes for a tough swim in underwear and a t-shirt. I know. Sigh.
I took the bird that Angus gave up with no hesitation. This is important and one of the reasons I teach a release command. I use RELEASE but the specific command doesn't really matter. That he gives it up on that command does. Tug of war with a dog over a bird he really doesn't want to give up is messy and makes for a mighty tore up would be meal afterward.
I set Angus up at HEEL on the bank and pitched the bird back into the water. Short because it's his first time with actual game bird and I want success not correction. Angus was watching intently, where that word has the connotation of quivering, whining eagerness, and straining for release. I had hold of his collar because I know my dog and I wanted him to go on my command not his. This is also important. Know your dog but take no chances when you're doing new things and he's amped up on doggy adrenaline. I sent him off on his first real bird retrieve, BACK!, and he went like he was shot out of a cannon.
Out, full mouth on the body of the bird (Not a leg or wing. Yes!) and back to me on the bank. He still tends to overshoot on the delivery and run a short distance past me but as he's eager and enthusiastic and always comes back to me immediately (no "I've got it you can't have it") I'm not horribly concerned. Most of that is youthful energy and he'll get better as I train it out of him and he gets more mature. RELEASE command given and set up to do it again. This time he slipped my grip on his collar and went on the splash. I could have called or whistled him back but as I said it's his first time so I bit the bullet and gave him the BACK command while he was swimming (Reinforcement, reinforcement always reinforcement even if you've screwed up which I had) and he made another picture perfect retrieve and delivery to hand.
To say I was ecstatic is a vast understatement. This was a crucial step in Angus' development as a potential field dog. A dog who refuses to retrieve real dead birds is useless as a hunting retriever. Not as a good dog because no matter what I love that boy and always will but if we want to hunt together he must not only be willing but excited over the prospect of a swim and a mouth full of feathers and warm bird. He has proven to me and himself that this retrieving birds stuff is pretty cool and that makes me a happy man. A good field retriever would rather fetch than eat. It's really that simple and Angus has discovered that joy. It's also a critical step because a Lab who retrieves nothing but balls and bumpers will eventually tire of the game. Retrieving birds is a treat not a chore. Give a dog a job, the thing he was born and bred to do, and you'll have a happy and content companion. One who has far fewer behavior problems and is easier to teach and train.
By the second retrieve the Grebe was beginning to lose it's neck skin. I know, Eww, right? I decided the lesson was over so I tossed it and whistled Angus up so we could finish the hike with plenty of praise and love and general good feelings. He was one happy and proud of himself dog. With tail high and a light step we headed back to the truck and home.
I'll go ahead and buy some dead birds (Ducks are preferable but even chickens will work in a pinch) and we'll continue his lessons. Eventually we'll move to wing clipped live birds to simulate cripples. That's an important step for a good dog because they must be willing and able to take on a crippled bird if you're going to be an ethical hunter. But that's for another day. For now I'm content with where we are.
There is real joy in training a dog and watching his progress. When I got that little bundle of black fur and sharp little teeth he was acting out of pure instinct and in response to his environment. Now he's biddable, responsive to input and learning hot only how to do his job but what his job is. A whole new world is opening up for Angus and he's excited at the prospects. I envision many a wonderful day spent with a wet, happy dog in a duck blind or a Pheasant field.
Yeah. Joy is where you find it and when it's with a warm, furry, devoted friend it's sublime. It was a good day.