How to send your gundog on a retrieve

On our last novice gundog training holiday, someone asked me what the worst fault a gundog could make was.

I see many online conversions surrounding delivery to hand, most suggesting that this is the number one sin our gundogs could commit.

When you read the Kennel Club’s J Regs (the rulebook for those wanting to compete in field trials and working tests), it says that:

“A dog should be steady to shot and fall of game and should retrieve tenderly to hand on command. Handlers shall not send their dog until directed by the judge.”

We absolutely don’t want our gundogs dropping birds or refusing to give them up.

I uphold that delivery is non-negotiable regardless of what level you’re training for, and I have covered the topic extensively in the past, such as in this blog post here.

But for me, the dog’s ability to wait to be sent for the retrieve is equally as important as getting the “tenderly to hand” delivery right. Yet novice handlers often overlook this.

There are many ways to teach steadiness, and there seems to be plenty of readily available information on how to stop our dogs from running in. But I still see many handlers who struggle to get their dogs to wait until they are sent.

You might have always thought that steadiness and waiting to be sent on a retrieve are the same thing. And you’re not wrong.

But what I am talking about here are the dogs who have learnt to sit and be steady while a dummy is thrown and lands, but the moment their owner breathes, they’re off like a rocket.

This also includes the dogs who barely wait for the handler’s arm to come down to line them up on a blind and are long gone before words can be spoken.

They might have been steady to the fall, but they are still running in based on their handler's smallest, unintentional cues.

As such, in this blog, I want to explore how to send your gundog on a retrieve, what to do for the different types of retrieve and why, and finally, how to stop your gundog from running in before you actually intend to send them.

Sending your gundog on a marked retrieve

For the marked retrieve, your gundog will be sat next to you. They will see and ‘mark’ the dummy’s fall and be sent for it almost immediately.

You will want your dog to go after hearing a single verbal cue. We don’t want to use our arms or hands in this situation as we want the dog’s gaze to be locked onto the retrieve fall area, and hand movements can often distract them.

This scenario is the one in which our dogs are most likely to run in, as it requires a huge amount of self-control on their part - especially if they are young and keen retrievers.

As such, handlers dedicate a great deal of time to throwing dummies around their gundogs to teach them to be steady to the throw and the fall. Along with picking up the dummies to teach the dog that not all retrieves will be theirs.

But many novice handlers often forget to make sure that they have properly taught a send cue and have not tested to see if the dog really understands which words mean “you can retrieve now”.

This is dangerous territory, as the first words out of your mouth may not always be your send cue.

You may need to sneeze, or you might want to ask your gundog trainer a question, or you might need to get your dummy thrower to rethrow or move out of the way.

When moving on to teaching blinds, you will want to work on memories where you will let your dog see the dummy fall before heeling them away. In this scenario, it will be incredibly unhelpful if they are unable to listen to your heel cue and make a b-line for the dummy when hearing the letter ‘h’.

This is even more important if you plan to attend group training classes or want multiple dogs working together. The dogs need to learn which cue is specifically for them so that they don’t all set off in pursuit of the dummy or bird when you say “get on”.

Once you have chosen the word (I use my dogs’ names) or phrase you want to use to send your dog on a marked retrieve, you will need to start “proofing” it against other words and phrases.

Teaching your dog to retrieve a marked retrieve on cue

As well as teaching your dog to be steady to the dummy throw and fall, you’re now going to need to teach them to be steady to different words so that they only go on your specific verbal cue.

You can follow whatever method you used to teach them to be steady to the fall, but in addition to throwing the dummy, in this exercise, you will also be saying random words.

Set everything up like you would for a normal marked retrieve. Instead of giving your normal retrieve cue, say something that sounds different to their send cue.

I always called this the “banana game” because it’s easy to think of different fruits, but you could say anything, really.

If they run in as soon as you say “banana”, unless that’s their name, you know that you have work to do.

If they run in, you can pick the dummy up, so they’re not rewarded.

If they stay put, you can reward them by saying your retrieve cue and letting them have the dummy.

For dogs with a history of running in on whatever word is first out of your mouth, you might want to use a steady fob to physically manage them in the beginning and give them a chance to learn what you now expect from them.

It is always best to set our dogs up for success, even if this involves temporarily using additional tools. Constantly shouting at them or taking away the retrieve, especially when they don’t know what you want from them, will only make training stressful and dull for you both.

As with all gundog training, start simple and easy and go at your dog’s pace. You might have to begin in your garden, you might have to phase out the steady fob, or you might be able to do just one session for your dog to understand that there is only one verbal cue, which means retrieve.

Once they understand this new “game,” most dogs will enjoy the anticipation of waiting for you to say the right verbal cue.

But we must remember that all dogs are different, and if you notice your dog getting stressed or sticky so that they will not run out at all, you must stop immediately.

Sending your gundog on a blind retrieve

A blind retrieve is one where your gundog hasn’t seen the dummy fall. For this, you will be sending them by bringing your hand down to show them what direction you want them to run in before giving a verbal cue, such as “go back”.

How you stand and where you put your hand is quite personal - everyone develops their own way of doing it.

For me, my left arm (the one closest to the dog) is roughly in line with their head, with my palm facing the floor. Some people bring their right arm over, but I feel that this makes it harder to balance and can, from the dog’s point of view, look like you’re pointing at an angle.

I bend both my knees slightly, but I know others crouch, and some step a leg backwards. All that matters is that you’re comfortable, stable, and consistent with it.

In a blind retrieve scenario, it is much easier for dogs to be steady because they haven’t had the excitement of watching the dummy fly through the air.

However, dogs excel in learning chains of events and much prefer visual over verbal cues.

This means that our dogs quickly learn that the arm coming down means they are about to be sent. Our eager gundogs can wrongly assume this is the cue for retrieving, and off they’ve gone before you’re ready.

We do not want a slight hand movement to be the send cue, as you might not actually be in the right position.

Plus, dogs that are unable to wait for the verbal cue to go are unable to process which direction you’re sending them in accurately and instead rush off wherever they think they should be going.

This is problematic if you have two retrieves close to each other and is very unhelpful if you were hoping to use your arm to turn your dog away from a distraction.

Instead, we want to make sure that our dog knows only to go on your specific verbal cue. Mine is “go back.”

Teaching your dog to retrieve on your verbal, not visual, cue

If your gundog always runs out to the retrieve on your arm instead of waiting for your verbal cue, you might be thankful that they’re showing confidence on blind retrieves. Especially if your dog has previously shown signs of being reluctant to go out to dummies that they haven’t seen fall.

But this is not a habit you want to ingrain, and you need to teach them to wait for your verbal cue as soon as possible.

One of the best ways to do this is to make sure that you are not always sending them when your arm comes down.

You will want to bring your hand down and then back up again. Maybe do this a few times and then send them with your “go back” or whatever words you choose.

The key is to keep it random. Dogs can count (well, learn patterns), so if you always bring your arm down three times and send on the fourth, they will learn this.

Just like when we teach them to only go for marked retrieves on the verbal cue if your dog has a history of bolting off as soon as your hand twitches, you will want to use a steady fob to manage it while it learns the new “rules.”

Again, you should also make sure that your dog is happy and enjoying the anticipation of being sent. If they go sticky, then stop immediately because we always want our dogs to run out with confidence, especially on blinds.

Other ways to send your dog: bonus tips

I also have a “get it” cue, which is more relaxed and for fun. This cue gives your dog permission to chase a ball, which I mainly use to reward my emergency recall. I make sure I cue “get it” before I throw the ball as the reward. This cue can also help you train the stop whistle as they should run out to catch the ball, and when it’s not landed, they will pause and look at you, which is when you can blow your stop whistle and reward them for stopping and looking.

If a dummy or bird has fallen in a ditch or hedge or is just on the edge of some woods or water, you can help your dog by using a "get in" cue.

An over cue is also handy as it can give your dog some more information about where you’re sending them and can help with distractions. If there is a dummy, or dead bird, over to the left, but you need to pick a dummy, or runner, over a jump or on the other side of a body of water, then the over cue will help you communicate exactly what you want.

Finally, remember that you can’t train for every single scenario, but you can teach them to only go on your cue. If they haven’t heard that cue, then there should be nothing else in the environment telling them to go.

If you found this useful and would like to immerse yourself in gundog training for 3 or 5 days, then why not join us on one of our gundog training holidays? Click here for dates and more information.