Why doesn't my gundog deliver to hand?

We’ll take a look at why your gundog might not be delivering the dummy to hand and what you can do about it.

It doesn't matter what level you are training for - delivery to hand is non-negotiable.

You need it to move through the Gundog Club Graded Training Scheme. You need it to go picking up. And you need it to compete in working tests and field trials.

While a lot of puppies come with a natural desire to bring stuff back to you, there is a lot which can 'derail' this over time. In this blog, we’ll take a look at why your gundog might not be delivering to hand and what you can do about it.

Because you’ve taught them not to.

I often see handlers who are so busy reinforcing the return, that they are inadvertently reinforcing sloppy deliveries. This includes spitting the dummy out, running around the handler’s legs, holding on to the dummy and not letting go until being asked repeatedly, etc.

Over time, the more you reward them, the more the sloppy delivery becomes a learned behaviour and your gundog will think it’s what you want them to do with the dummy.

You should never 'pay' for any dummies which don't end up straight in your hand.

That is unless you have or have recently had a serious issue with your dog playing keep away - in this case, you might need to start rewarding more for the return.

If your dog is consistent at coming straight back, but not so great at putting the dummy straight in your hand, then you need to think about tidying this up. The best way to do this is with the clicker retrieve and teaching a solid hold and hand touch.

Going forward, you also need to think about what your dog finds reinforcing. While you might not be giving your dog a ball or a food reward after they've spat a dummy at you, you could be giving them another retrieve. And this for them could be the reward they need to keep repeating the unwanted behaviour.

Because you look unhappy.

Did you know that dogs can read our facial expressions? I often see owners who are unsure as to why their dog suddenly started mouthing the dummy, or decided to play keep-away, or had to toilet on the way back from the retrieve.

But what's actually happened is that the dog has picked up on the smallest signal that the owner is unhappy.

They pick the dummy and look straight at your face. If you suffer from “resting bitch face”, you could be giving your dog the wrong impression that they’ve not done what you wanted.

And, thinking that they have made a "mistake", they succumb to pressure, get stressed and start offering behaviours we don't usually see.

When you are training, you as a handler need to think about all the different ways you are communicating with your dog. Remember to smile when they are running back towards you and think about keeping body language open too, so make sure your arms aren’t folded across your chest or your hands aren’t on your hips.

Equally, if you are unhappy with your dog’s performance, perhaps they didn’t run a straight line or they ignored your stop whistle, you need to learn how to manage your dissatisfaction so that they at least bring the dummy back even if they haven’t carried out the textbook retrieve.

Because the dummy is too exciting.

One of the biggest culprits of delivery to hand issues is over-exciting dummies.

When your gundog gets over aroused (too excited) by the item they have just picked, it can cause them to play keep-away.

They would far rather focus on interacting and playing with their new treasure than bring it back to you. When you will no doubt take it off them and end their fun.

The solution? Add lots of novelty items to your dummy collection. It might seem counterintuitive, but what we are aiming to do here is to normalise the exciting so that when your dog does have to pick something with tassels, fur or feather, they will know exactly what to do with it.

Because your dog is unfit or in pain.

If you're coming to the end of a long day's training, or picking up, and your dog is suddenly holding onto the dummy or bird, have a think about their fitness or if they've sustained any injuries.

Their reluctance to give you the retrieve article could be because they are trying to avoid being sent back out on another retrieve.

If you started a day’s training or went into the season with a good, reliable delivery to hand and you're only just noticing some possession issues, or only experience it towards the end of the day, it could be worth thinking about if your dog is in any pain before labelling it as "disobedience".

The best way to overcome this is to have them checked by a vet, or to build up their fitness levels to make sure they are happy to keep going all day.

Because you’re working in a group.

One of the first behaviours which "disappears" when working in a group is the delivery to hand. It's by far one of the most common problems handlers face on our gundog training holidays. 

Some want to experience a "perfect" training holiday and want everything to go right.

Some handlers get really nervous when working dogs around strangers. They worry that other people might be judging them for their handling skills, or dog's capabilities.

The type of people we attract to the holidays are all very supportive and friendly. And by the end of the holiday, people are always cheering on fellow handlers and wanting everyone's dogs to succeed. But for some, it's almost unavoidable to worry on the first day, until they get to know everyone.

Sadly, this anxiety, discomfort and pressure is soon transferred to the dogs. Who, instead of coming straight back with the dummy, add in quirky, out-of-character behaviours, like playing keep-away.

If the pressure is the cause, getting cross at them is only going to add more pressure and won’t fix it.

The best thing to do is to move yourself away from the group, so that when your dog has picked, they are not faced with a wall of strange people and dogs staring back at them. 

Standing sideways with no eye contact also be can be a simple way to take the pressure off too.

You could also move so that your back is to a fence so that they can't skirt around you.

If you are working on long retrieves, walking away from the group and towards your dog will also help you decrease the distance of the return once they've picked.

Try giving a reminder just as they start to veer off the line back to you. Watch out as they start to dip away and either re-cue your recall, make an exciting noise or offer a different cue like 'touch'.

Talking of touch, if you've taught your dog to boop your hand with their nose, having your hand out to accept the retrieve can be a really clear and helpful visual signal for your dog.

As well as the pressure of the group, you also need to think about the group size and how long your dog has to wait before it's their turn again.

Some dogs struggle to cope with this and it causes issues because they don’t want their turn to end.

If this is the case and they are having fun clowning around, it’s better to try and interrupt them or use a long line to rein them in. Not only do you not want them practising this behaviour, you also don't want to be disruptive to the rest of the group.

If you normally stay stationary, then turning and walking, or running, off can help because they don’t know when the retrieve is going to end.

Finally, walking away from the group and giving them something else to do (e.g. heelwork) while you’re waiting can help prevent them from getting so wound up that when it is their retrieve, they can't think straight.

One benefit of organising your own private gundog training holiday is that by bringing your own group of friends you can control how many are in the group and you also don’t spend the first day under pressure. When you’re with people you know, you tend to be more relaxed and your dog’s performance is better. That's why, in 2024 I'm opening up the opportunity for people to organise their own private gundog training holidays. All you need is a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 6 handlers. If you're a professional trainer and you want to bring a group of clients, there's also the option just to rent the ground and you can do the training yourself. For more information, please email info@completelygundogs.co.uk