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Retriever Puppies: Getting Off to a Good Start

California Waterfowl Magazine Fall 1987

Debra Folsom

John and Debra Folsom have been training field trial dogs for well over 25 years and have several field champions to their credit.

You don't have to be an expert to get a retriever pup off to the start they will need to be a successful hunting dog. It's really a simple matter and requires very little time. When we ask prospective customers what they've done with their dog previous to them contacting us, their answers are usually disappointing. The worst thing you can do is nothing. Some people think if they do nothing, they are at least doing nothing wrong and aren't causing the dog to form bad habits. They feel they can now turn this six month old pup over to a competent trainer and he or she will be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat by producing a wonderful hunting dog. This is wrong!

Another common misconception is that training for a hunting dog should consist primarily of obedience. Owners go into lengthy descriptions of how well their dog has learned to heel, sit, and stay. When we take a dog afield to hunt pheasant, the last thing we need is a dog that knows how to heel, sit, and stay well! We want a dog that runs,

hunts, and flushes well. Why should the first things we teach a puppy be the things that least prepare them for the job ahead? We can probably educate the most orangutan type dog to the training collar in a week. It may take months to get a poorly started retriever pup to learn to like the water and jump in to retrieve a bird, if in fact it can be done at all.


For the first two to three months of a retriever's life, besides care, they mainly need to be socialized with the family. If you don't feel competent at this task, turn it over to the kids. They usually do a wonderful job. When the pup isn't playing with the family, confine them to their dog crate located on the porch, in the garage, or some other convenient place. I like to locate the crate out of hearing distance of our bedroom. This makes for a better nights sleep while the pup is getting adjusted to life away from their litter mates. If you start the pup off sleeping in a crate from the beginning, they'll be used to it and never object to jumping in the crate when it's time to go hunting. 

Most retrievers will retrieve naturally if given the opportunity. We like to toss a tennis ball across the kitchen floor to entice the pup into making their first retrieves. If you bounce it slightly, it will usually attract the pup's attention and they will usually want to chase and retrieve it. This great, early training session takes all of five minutes and even the busiest of people can usually fit it into their schedule.


We can move our retrieving exercises into the yard using a small canvas dummy. The pup will probably want to run back to the house with the dummy. Position yourself in their path of retreat and toss the dummy away from this haven. You can catch them as they try to run by you. Toss the dummy again and again, but make sure to stop before your pup loses interest.


It is important to get the pup out of the yard and accustom them to as many strange situations as possible. Take them for a run in a field if you can. On their run, the pup will encounter many of the things they'll need to learn about to do their job later. We'll often detour through puddles and streams, making introduction to water a simple, fun affair. Take the retrieving dummy along on your adventure. Expand the pup's retrieving experiences to include higher cover and water. 

Make introduction to water a simple, fun affair, and your retriever will be swimming and retrieving in it before you know it!


It is important to introduce the pup to birds during these early months as well. Just substitute a bird for the dummy and toss it for them. If they won't pick it up on land, try tossing it in water. Often the pup will pick something up more readily when they are swimming. Usually you can obtain pigeons from racing bird breeders or freeze some of the birds you shoot during the season. Make sure the birds are still feathered. 


Just about the time the pup is really starting to catch onto the retrieving game and you are proud of the little one, they'll throw a curve at you. they won't come back with the dummy and decide a game of "keep away" is a lot more to their liking. At this point, we snap a light weight rope onto their collar, approximately fifty feet long, and let the pup drag it. When they pick up the dummy, you can correct him back into you with short corrections on the rope. This also works very well in water. 


Only after the pup has become a wild and woolly retrieving fanatic, is it time for some obedience lessons. We never like to try and steady a young pup. Remember it is easy to take the vinegar out of a pup but you can't put it back in. If you take a pup that loves to retrieve, loves the water, and is well socialized with people to a trainer, you've given the trainer a dog that is ready to go to work. The chances of the training being successful are greatly increased and the end result will likely be a hunting dog you will be proud of.




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