By Mike Stewart, Wildrose International
Occasionally a retriever may be encountered that would be considered somewhat less than “speedy” in their retrieving work… that is, we have a dog in the slow lane. A dog in this group may show reasonable enthusiasm going out for a retrieve which is fun only to return at a gait that is much slower. Our other example would be the dog is slow on the outbound for the retrieve as well.
The handler’s questions is, of course, how can the dog’s slow gait be improved? What are the options for the slower dog? In seeking solutions for any dog’s issues in training or afield, our first question must be “why?” Determine what may be the cause/effect relationships that could be contributors or causes of our problem.
We will need to consult the problem-solving matrix, page 45, Sporting Dog & Retriever Training, the Wildrose Way. Here we have a guideline to help identify the possible “whys” that could be contributing to the dog’s slow gait.
First, most people immediately think that the slowness of the dog must be genetic so we begin here. It is true that like does produce like quite often. Parents of a plodder may well have been amblers themselves. Perhaps the dog comes from a mating that was not well planned which produced pups that by nature were less predisposed for drive and speed. If one discovers that the particular line of dogs was less than energetic afield, some options for improvement exist (continue to read) that could help but the results may be limited long term. One can fairly quickly explore the genetic possibility and put this quadrant to rest. There is much more to consider if the parents, littermates or pups from previous matings don’t display similar behaviors.
The next consideration requires one to honestly look at themselves if solutions are to be discovered. Why?
Handler’s ability – communication, timing, consistency
Relationship – trust, confidence, the family influences
Training methods – do they complement or detract from the desirable?
Slow on the Return
This is a dog that shows reasonable style and speed going out for a retrieve only to be less than enthusiastic for a quick return once the stimuli (the pick) is made. Fast out – slow return. This may even arise later in a dog’s life when bumper training and boring exercises become redundant and less than inspiring for the experienced dog. With other dogs there may be other reasons. Again, ask yourself why.
One possible reason for the habit of slow returns began during hold conditioning for delivery to hand or other restrictive training experiences. The dog’s exposure to corrections or negative reinforcement during the training process that over time produced a careful, more methodical gait as the student concentrated more on holding the bumper or avoiding mistakes than the speed of the return. The enthusiasm for the recovery is over as the pick-up is made and now the dog is focusing on a careful delivery or avoiding the handler’s displeasure. The handler may further expect a sit and hold at delivery which the dog finds boring or wishes to avoid the correction forthcoming from a less-than-stable delivery to hand. These anticipations of discipline or the recollection of previous corrections were all created by the trainer. The handler could be the cause for a lethargic return.
Our solution will be to reduce the pressure on the dog a bit while adding some enthusiasm on the part of the handler to encourage a more prompt gait. Increase the tempo, reduce the size of the bumper, involve swimming on the return, switch locations for retrieves frequently, avoid boring, repetitious retrieves.
Use body language to your advantage. Provide a bit of enthusiastic animation. Turn and move away as the dog approaches. Involve huge, exciting, affectionate rewards upon the return. Sit down and make yourself low, more welcoming rather than looming over the dog. It is about tempo, facial expression, and tone to promote confidence and enthusiasm in the dog. Make training enjoyable.
Reduce the pressure of a stylish delivery of the bumper for a time like holding, turning, sitting and continuing to hold. Rather, just let the dog make a delivery to hand to your front, take the bumper, give an excited reward, then tell the dog to come to heel.
Another tip that can prove resourceful is to set up retrieves so the dog will be returning down a hill or sloping terrain to encourage momentum. Often retrieves in thick cover will inhibit the dog’s gait. Over time the habit of a quicker step will become more of a habit and hopefully transfer to other locations.
Slow on the Outbound
Body conditioning matters. The effects of an overweight dog, one that remains in poor physical condition on a continuous basis could be a cause of the slowness: endurance and low athletic abilities. The out-of-shape dog will not last through multiple retrieves in training so through repetition the dog’s slow speed becomes a habit. The solution here is obvious.
Promote enthusiasm for the training game. Similar techniques apply that were touched on above. First, are the training practices boring? Second, is the handler’s relationship with the dog one of trust that promotes confidence in the dog or is the dog worried, stressed in training, fearful, or confused?
Have fear factors occurred in the training: water shyness, sensitivity to gunfire, aggression experienced from other dogs afield, handler over controlling or mistiming corrections, over handling? Has the training become counterproductive to the dog’s enthusiasm or confidence? The dog’s anticipation of the handler’s attitude, responsiveness, fairness plays a part at this point.
The handler’s temper, emotional instability, mistimed confused commands, and unclear signals are all possibilities that can influence a dog’s field performance if continued over time. Depending on the individual dog’s personality, examine the:
Tips for Increasing Enthusiasm and Speed
Retrieve downhill to improve momentum
Provide a quicker release for some retrieves de-emphasizing delay occasionally
Use exciting marks more frequently such as hand launcher shots fired to skim along the water’s surface. Utilize high-value targets like cold game, a tennis ball skimmed along the surface by a chuck-it (prey drive). Incorporate techniques that provide excitement and interest.
A slow water entry may be improved by not sending the dog right at the water’s edge especially with an abrupt drop in the water’s depth. Back away and use water that provides a gradual gain in depth. Get that running start.
Group dynamics. Use an older, stable dog with energy, drive and speed to stimulate the slower of the pack to mimic the behavior. Competition does have its influence.
Reduce overhandling if the practice has become too frequent. Too many whistle stops going out could definitely impact momentum.
When addressing any problem with a gundog or adventure companion, one becomes a solutionist. First look at yourself. The relationship. The methods.
Be slow to use force in corrections, rather shape and teach.
Be quick to reward successes.
Don’t become boring in training.
Be a great communicator (Timing, Tempo, Tone).
Don’t put in a problem that must be trained out later.
Be the pack leader earning the dog’s respect and trust.
All serve to improve the dog’s enthusiasm and confidence and in turn you may see improved speed and style in the field.
At the end of the day, you may just have a slower dog with a more methodical nature. One that is more concerned about results than speed which is really not that unfortunate. Consider that our real objective is game recovery. Remember the quote from the famed lawman, Wyatt Earp, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.”