In 2019, I taught Zara a reliable retrieve. This took me the better part of a year, because I mainly used a clicker and treats overlaid with some e-collar, and wasn’t in a hurry. Since Zara was five years old, she had some bad habits that we had to work through. Since then, I have not had any problems with her retrieving birds or objects. She actually LOVES to retrieve now, whereas she would never pick up a live bird before. However, I’m still trying to correct a retrieving problem that she’s had for a while.

When I send Zara to retrieve a bird, she immediately goes to get it. She comes right back to me, but when she gets close, she often likes to circle around me and “parade” by, especially if there are other people present. Or she will come and sit next to me, but sit a few feet from me, instead of directly next to me on my right side. When I go to take the bird from her, she sometimes turns her head and acts like she doesn’t want to give it to me. She never drops it, though.

This has been a problem since last year. When we ran in the NAVHDA Utility Test in October, her scores were docked for retrieving in the field and during the retrieve of dead duck from the water. In both those scenarios, she required a few verbal corrections to bring the birds right to me. She still earned 3s (out of 4) on those retrieves though, so I haven’t been particularly concerned about it. But as time has gone on, I’ve realized that it’s a pretty persistent problem.

Zara retrieved this quail out of really thick and tall grass, which is why we were cheering. However, you can see that she tries to avoid coming to me twice until I give her a verbal correction.

Enzo demonstrates a proper heel position

Enzo the Small Munsterlander demonstrates a proper delivery position. 

The Cause

I cannot pinpoint one direct cause of this retrieving problem, although I have a few theories. When I was first teaching her to retrieve, I didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on having her in a precise heel position when she returned to me. Getting her to come back to me with an object without dropping it was hard enough at first, so I would take it from her and reward her if she was within a step of me. Sometimes she was in front, sometimes she was next to me; sometimes she was facing me, sometimes she wasn’t. The next dog I teach to retrieve, I will be more particular about their delivery position earlier on and likely use a place board to give them a visual cue.

Another likely problem is that Zara is used to carrying toys around and playing keep away with them. As discussed in my previous post, Zara loves toys and we play with them every day. I know that some hunters and trainers don’t believe that hunting dogs should have toys, perhaps to prevent problems like this. But I’m not going to take away her toys and I think she should be able to distinguish between playing and formal fetching. I’ve never let her play keep away with a dead bird.

I’ve also noticed that Zara is more likely to do a clean delivery and presentation of the object/bird if I’m rewarding her with food. When I was teaching her to retrieve, I always used treats or had her work for her dinner. Eventually, I weaned her off of them. I do occasionally still use food as a reward, although hardly ever in the field. When I have her work for her dinner nowadays, she is VERY eager to do exactly what I want.

Lastly, she seems more inclined to parade around with a bird during NAVHDA training days, when there are often a few people standing around me. Maybe she gets excited and wants to show off her prize to them. She always loves greeting people with her toys at home.

Zara retrieves a live duck during duck search training

Zara retrieves a live duck during duck search training.

Fixing the Retrieving Problem

Now that we’re about six weeks away from this year’s Utility Test, I’m focused on cleaning up this retrieving issue. I’d also like to do AKC Master Hunt Tests with Zara this fall/winter and they require a clean retrieve to hand with a minimum of noise (verbal commands) from the handler.

I asked my Instagram followers for suggestions in fixing this issue and I got a few good ideas.

1. Focus on Heeling and the Heel Position

Another vizsla owner who spends a lot of time doing obedience training with his dog recommended really honing the heel position. Every time I call her to me, she should get in the heel position (which for Zara is on my right side). I think this idea has merit and I have tried different variations of it in the past. I have two commands for heeling: “with me” is to get her into position next to my right side and “march” is walking along next to me. I have tried calling, “Zara, with me!” when she is loose in the yard and clicking and treating when she gets into the proper position. I have also used a place board next to me to help her realize where to be. The place board helps, but I obviously will not have one during a test. I probably need to do more reps of this.

2. Don’t Always Take the Bird Right Away

I am guilty of this and I’m wondering if it’s part of the problem. I typically take the bird from her as soon as she brings is from me and if we are training with others, I don’t use treats anymore. Perhaps she wants to savor the bird and knows if she comes right to me, it will get taken away. I’m now trying to have her come directly to me but then heeling with her holding it for a bit. Another Instagram follower suggested heeling in a circle around other people with her holding the bird in her mouth, so it was like the parading behavior, but on my terms.

3. Make it Fun/Add in More Rewards

Another thing I’m going to try is to incorporate rewards more often. Now that I know she can fetch, I haven’t been using treats very much. Using them occasionally, especially really high value ones, may help. I may also try throwing a different toy for her as a reward after she brings a bird back to me.

Some people have recommended adding a lot of praise, but that doesn’t seem to help. I’ve tried praising her lavishly when she brings the object back, but she doesn’t seem to care that much.

4. Use the E-Collar

My friend Emily, who is a bird dog trainer, suggested using the e-collar to stop this behavior. I do think this idea has merit and I probably will do this, but I’m going to try  the above methods first. Instead of giving a verbal correction when she goes off-course, I would give her a verbal correction and stimulation from the e-collar. I’ve been hesitant to do this because I don’t want her to drop the bird or have it decrease her desire to retrieve. I’d like her to be excited to deliver the bird to me. But maybe I need to use the e-collar to enforce that parading around is not okay.

I will give the other methods a try and if they’re still not working, try the e-collar in a few weeks.

Zara holds her quail

Zara holds her fake quail in the proper delivery position.

Has anyone else experienced this retrieving problem with their bird dog? Let me know if you have any other suggestions for how to fix it. You can leave a comment below.

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