Retrieving is likely to be the most important thing you want your gundog to do, here are simple tips for successful retrieving.

Even the crème de la crème of top professional retriever or spaniel trainers would agree that handling a gundog is not rocket science. For a start, much as we love them, we have to admit that our dogs are not furry astrophysicists. Apparently they are not even the brightest of our domesticated animals – parrots have a bigger vocabulary and horses have a better memory. Apart from their extraordinary noses, our dear old gundogs are really pretty dim, so training and handling them has to be made very simple. Why then do we humans seem to find working a gundog such an extremely complicated feat?

So far, I’ve only ever met one dog that was brighter than I am. FTCh Kelmscott Whizz (Lynn) merely required to be let off the slip lead and then I would walk along quietly behind her, trying to get in her way as little as possible. HM The Queen felt much the same about her great labrador retriever, FTCh Sandringham Sidney, who, she said, regarded her as little more than a means of transport from one drive to another. But when communicating with even these brainiac dogs, we still use words of one syllable: “come”, “sit”, “stay”, “fetch”, “get on”, “get out”, “hup”, “heel”.

It’s not as if we have to learn Mandarin, or even German, to be able to tell them what we want them to do. If we can order a cup of tea in the south of France, “je would like a cup of tea… Tea,” then surely we can give our dogs the command to fetch a dead bird. From observation during the shooting season, it seems not. There will be handlers yelling “get on” when they mean “get out”, and then wondering why the dog has suddenly abandoned its retrieve and started hunting. There will be dogs getting away with all manners of misdemeanour. Yet the dogs are essentially well-trained and willing animals and their owners are often high achievers in other spheres (possibly even rocket scientists). So what goes wrong in the shooting field that causes the team to fall apart?

Common sense, or lack of it, is usually at the heart of gundog handling issues. Watching a dog fail on a retrieve or seeing birds repeatedly flushing out of gunshot range, it is usually easy to spot the very simple mistake early on that allowed chaos to ensue. A frustrated fellow gun told me that his dog doesn’t handle on retrieves, despite having been professionally trained. But it was a case of the gun not handling his dog, rather than the dog not handling the retrieves. When under pressure, the gun got stressed and muddled up his commands without being aware that he was doing it. The common sense solution was for him to slow down, take a deep breath and give his dog just one simple command at a time so neither of them would be confused.

Common sense provides the answer to many such gundog problems, and yet it is the one thing most frequently left behind. You remember your whistle, the slip lead, the gun, the dog – even a water bottle – and then you climb into the vehicle without any more thought of what you are actually going to be doing. Common sense didn’t get packed.

Even if you aren’t particularly serious about your dogwork, it does pay to have a brief think about what you will require the dog to do when you arrive at the shoot. It is very little extra effort to get your brain in dog-handling gear and the rewards are huge in terms of improving the dog’s performance. Dogs that are thought of by the whole shoot as being pretty mediocre can be transformed just by their owners engaging a little common sense in how they handle them.

On most shoots, retrieving is really the acid test of the dog’s work, and if this is going badly the whole day can be spoiled. So the next time you send your dog on a retrieve, think first. Do you really know where you should be sending him? In other words, did you definitely mark the bird down? Have you lost the mark? Is there any chance that the bird could have run? If there is a possibility that you are wrong about where the bird is, don’t continually keep handling your dog to the one spot where you thought it was. The bird may not be there – and if it isn’t, then the dog can’t retrieve it. Common sense, and yet all the time I see people handling their dogs away from where the bird turns out to be, and into an area that is completely empty.

Amateur and novice handlers are generally best advised not to over-handle their dogs on retrieves in any case. When it comes to matters of scent, dogs usually know best. If you put a dog and a man in a wood to see who finds a rabbit or a bird first, the dog will win 99.9 % of the time – so what is the point of bossing your dog around when searching for lost game? But in the stress of the moment some handlers forget that you need completely different techniques for different aspects of work in the field.

I recently helped one of our pickers-up search for a couple of lost birds. These had been strong runners when they fell during the drive, and by the time we were sweeping through the wood for them, they could have been enjoying a glass of cider in Bristol for all we knew. Yet I was surprised to hear the picker-up continually using his whistle to pip his dog in to him and, watching the dog’s pattern, it looked more as if it was hunting-up game for a gun to shoot. Common sense dictates that when searching for long lost game, the dog needs to range as wide as possible to take in the maximum amount of ground. There’s no need to keep the dog within gunshot range, because you aren’t shooting.

So, next time you send your dog on a retrieve, take a moment to remind yourself what kind of a retrieve it is, and what the most appropriate technique will be for finding it. This is all blindingly obvious – and therefore not very impressive. It’s in our nature to want to show off a little bit with our gundogs, and common sense is one of the least showy of all gundog handling attributes. Trawling the internet for a lot of fancy equipment is inevitably a more tempting proposition than sitting down quietly and concentrating on working out what went wrong on the shoot. But if you are even a little bit serious about working your dog, you should face that tedious second option.

All the very best gundog handlers have this in common – they spend a lot of time thinking about what they are doing. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself out shooting with your dog, just engage your common sense for a moment and everything will fall into place.


Working your gundog successfully is a matter of straightforward common sense. Keep it simple, avoid these common errors and you will have a wonderful shooting season ahead.

  • Not using a proper whistle For precise commands in all weathers and situations, without disturbing game, use a suitable whistle.
  • Inconsistency The single biggest cause of training failure is not enforcing commands. Let the dog get away with something just once or twice and he will quickly learn that it is OK to disobey commands.
  •  Wrong commands Check carefully that you don’t blow “stop” when you mean to blow “come”. It’s surprising how frequently it happens, especially with verbal commands such as “get on” and “get out”.
  •  Dog too far away Don’t allow your dog go galloping off far beyond your ability to do something about it if things go wrong.
  • Disorganisation Forgotten equipment, lateness, lack of concentration are all symptomatic of a failure to engage fully with what you and your dog are meant to be doing.
  • Poor planning Know what you want to achieve, and how you are going to do it, every time you work the dog.
  • Handling away from the retrieve Don’t take the dog away from one place and make it hunt another when, in fact, you have no proof the retrieve is there.
  • Confusing hunting and searching Hunting for unshot game needs a close, tight pattern within gunshot range; searching for lost, wounded game needs a wider scope.
  • Ignoring wind direction Game sense is really important; devote time to understanding wind and scent.
  • Mixed messages A continual stream of commands is confusing for both dog and handler.