How to teach a gundog to retrieve: Unleashing the power of the force free fetch.

How to teach a gundog to retrieve: Unleashing the power of the force free fetch.

We often encounter bewildered gundog owners asking, "Why won’t my dog fetch the dummy and bring it back?".

Whether you have a retriever, spaniel or HPR breed, the quintessence of gundog work lies in retrieving, with an emphasis that the “article is delivered tenderly to hand”.

In a shooting context, the ‘article’ is a game bird, or hare/rabbit, which will later be prepared and cooked for the table, so it needs to be managed with care so as not to cause any damage.

There is also an ethical consideration that the quarry may be injured and should be returned to the handler for quick, humane despatch.

With this in mind, when a gundog is reluctant to retrieve or unable to deliver to hand, it can be disheartening for the owner.

In this blog, we will explore the reasons behind this issue and the power of positive reinforcement training methods to produce a confident and competent gundog that loves retrieving to hand.

running springer spaniel with canvas dummy in its mouth

Understanding the issue

Firstly, it’s crucial to know that the retrieve chain and delivery to hand is one of the most common training challenges that we come across. So, if you are experiencing issues with your gundog, don’t worry. There is a solution.

There are many reasons why your gundog won’t fetch the dummy and bring it back to your hand.

1. Lack of innate desire

Gundogs, like humans, have individual personalities and temperaments. Some may naturally excel at retrieving, while others may take time to develop this skill. Various factors such as breeding, genetics, early training, and even health issues could influence your gundog's retrieving abilities.

While retrieving is a natural instinct for many gundogs, thanks to decades of careful breeding, it's not universal. Some dogs may not have a strong innate desire to fetch. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t learn and excel. You can cultivate this skill in your retriever, spaniel or HPR through positive reinforcement and gradual training.

2. The emotional state of the dog

Our dog’s emotional state plays a massive part in their behaviour. They might be feeling pressured or conflicted. It is not usual for animals to relinquish something it has hunted to another species. 

They might be over-excited. The retrieve article needs to be something your dog chooses to put in its mouth but not so valuable that it creates over-arousal. With this in mind, we teach the retrieve delivery using a variety of articles from toys to canvas gundog dummies (bumpers), feather- and fur-covered articles.

3. Poor quality training

Poor quality training can result in a lack of clear understanding by the dog of the task. If you have previously rewarded a dummy dropped at your feet because it was “almost” in your hand, your dog might think their job is always to drop it at your feet.

On top of this, a previous history of repeated errors makes it harder to ‘correct’. For instance, if your dog has always picked up the dummy and ran around the field with it, having lots of fun, it could now be a challenge to break this habit and get them to bring it straight to you instead.

While we all have to start somewhere, inexperienced handlers tend to lean over their dog and grab at the dummy in a bid to get it in their hand as quickly as possible. This action can cause the dog to want to keep hold of the retrieve article even more.

4. Negative past experiences

We all know that dogs learn through associations. If your gundog has had negative experiences associated with fetching,  it might be reluctant to engage in retrieving. 

You might have punished your dog for retrieving something unintentionally. For example, it could have stemmed from grabbing things they shouldn’t have out of their mouth when they were a puppy. Over puppyhood, they could have learned that carrying items is wrong or that you just want to steal their “treasure” away from them.

Replacing these negative associations with positive, rewarding experiences is essential to reignite their enthusiasm.

5. Health concerns

Physical discomfort or pain can deter your dog from fetching. Young dogs and puppies might be experiencing teething pains, for instance. Older dogs can stop wanting to retrieve due to other dental issues or joint aches, so ensure your gundog is in optimal health and free from any ailments that might hinder their performance.

black labrador retriever with canvas dummy jumping over a fallen tree

Solving the problem with the force free fetch

Whether you want to work your gundog on a shoot, or partake in training to keep your pet gundog’s brain active and as a way to provide them with an outlet for their natural hunting instincts, you will need a reliable delivery.

The aim is the reliable delivery of an article to your hands, which the dog releases on cue. This can be achieved using the force free fetch method, also known as the "clicker retrieve".

A clicker is a small device that emits a distinct "click" sound, used to mark the exact moment a dog performs a desired behaviour. This sound is followed by a reward, usually a treat, creating a positive association in the dog’s mind.

The clicker retrieve helps you to communicate clearly with your gundog so that they understand exactly what they need to do with the dummy. Here’s a breakdown of how the clicker retrieve method works:

Conditioning to the clicker

Initially, you need to condition your gundog to understand that the "click" sound means a reward is coming. This is done by clicking and immediately giving the dog a treat, repeating this process multiple times.

Breaking down the retrieve

The retrieve is broken down into smaller, manageable components such as holding the object, picking it up from the ground, holding it in front of you, and finally releasing it.

The dog is clicked and rewarded for each successful step, and each component is trained separately, ensuring the dog is confident at each stage before moving on to the next.

Putting it together

Once the dog is comfortable with each part of the retrieve, the components are gradually combined to build up to an entire retrieve.

The retrieve is then practised in various environments and with different objects to ensure the dog can generalise the behaviour.

Training sessions should be short, fun, and positive, ensuring the dog remains engaged and eager to learn.

invitation to join Helen and Jules in the Gundog Training Solutions Facebook group for a presentation on the force free fetch


By understanding the reasons behind your gundog’s reluctance to retrieve and then employing positive, force-free training methods, you can transform your gundog into one which loves to fetch and delivers to hand every time.

Need more help? We are presenting a step-by-step recipe to help you achieve a reliable, force-free fetch delivery, followed by a live Q&A session in our Facebook group Gundog Training Solutions, at 18:30 GMT on Thursday, 9 November 2023.

The training session and Q&A are free to access for group members. Not part of Gundog Training Solutions? Click here to join today.

Back to blog