Introducing a puppy to water is an important step in the gun dog training process. It’s especially important if we want our dogs to retrieve from the water. And, a very important second reason is for dogs to voluntarily enter water if they’re being worked in warm weather.
Before water introduction, a pup should have basic obedience instruction with an emphasis on the recall command. Working on obedience helps develop a bond between you and your dog. That bond allows for the trust factor to emerge in the relationship. Having a trusting relationship with your dog will help them enter a process that they may initially find uncomfortable
There is one rule that we’re going to begin with immediately: never introduce your dog to water by throwing the dog into a body of water. It can ruin the dog’s interest in water for life.
Many gun dogs are natural swimmers and take to water immediately. Certainly the Labrador retriever is one of those breeds. Also, the versatile breeds are usually lovers of water; that includes the popular German shorthaired pointer. However, don’t take any chances with any breed, go through a carefully planned process for water introduction. Here’s how to do it.
At six weeks of age, if you own the litter, put pans of water near the litter’s food tray. Let the puppies splash around in the water. Make water a fun experience at an early age. If you don’t own the litter but have a puppy coming from a litter, encourage the owner of the dam to do this same process with the litter. That’s your puppy’s first introduction to water.
The next step is to introduce the puppy to water which is about half way up the leg. Depending upon the size of your pup, that may only be three to five inches of water. A kid’s plastic pool would be good for this step. Let them splash around in the pool. Make sure the water is warm. Don’t put a puppy into shockingly cold water.
From the kid’s pool, graduate to a small clear pond or a creek with slow moving water. Be careful of stagnant water which may contain bacteria. Here’s an important part of this step. You enter the water first. Puppies want to follow you. If you go first, they’ll have that trust that what you do is safe for them. Again, the water should be fairly warm. Also, make sure there are no sudden drop-offs where the puppy would suddenly have to swim. There should be no expectations for swimming at this point.
After several session in shallow water where the pup has shown little reservation about water and has splashed and played, take a small bumper into the water and throw only a few feet. This, of course, is done only if the puppy had had on-land bumper retriever training. As this exercise continues and water gets deeper, the puppy will soon be in water that will require swimming.
As swimming begins, be right along the side of your pup ready to assist if necessary. Remember that swimming begins with more splashing than swimming. Front legs are lifted in the air and then pounded down on the water…often with no forward progress. This is normal and the true swimming action will take over after a few attempts.
As with all training, if pup hits a road block, go back a step or two where everything was working well. Work on that exercise again and then go forward.
After all the above work has been successfully completed, here’s an exercise that helps introduce the dog to deeper water. This is the clock face exercise. Imagine a line parallel to the water edge. Stand next to a pond or slow moving creek where the water is deep enough that a dog must swim to retrieve a dummy or bumper. Stand with your back to the water and your dog at heel. Throw the bumper directly away from the water and command a retrieve with whatever word you’ve been using such as “fetch” or “dead bird”. You’ve thrown the dummy to the 9:00 position. If all went well, repeat at 11:00, 1:00 and 3:00 positions. The 3:00 position, of course, puts your dog in the water. If each clock position exercise went well, then 3:00 should have worked well also.
Again, as with all training, take it slow. Make sure each step is completed successfully. You’ll have a dog that loves the water and will want to retrieve that bird without fault.
Paul Fuller is host of the Bird Dogs Afield TV program. Paul’s website is www.birddogsafield.com.