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The Value of Retrieving

We’ve always considered retrieving an important part of a hunting dog’s job.  Aside from being a nice addition to the enjoyment of the hunt, a good retriever knows how to search for and locate crippled birds that run off after hitting the ground, giving you a chance to recover birds you have little or no chance of finding without a dog.  A couple incidents on our recent trip to Wisconsin served as a nice reminder just how important it is.

One morning I took Iris out and,towards the end of the hunt, we flushed a Grouse that fell at my shot.  I marked it well but knew it wasn’t dead so I got to the spot as fast as I could.  Iris quickly found a single feather on the ground and searched the immediate area for the bird.  There was a lot of blood on the ground and a small spot of fresh grouse droppings so I knew I was in the right place.  Iris acted like she smelled the bird a short distance away but we were unable to find it so I gave up and headed back to the truck.  Having only had a handful of birds shot over her Iris just didn’t have the experience to know how to find a running cripple despite searching hard for the bird.

Since it was only a quarter mile or so from the truck we decided to take an experienced dog back to the area to search for the crippled Grouse.  River is very good at hunting dead so he got the call and we took Violet along for the experience.  Upon reaching the site both dogs quickly located the scent where the bird hit the ground and started searching for it.  River began working in circles around where he first smelled the bird and soon located the same spot where Iris got birdy about ten yards away.  He knew what that meant and started searching in a line beyond this second location.  Twenty yards further on he pointed and there was the Grouse, still very much alive, hiding under a log.

P1050497He soon grabbed for it and caught it after a short chase, turning my mood from disappointed to elated.

P1050505A few days later I had Lizzie out and a Grouse flushed from over a small hill ahead of me.  I threw a quick shot at it but lost site of it as I shot so I didn’t know whether I’d hit it.  Two more Grouse flushed so I hurried over to give Lizzie a chance to point any remaining birds.  She locked up so I snapped a few photos then walked in to flush.

P1050523When nothing happened my first thought was she’s pointing where one of the birds had been.  Then I remembered I’d shot so I looked on the ground and soon saw the bird hiding where it fell.  Very nice.

We then followed up the other two birds and Lizzie pointed the first in young Aspens overlooking a wet area.  The bird flushed out over the alders and I shot it.  Lizzie beat me there and was searching excitedly about fifteen feet from where I marked it.  She didn’t locate it so I called her over to where I marked its fall.  She got birdy right away and searched hard in circles around my mark, repeatedly sniffing under clumps of grass and willow trying to locate the bird she could clearly smell.  She then headed over to where she’d first smelled the bird and continued hunting on that line, quartering narrowly and several times sniffing the ground.  I followed and she pointed the Grouse about forty yards ahead.  Again it was hiding under a log and she quickly caught it.  Needless to say she made my day.  A point on the third Grouse, this time with a clean kill, added the icing to my cake.

P1050528-eAlthough there is disagreement about the value or necessity of retrieving, some even claiming it is a negative (the desire to catch the bird makes the dog less likely to hold point), for me there is nothing to discuss.  We have an ethical obligation to do whatever it takes to recover game after the shot and a good retriever simply can’t be beat when it comes to locating downed birds.



  1. Dennis LaBare

    I’m batting just under .500 with my Ryman-types retrieving, but they ALL were/are fantastic dead finders, digging bird our or tangles, from understumps, out of hollow logs – name it. I’m hopeful my youngest might yet come around. The famous Ruffwood Captain Magic, subject of a recent PDJ piece and scene a great deal in “A Passion for Grouse”, was sent to “Thou Shalt Retrieve School”, a nice man with vast experience getting campanion-type setters and other types and breeds to retrieve. No luck. This was the single puppy litter as described in the PDJ piece who has his very one ideas on the nature of the universe. But a better dead finder there does not exist. So, we called a truce on it. Perhaps before my dog days are through, I’ll have one that’s quite naturally inclined as I have had in the past. It would be nice once more.


    • October Setters

      If you’re going to have trouble with a Ryman type setter it is usually with retrieving as you have apparently discovered. Most are solid retrievers but a few need more work. You are likely aware of all this already but you bring up a good point so here are some suggestions for anyone developing a setter pup.

      We highly recommend doing some type of play retrieving with puppies starting immediately after you pick them up (presumably at or near eight weeks of age). Use a glove or something else soft and make it a fun game on most days. Three or four retrieves is plenty. If you over do it they will lose interest – if this happens reduce the number of sessions and try to keep it at a level where they remain excited. There is a more detailed description of this drill along with videos of three puppies getting their first taste of the game here:
      Once they are used to this game it gives you something to fall back on when they hesitate to pick up birds or bring them to you in the field. You can see an example of this in the video of Gen retrieving in this post:
      She isn’t quite sure what to do with the dead Chukar until I tell her to fetch it, a command she was obviously familiar with. We’ve even thrown freshly shot birds just like we do with the glove and this is often enough to make the light bulb turn on.

      If you do end up with one that isn’t terribly excited about retrieving don’t let it fall by the wayside. Do your best to make retrieving a fun part of the hunt every time you shoot a bird. If you allow them to go on hunting without making a retrieve they can get in the habit of ignoring shot birds. Hopefully they can be coaxed into being more interested in retrieving.

      If all else fails you can always train them to find dead birds and point them. It sounds like you’ve had success with this in the past and it’s the next best thing to getting retrieves. Maybe not as much fun but still a very effective way to recover downed birds.

      One thing I would never try is force training a Ryman type to retrieve. They just don’t have the temperament to handle that much pressure. While I’m sure there are some with which you could be successful most will end up never retrieving again.


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October Setters