Does Your Retriever Love Fetch?

    Fetch is a game that every dog owner has played at some time in their life. The dog chases the dry rubber ball and returns it back to the thrower, somewhat more slimy than before. Simple. It’s a great game and most dogs happily play it. 


    But in the Retriever world you can step it up a notch. Because it just so happens that Retrievers were bred to fetch and play the game especially well, hence their breed’s name. 

AKC Hunt Tests

    Because of their natural retrieving skills on both land and water, the AKC devised a test for Retrievers and their owners, in the mid-1980s, to determine a dog’s ability to retrieve against what’s called the “AKC standard” for Retrievers. The AKC calls it a Hunt Test, a very authentic scenario that mimics an actual waterfowl hunting environment, where birds are downed and dogs are released to fetch them and bring them back to the owner. If you are terribly uncomfortable with birds like ducks being shot and retrieved, maybe this is a good time to recommend the AKC Agility game to you. But if you are good with the whole shot duck thing and you don't mind holding guns, then definitely READ ON. 

    Interestingly, a large percent of those that enter their Retrievers in AKC Hunt Tests are not hunters. Backyard Retriever owners love the sport and find huge benefits to playing the game. Likewise, AKC registered Retriever breeders, love the AKC Hunt Test too. If they do well enough to pass a Hunt Test they can add this distinction (often in form of a Ribbon or Band) to their dog’s pedigree through the AKC. 

    The concept of the AKC Hunt Test is for the owner (who is called the handler when testing) and the Retriever to fetch downed birds (usually ducks) on command. The birds may fall in the water, or on land, but the object is for the owner and dog to work as a team to locate and fetch the bird from where it landed. There are beginning levels of the sport for young dogs, to much more advanced levels called Master Hunt Tests, these dogs are steered toward the downed bird by hand and whistle commands and it can take years before a Retriever and handler become proficient enough at a Master Hunt Test to actually pass one (qualify).

    I won’t go into the details of the AKC Hunt Test, there are way too many rules and regulations to follow, but I am going to address its value in my eyes. 

Value of a Hunt Test for Retrievers

    For the past 15 years I have been actively involved in AKC Hunt Tests and became a judge about 10 years ago on the encouragement of fellow competitors. What I have come to realize is how vital it is for Retrievers that are of good health to play the game. It is the exact type of mental and physical stimulant that Retrievers want and need to keep their spirits high, their muscles strong and their weight under control.

    I noticed immediately that my dogs responded positively to Hunt Tests. They couldn’t wait for the next one and they loved being able to be rewarded for doing something that came so natural to them. Competitors come from all walks of life, there are doctors, lawyers, teachers and artists. AKC Hunt Tests are all inclusive, welcoming anyone with a love for dogs. So besides it being a healthy workout for your Retriever, it is also a great place to meet like minded people that care deeply about animals. 

    All hunt tests are strictly monitored by the AKC, and all judges must meet certain requirements before they are allowed to judge an event. These requirements for judges extend beyond simply knowing how to set-up a test, judges must understand gun etiquette, and recognize how to showcase a dog’s ability in the field without risking injury to the dog or the handler in the process. Dogs do not complete against each other as I mentioned, they compete against the AKC “standard” for the breed. Here’s an example: If the breed standard for any particular level of Hunt Test suggests that the dog must be able to swim across a body of water with the bird in its mouth and release it upon command to the handler, then that must happen. 

    If you ever get an opportunity to see an AKC Hunt Test you will be amazed by the intelligence of these dogs. Some dogs are fast as a red Ferrari in the field and others are as cunning as a fox, but what they all have in common is their love of the game of fetch. 

    To learn more visit the AKC.

UPDATE: 6 Essential Tips for Hiking with Your Dog

    My long association with national clubs like the AKC and others has taught me something about dogs. Hiking can be dangerous to both you and the animal. Responsible dog owners love to hike outdoors with their faithful companions and seldom is there a problem on the trail. Our State Parks are some of the best places to travel to with your dog(s). But while our beautiful wilderness may look peaceful enough, the outdoors can become potetially life-threatening.

    Let's start with the ordinary things you might encounter like ticks, painful thorns, and poisonous snakes. Expect to discover these at some point in your hike.  Having an emergency kit for your dog is critical before you set out. A slight paw injury or heat exhaustion or any number of minor things can turn what was supposed to be a fun family holiday into a disaster. An expensive one if you have to take your dog to the Vet. Trust me, it happens.

    Here are 6 Essential Tips that I have learned along the way. Maybe by passing them onto you your next hike can be one without fuss or worry. For more information on dogs and hiking educate yourself with any of the website I've listed in the references below.


1) Watch the Weather

 Photography: Caroline Fenton

Photography: Caroline Fenton

Never hike with your dog on a hot day. Heat-related issues are sometimes life-threatening without immediate treatment.  Overheated dogs can suffer heat stroke, or sudden death from cardiac arrhythmias. Always start by hiking or traveling in the coolest part of the day like the morning hours and bring lots of water to prevent dehydration, and be sure to bring a collasable drinking container. Dogs sweat from their pads of their feet, not their body like us, so it’s very difficult to see when a dog is overheated. Panting is just one sign that a dog is getting overheated. If you are hiking on asphalt or cement trails, be sure to touch the ground with your palm. If it’s hot to the touch, stop and turn around. Look for areas that are shaded along the trail for periodic rests. While even the most fit dogs can handle the exercise, never take a dog on extremely long hikes. It’s best to keep your hiking to easy trails on smooth surfaces whenever possible. 

2) Check the Paws

Paw injuries are very common outdoors. Just like you or I, dogs can get blisters on their pads. Hiking booties for dogs are extremely popular and will help prevent blisters and reduce the likelihood of injury due to thorns, sharp stone and other elements. However, not all booties on the market are made the same, and quality and fitment should be your number one concern. A dog’s paw and pad is the most sensitive area on their body, and whatever you do don’t force it. If a dog rejects the booty, try again and make it fun. Sometimes it takes some practice at home before the dog understands what you are attempting to do.  A lanolin-rich pad ointment is a must-have in case you see any pad injury, which can be purchased at any pet store.  Also ensure that your dog's nails are properly trimmed before hiking. 

3) Carry First-Aid Kits

I always have at least two first aid kits with me. One for me and the other for the dog. Make yourself a carry-along first aid kit for your dog, it's easy. It should contain products like bandages, sterile saline, eye wash solution, wound disinfectant, cold packs, towels and the numbers to your Vet and Poison Control Center. There are many sites that offer a complete list of what to bring, but make it light enough to fit into a quality dog backpack without putting stress on the dog. These dog backpacks are great for carrying a small supply of water and food too. Be sure to bring enough food and water along, even on short trips. 

4) Use Good Trail Etiquette 

dog sitting

One of the most important things about hiking with dogs is to keep them under control at all times. Not only can they be spooked by other animals on the trail, a dog might wander off and stumble upon a snake, or worse! Dogs should always heel by your side on a solid leash measuring no more than 6 feet long. A sturdy flat buckle collar is adviseable. Always bring along plenty of doggy bags too, and pack out what you pack in! Our National Parks do not allow dogs on the trail, so be sure to check in with the ranger station before starting out. If you encounter another dog, or animal on the trail, immediately sit your dog. Let the animal or other dog pass by you and keep a good grip on the leash. Once the potential threat is gone, reward your dog and move on. Using good trail etiquette and having a plan are two things that can save your dog from injury or worse. 

5) Get Ticked Off

Ticks are a normal part of the wild, they live in areas thick in follage and they often attach themselves to a dog, who might rub against the brush they are hiding in. Always make a tick remover tool part of the your first-aid kit. Ticks can be very painful to dogs and if they go undetected they can cause serious health issues and even lead to paralysis. Two of the diseases people are familiar with are Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Months before heading on your outdoor adventure with the dog get started on a regular dose of flea and tick medicine, which is sold over the counter at any pet supply shop. While this is typically enough to prevent ticks from attaching to your dog, it doesn’t always work and you will still need to check your dog thoroughly after every hike. 

6) Paperwork and Micro-Chip

Ensure that you have all your dog's paper work with you whenever you travel and that includes certifications for vaccinations and rabies shots. If for any reason you need to kennel your pup, while you hit the trail, these papers will be required. Also ensure that your dog has been micro-chipped and that you have the number written down or in your phone. 



 Best Resources


Trail Etiquette


Ticks and Fleas


First-Aid Kits and Supplies


Signs of Heatstroke


Water and Weather

Best Retriever Daily Driver

There are the mega-buck retriever trucks with 14 stalls for dogs, the pros love them, but if you're not a pro you have to find something more civilized. That's why I drive a Vanagon, a Westfalia actually, comes with stove, frig, two beds and enough room for several kennels. 


At the last AKC Hunt Test I judged, I pulled up in my new ride, and some of the eyes gave it a once over, a few peered into its living space, and others just smiled. 

Fuel mileage isn't great, but it gets you where you need to be, although you'll break no record getting there. Some people use these for going to the races, or other hobbies, but to me nothing beats a Vanagon for cruising to a hunt test and it sure beats Motel 6. 

It also makes for a great hunter's blind!

Learn Basic Retriever Behavior

 We named her Jetta and she was an incredible AKC Master level Hunting Dog. She had the ideal traits for becoming a champion. She loved treats and she loved people, the perfect combination. 

We named her Jetta and she was an incredible AKC Master level Hunting Dog. She had the ideal traits for becoming a champion. She loved treats and she loved people, the perfect combination. 

     Here's a lesson I learned early on. Everything we’ve read, seen or heard about retriever training is futile until we embrace the concept that dogs are creatures of habit. That particular lesson in retrieving training was taught to me by a very accomplished handler by the name of Wendy Pennington of many years ago.

     Wendy happened to have about 25 more years of experience with working dogs than I did at the time she first introduced me to the notion that dogs must learn to learn. She sees things in handlers that some of us are not even aware we are doing. The idea is that people train dogs, not the other way around. It’s easy to forget this piece of wisdom, simple as it seems, especially when we get involved in training highly intelligent working dogs. What it all comes down to is understanding that dogs are shaped by the routines that are defined by us (the handler). No matter what it is we are teaching, the dog learns from our distinct, individual behaviors. Make a mistake, give a false casting cue, and you set yourself up for failure down the road.

     If you allow a dog to “blow you off”, as Wendy would often say, on whatever it is you are teaching him or her, the dog will continue to follow that pattern. And putting pressure on the dog often backfires, because ultimately it can break the dog’s spirit to learn with you as a teammate. Dogs don’t know why something is wrong. They don’t care. They simply do. A dog only knows that you allowed him or her to behave a certain way on many other occasions, therefore the dog perceives that it is doing the correct thing.

     Most importantly, it only takes one time for a dog to develop a habit. It’s vital for anyone who wants to work with retrievers to understand that everything we do in training is eventually reinforced by habits.

 Graphic by: Janey Saavedra,

Graphic by: Janey Saavedra,

     There are consequences for being apathetic about our approach to even the easiest commands like sit or stay. If you want to get a dog to sit on a whistle, you better start with the basic sit command and then later introduce the whistle. These are two very separate things we are telling the dog. When the dog understands that a single tweet of the whistle means the same as a single “verbal sit” command, you can move forward, but not until you and the dog are very clear on each step of the process.

     For example, you don’t blow two tweets, then suddenly blow just one. You can’t allow the dog to stand occasionally, and sit at other times. Recognizing habits goes a long way in turning out great retrievers. Dogs have an incredible ability to read our body language, sense our moods and listen for vocal intonations, and what this kind of information gathering means to us as handlers is that we can’t afford to be wish-washy.

     Another way to look at it is that dogs don’t automatically know how to do to something, they must be taught through repetitive training. Once the dog clearly recognizes what it is you are teaching, only then does the learning process become fun. It doesn’t work the other way around.

     Too many of us are in a rush to get the dog started retrieving and we forget that the dog only knows what we teach. He or she might be the smartest retriever in the neighborhood, but don’t expect the dog to have our kind of higher reasoning power.

     As odd as it sounds bad habits can be good: They tell us what aspect of training needs work, and recognizing this keeps us sharper when it comes time for competition.

Top 5 Retriever Training Aids

Getting started in the retriever training game takes commitment, and obviously the right equipment. Experienced trainers are fully equipped to handle most training drill scenarios, which leaves 99 percent of others often puzzled by the choices that need to be made. 

  1. The bumper or dummy is a standard in training retrievers. These reliable cheap aids are meant for one thing…to teach a dog to retrieve. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes and designs. A short rope extending from one end allows them to be thrown into the air to look like a bird in flight. The most experience retriever trainers often use expensive bumper launchers that are remote controlled.  But all you really need to get started is a cheap bumper or two. Cost: Starting at $4 each. 
  2. Check cords are effective tools and the cool news is they are super cheap. They assist in keeping the dog handler in control of the dog at varying distances away. They are very useful when training a puppy, who wants to race off with no regard to your commands. When you start teaching games like “come” “here” and “fetch” think about using a check cord to reinforce the drill. Cost:  Starting at $10. 
  3. Clicker training is an operative learning tool that is used in obedience training. It’s typically used with a positive reinforcement like treats to encourage good behaviors. One of the leaders of clicker training is Karen Pryor, a distinguished advocate of marker-based methods. Using a clicker, a simple device that makes a short, audible sound, telling the dog exactly when they’re doing the right thing, marks desirable behavior. Cost: Starting at $1 each.  
  4. Labradors love their food. That’s one reason they adapt to training so readily. Treat pouches are a must-have for any trainer that uses treats as a positive reinforcement aid. Bags comes in all shapes and sizes and many attach directly to belt to make carrying treats simple and clean. Be sure never to give treats that are too large for the dog to chew quickly. The softest and smallest treats work best. String cheese is a huge hit in training! Cost: Starting at $10.  
  5. No matter how much retriever content is available online, nothing beats the kind of expert advice you get from recommended books and DVDs on the subject. There are so many good authors and experienced trainers that have written a book, or produced a DVD that it’s impossible to list them all. Leaving anyone out might seem like a disservice, so it’s best to just acknowledge that you can learn a lot by reading about or watching a video of a qualified trainer at work. To learn more visit