Puppy training is rewarding, but a lot of it isn’t much fun. Sure, treat training a Lab pup on how to sit or lay down is pretty cool at first, but over time the foundational work can become tedious. Most of the leash work, steadiness drills, and obedience basics involve a commitment to the long game. And the long game is often not that exciting. It makes puppy owners look for something exciting that relates to hunting, and often, causes us to outdrive our headlights.
There is, however, one aspect of developing a young retrieve that does break up the monotony. It also gives you a glimmer into your future in the pheasant fields and grouse woods—encouraging prey drive. This task is fun, simple, and important.
It’s also quite easy to overdo, or do wrong if you don’t have a plan.
If you know you’re going to get a puppy in the next year or two, find a way to get some wings to stick in the freezer. It really doesn’t matter if they’re pigeon wings, pheasant wings, or whatever, although I prefer to use the wings from the bird species we will eventually hunt.
According to retriever training expert, Tom Dokken, the wings you have stashed away in the garage freezer should come into play almost as soon as you pick up your pup.
“With retriever puppies as young as eight weeks old,” Dokken said, “I like to introduce them to wings out in the yard. The first step is just to gauge their excitement level and watch them as they carry the wing around. This starts to create a positive association with the scent and the texture.”
This step, alone, doesn’t really encourage prey drive. But it does allow you to set the stage for step two, which will.
It only takes a few quick sessions to expose a puppy to a wing, and then it’s time to bust out a fishing rod and tie it up the wing to the line.
“If a puppy aggressively holds a wing and doesn’t want to let it go, I know they are ready for me to scamper that wing in the grass so they can catch it,” Dokken said. “Once they start to chase it, and then catch it, you know you’re starting to unlock prey drive.”
It should be noted here, that this is where retriever training and pointer training diverge. You don’t want your little shorthair puppy trying to catch a bird when his job is going to be to lock up in a tripod point a couple of feet away.
Dokken utilizes the wing on a string drill a few times, and then he puts it away for a month or two. This isn’t easy for a lot of folks, but it is necessary.
The hardest part about encouraging prey drive is stopping. Most of us love nothing more than to watch a little Lab or a golden retriever puppy as it aggressively chases a wing across the grass. The problem is, it’s too much fun for us, and for the dogs.
If a puppy has the frequent option to play with wings, it will soon shun every other training tool. This is bad news because you need a retriever that doesn’t discriminate between bumpers, live birds, dead birds, and whatever else you want him to grab. His job is to retrieve, not selectively retrieve only the objects he enjoys the most.
It’s also worth noting that the reason Dokken, and most reputable trainers, start with wings, is because they allow for a soft intro to whole birds, both living and dead. You might take a well-bred pup that has drive to spare, and be okay introducing that dog early to a live pigeon (this is still not recommended). But a passive pup might be a different story.
It’s a better idea to embark upon a slow, measured introduction that ramps up the excitement and exposure level to parts of birds, and then actual birds. Dokken prefers to go from wings, to frozen pigeons, and then to live pigeons. All of this happens before he introduces young dogs to live pheasants, ducks, or chukars.
If you have a new retriever pup ordered up for this spring or are in the market in the next year or two, consider how you’ll safely encourage prey drive. This should all start with sourcing some wings, and then developing a long-game plan to unlock their instinct in such a way that it only grows as they do.
If you’re interested in more articles on how to get the most out of your puppy, check out: How To Potty Train A New Puppy, How To Crate Train Your Puppy, and 3 Reasons Your Puppy Isn’t Taking To Training The Way You’d Like.