If you wonder why so many dogs make looping retrieves or run past their masters before delivering birds, watch pups at play. Once they get something fun in their jaws, the chase is on. Their instincts, honed by millions of years of life and death struggle, are to be selfish, especially when the object in their mouth is edible. Delivering a bird to the pack boss goes against the grain.
So how do you train for a precise, straight-line delivery? Begin by refusing to play "keep away" with a pup. (And don't let the kids play it either.) When he grabs a toy or bumper and prances off, do not follow. When he approaches with one, take it without inciting a tug of war (pinch his mouth open if necessary, but execute a soft release) and lay on the praise and petting. Make it more fun to release an object than run away with it.
It's also wise to leave a few toys for your dog to play with, but reserve training dummies for serious work. Don't let your dog play with them. And don't you play with his toys. Don't throw them for him. Don't chase him while he has them. When you do break out the bumpers for a quick fetch session, keep a leash on your pup and pull him to you as soon as he picks up the training tool. Remain upbeat and enthusiastic; just don't allow the training to degenerate into a romp. Being consistent and building a solid foundation are the keys to a quick, straight-line delivery at maturity.
It helps to start training in a narrow, confined area with no distractions, like a hallway. Sit at one end with a leash on your partner. Toss the dummy and command "fetch" or "back" or whatever you want. Might as well throw in your hand signal while you're at it. Then let your pup go. With no room to run but up the hallway, she should return to you. If she's reluctant, pull her in gently with the leash, "good dogging" all the way. Remove the dummy gently but quickly and then lay on the praise. Yee-haw! Fun fun fun! But don't do this until the dummy has been delivered.
Don't overdo these lessons. Two or three fetches per session are enough. Some breeds enjoy retrieving so much that it becomes a game-they'd rather play fetch than hunt. You've perhaps seen the Lab that picks up and carries every rock and stick in the field? By limiting fetching, it becomes a reward for hunting. When Vacuum Nose hunts well, he gets to retrieve a bird. In training, he earns a retrieve when he sits, stays, heels and quarters.
There is one exception to the "No Play" rule: a reluctant pup. If your pup shows no interest in fetching, go ahead and play the fun-fetch-chase game. Use a small, light object at first. I had to start a springer once with a featherweight length of foam pipe insulation, but once he discovered the fun of carrying that back for his reward, he became a fetching maniac and I had to limit his retrieves.
When your pup is delivering to hand consistently in the hall, transition to an open room and insist on the straight-line return. Go back to the hall if necessary. Outdoors, create a hall-like course by mowing a strip in tall grass or working beside a tight hedge or fence. By this stage your pup should have also have a firm grasp of the "come" command. You can even build a tunnel out of wire or string run between stakes. It doesn't have to be strong enough to restrain a bull, just a visual reminder of the straight and narrow road to success.
Yet another possibility is the overhead wire. Run a clothesline wire from tree to tree or house to fence and loop just enough lead off it to reach Princess. Now she can run down it and back, not side-to-side, so retrieves must be straight-line. With enough repetition, she'll grow to believe there is no way but straight when retrieving.
If, or rather, when, your four-legged student shies away or tries to play keep away, don't make a big deal of it. Just approach her as calmly as possible, remove the dummy gently and give no reward. Ignore her. Go to recess for five minutes, then try again. When she does it right, boost her morale with high, effusive praise. End all sessions on this high note-the more fun and successful the training, the more prompt, straight and eager the retrieves.
A Low-Down Trick