“Jessie” has completed the bottom tier of the Training Pyramid. She has been taught “Sit”, “Sit at a Distance”, “Whistle Sit”, “Heel”, “Here”, “Here – Heel”, “Kennel” and using the “Kennel” command to facilitate housebreaking. She knows each one of these commands perfectly. If she relapses, we go back, simplify and advance to perfection.
Now let’s have some fun at the next level. I call this level The Retrieving Level. After all retrievers got their name from their function. The first behavior we teach is a hand thrown puppy retrieve. I use either a rolled up white sock or small paint roller. Find a hallway where you can close all the adjacent doors so there is no place for the pup to go except back to you. Show him the sock, get him excited about it and then flip it part way down the hall making sure he can see it all the way. Now get goofy, do whatever it takes to get the pup to come to you. Remember you are blocking the hall so he can’t get past you. Gently take the sock away praising him by telling him no other dog in the world is as smart. Men have an advantage in this when it comes to acting goofy. Women have the advantage because of their higher pitched voices. The purpose of this is the make the dog frantic to retrieve. Most important point, don’t overdo it. Limit the retrieves to 3 or 4. You are turning him into a rabid retrieving machine not throwing it so much he loses interest.
You never want to start retrieves in the open, pups are masters of the game of keep away. I once trained with a person who was no help. I threw a teal for a pup onto a wide gravel road. The distance was short but the entire retrieve took 15 minutes. The pup was quicker than a cheetah and I had all the moves of a beached whale. My assistant was laughing so had she could not move or was enjoying the game too much. I think the pup covered the entire field in the background with me in hot pursuit running in fruitless circles after a very busy pup.
Speaking of birds brings us to next the next step in this level. The introduction to birds. After the pup is retrieving well on land start with a small dead bird. Show it to them until they are frantic to grab it. Throw it a short distance in an open area. If they pick it up great. Now it is up to you to take it from them before they decide its lunch time. I don’t use birds very much until the pup is Forced Fetched. If the pup starts to sour, throw them a clipped wing pigeon. Too many birds too soon can lead to bad habits handling birds and bumpers can be come boring.
After your pup can retrieve a bumper as far as you can throw it in open cover the time has come to move to a very different concept, someone else throwing the bumper. Again make the bumper toss close to the pup and the thrower should be a considerable distance from the mark. Most pups will want to take it to the person who threw the object. You can minimize this by long throws by a person or by using a winger to throw the bumper close to the pup. The utilization of a long line can be very helpful. Rex would lecture “Never be in a position where you cannot enforce a command”. Great care must be given to the type of material utilized in the long line. You will use this line later when you teaching the pup to stop on a whistle when it is been sent to a pile. The material should be strong, lightweight and not tear up your fingers, hands or ankles. A pro, Josh Conrad, has found the perfect long line and protects it like a momma bear with cubs. Obviously with my record, he would not let me near it let along examine it.
The pup is beginning to learn how to mark. Most pros will tell you that good marking is an innate ability. Some dogs are fantastic at very young ages, others struggle. There is one drill that can help teach an advanced pup to mark. I call it the 3 in a row drill. The retrieves do not have to be long. Place 3 ribbons about 20 yards apart so they are in an absolute direct line from the pup to the longest one. To start have a person throw a bumper to the middle ribbon. Have the pup retrieve it. Next throw the bumper to the shortest one, send the dog. For the third bumper have the thrower land the bumper on the farthest ribbon. Repeat this drill once a week and each time vary the order of which bumper he retrieves. You can start giving oral cues such as “easy” for the short check down bumper. This will pay dividends down the road. Again, this is for an advanced pup.
When you begin to teach a dog to retrieve all the throws should be easy to see, land in open areas and be white or black and white. Never use orange bumpers at any level. Dogs can’t see orange. You are trying to teach them to mark, not trick them.
Once the pup is retrieving well it is time to add more excitement to the game – Gunfire. One effective way is to throw a short bumper for the pup and have a person fire a blank gun at 150 yards away when the bumper is in the air. If all goes well, have the person move in 50 yards. Adjust for how the pup is responding. It is possible in one session for the thrower to throw the bumper and then shoot when the pup is on his way out to retrieve. Later you can fire the gun, throw and then release the dog to retrieve. In the early stages you want the pup not to concentrate on the gunfire but the retrieve he knows so well and is frantic to find.
Now the pup has adjusted to a person in the field shooting a gun and throwing, let’s complicate life. Puppy retrieves from multiple gun stations. Put 2 or 3 gun stations widely spaced and throwing diverging birds. Singles only and the throwers should be at a short distance and in light cover so the dog has the best chance to see the mark all the way out. We can increase the distances later. For now we want success. One way to ensure the pup finding the mark and teaching him how to use his nose is to throw 90% of your retrievers into the wind. Young dogs will invariably run towards the gun station. If the pup goes out and you have thrown the bumper into the wind, he will be downwind of the mark and his success will skyrocket. We are now working towards teaching the pup multiple retrieves by putting multiple gun stations out into the field.
Almost all training groups help the pup too much. The onus of marking is on the pup. Start out so you are guaranteed success. Gradually increase distance and other factors in marking. Give as little help as possible and only when absolutely necessary. As you look out to set up a mark, consider each one of the following factors.
Factors Influencing Marks and Blinds
- Terrain (Hills, ditches, changes of cover)
- Other marks or blinds.
- Placement of marks (in throws versus a square throw).
- Multiple marks.
- Flyers versus dead bird.
- Water (especially angles into water).
- Dogs alignment to mark.
- Handler remembering where mark is.
- Distractions (bird crates, honoring dog, position of gallery).
- Height of throw.
- Length of throw.
- Prior falls - scent (dog number 1 vs dog 50).
- Scent areas of other marks from prior series.
- Position of sun.
- Tidal surges. (Water versus mud)
- Order of marks.
- Type of bird.
- Edaphic conditions. (Soil conditions)
- Scenting conditions. (Dry vs wet)
- Females in season
- Retired guns
If you do this on each mark or blind it will make you even crazier than you were when you began this insane sport.
John Schulte DVM