If a dog is to be an excellent marker, he must concentrate and remain alert to the activities in the field. Concentration requires steadiness.
Early in the pup's marking experiences, we begin to use a partner to serve as a thrower. This assistant serves to hold the pup's attention on activities in the field in anticipation of the mark. Begin to apply steadiness expectations at the onset of marking training. After the initial introduction to marking, begin to pick up 50% of all marks yourself (denials). Begin to delay the release of the pup for the mark to increase the lapse in time.
At first, the delayed release may be only seconds. The delay gradually increases to minutes. Watch to ensure the dog's concentration remains on the fall. Avoid distracting the dog when the time comes for release if the dog is locked on a visual place where the mark fell. Avoid unnecessary lining cues and movement. Delays enhance steadiness.
As we know, steadiness is actually an obedience skill, just an extension of "sit." On the hunt, steadiness is not associated only with gunfire. It involves sitting motionless for long periods, quiet and focused. Practice patience by having the pup sit quietly for long periods. Unfortunately, most training sessions primarily involve action - running for a bumper, hand signal work, water work, etc. However, on the hunt, there will be long periods of boredom and inactivity interspersed with sudden bursts of excitement, noise and activity. Prepare your young dog for such conditions.
Let's consider a few tips to promote steadiness for improved marking abilities:
1. Do not immediately send a dog for a retrieve in training or on a duck hunt. Wait an extended length of time as the pup holds focus on the mark. Delays promote steadiness and ensure concentration.
2. Get the pup on doubles quickly. As soon as the pup is marking well with an assistant thrower, move to doubles.
a. in-line site doubles
b. double marks, first at 180 degrees and then narrowed to 90 degrees
The pup will quickly grasp that there can be more than one object out there. Therefore, they remain focused. Waiting to introduce doubles until later in the basic training cycle offers no benefit. Early use of doubles actually helps in steadying a young dog.
3. In training, attempt to duplicate the excitement and distraction often found on the hunt. Sit for periods of inactivity, blow duck calls, jump and fire multiple shots. Nothing needs to fall, which is often the case on a hunt. Repeat similar lessons with friends and other dogs. Condition patience in the young dog from the start.
4. Condition dogs to mark birds down as they return from a retrieve. These lessons begin early for the young dog during recall drills. Call the pup in by the whistle and teach the pup to stop on the whistle. Next, as the pup stops, toss a bumper at a 90-degree angle from the pup. Now, add a retrieve as the pup returns with the bumper. Toss out a diversion mark. The pup should stop and note the fall. Now move the entire process to water. Next, add cold game as the diversion and, finally, live, shackled birds. As the dog gains proficiency, add a second diversion mark with gunfire. There should be no switching or interruption of the primary retrieve, just a pause and notation of the fall.
5. The most difficult challenge is to get the pup's eyes on the sky. A hunting season with many birds will help, but we must see our training from a pup's perspective. In training, birds (marks) originate from the ground, not the sky. Most young dogs, therefore, have their eyes fixed on the ground watching for the marks. Be cautious not to overuse seen bird throwers, human or mechanical. Once a pup is marking well, utilize unseen throwers. Make sure the assistant gets the bumpers very high in an arc, and the mark should originate from woods, over a levy from behind, overhead or other locations where the bumper will not be seen until it's well into the sky.