An integral part of a retriever's marking performance is the dog's ability to accurately judge distances to the fall area of downed game. The effective marker will watch the sky for shot and fall with concentration, remember the bird's placement, then run enthusiastically and accurately to the area to begin hunting the bird. In this segment of Marking Enhancement, we will address the retriever's distance precision and lining extensions with regard to marks.
We commonly see dogs that break down at predisposed distances on a drive out to a mark, as if hitting an invisible barrier. This ceiling on range limit occurs at about the same distance repeatedly, despite terrain or environmental conditions. This dog is accustomed to training in which the marks have always fallen within a certain range from the handler, and the dog has been conditioned, unintentionally, to drive only out to that distance. If a gundog is never exposed to marks or blinds beyond a certain range - say 50 yards - that will become the dog's maximum search range. In time, the handler will find it difficult to push the dog farther.
I have witnessed experienced hunting dogs, those thought to be trained properly, hit those maximum ranges every time. They deviate, cease driving out and begin to hunt. Try as he might, the handler cannot get the dog to push out farther. Obviously, these dogs' marking and lining abilities have never been tested beyond that point. Therefore, their accuracy as a good marker was handicapped.
In the initial development of young dogs, it is best not to overextend them with long marks. Keep them close and under control by emphasizing memories, handling and whistle drills. Marking promotes independence. At the early stages of training, I prefer to keep a young dog interdependent - working under control. I don't want the prospect to suddenly realize that I am far away and this is a great opportunity for an independent frolic. Save marking extension until the pup is on the whistle, hand signals have begun, recall and steadiness have been entrenched and initial lining skills are evident.
There comes a time when range extension must occur. In marking, distance estimation equals accuracy. Developing this skill takes practice. Be careful not to compromise steadiness with too many marks. Be sure to involve delays and denials in all exercises.
Distance Perception: Accuracy enhancement through extension drills. First, realize that environmental conditions, terrain, obstacles and cover will affect distance perception and the young dog's ability to run directly to the fall. Such factors must be incorporated into transitional training in preparing young dogs for the field. To extend marking ability, begin by concentrating on range and distance extension. Young dogs are extended slowly as confidence and ability build. We want to promote an enthusiastic, direct drive to the fall area. Later, conditions and variables that affect lining will be added.
In our last article, Marking Enhancement Part III: Memories, we discussed sight memories. We placed bumpers along a straight edge, such as a fence or wood line, to promote straight lining. Dogs should be running similar drills with enthusiasm prior to marking extensions. In our first extension drill, inline memories, we build upon these established skills.
Sight Memory Extension
Building upon the skills developed in inline sight singles and doubles, we can utilize the same straight edge to enhance extension skills. Place bumpers about 15 yards apart along a fence or wood line; usually five laddered bumpers will suffice for one exercise (see Illustration 1 below). Use large, white, canvas bumpers that can be spotted easily. Initially, to enable the inexperienced pup, run extension drills into the wind. The scent of the bumper blowing toward the pup helps pull him forward to the next loss area.
As the dog confidently expands his range, move the drill away from the assistance of the straight edge and incorporate a variety of terrain with less obvious bumpers. Use sight laddered memories in woodlands and taller grass, across ditches and placed at various distances in water. Usually, on a still day, one can get three bumpers to stay in a relatively straight line in the water.
The inline memory drill offers advantages: it does not tend to compromise steadiness the way overmarking can, and the handler can control the tempo of the exercise. For the lethargic dog, speed up the tempo to stimulate enthusiasm. Drag the tempo to a crawl for the hyperactive, excited dog.
Do not overuse this exercise with the intelligent student since such repetitive drills tend to cause the dog to lose interest. Change the location and environmental conditions once the straight edge is no longer needed.