Single Mark Extensions
After successful sight memories, we move to simple, single marks thrown by an assistant at ever-increasing distances. Begin on short grass in an open field. The assistant attracts the dog's attention and tosses a white bumper at a distance familiar to the dog. As the pup returns from a successful retrieve, the thrower moves out about 15 yards. The drill is repeated with the bumper landing directly in front of the thrower. If the dog hits a distance threshold, repeat the mark at the same distance until the pup achieves consistent success before resuming distance extension.
Next, move the exercise to light cover, incorporating ditches, fences and other obstacles. Remember to deny retrieves (pick up some of the marks) and utilize delays on the release. There are occasions in which the immediate release on marking extension drills is beneficial. This may be necessary when the dog has a confidence or ability problem. Quick release minimizes the negative effects of lost concentration but can compromise steadiness. The delayed release must be reestablished quickly. Use hair-trigger releases sparingly and only as a problem-solving tool.
Single extension marks should be run on water where dogs can mark by the water splash, and also in woodlands, which require marking by sound. As ability increases, the handler walks backwards, lengthening distance as the dog is running out. The thrower walks farther away at a different angle as the dog returns to the handler. Distance and perception are now ever-changing with each retrieve.
This is a common marking drill that utilizes a stationary thrower, with the dog and the handler moving in an ever-widening circle around the thrower. Confidence is promoted when the thrower ensures that the bumper falls in the same area for each retrieve, yet the dog's visual perspective and distance from the mark have changed.
A similar exercise can be established by placing a bumper thrower in a boat on a lake. The handler and dog change distance and perspective as they move around the water's edge. Use walking singles to enhance marking distance in a variety of locations including plowed ground, grassy fields, woodlands, even tall crops like soybean fields and corn.
A variation of the walking single is the walking double. Two throwers provide double marks repeatedly thrown to land in the location of each previous mark as the handler/dog circle and change distances. This exercise is also an effective pre-season tune-up drill for the experienced dog. As ability grows, the bumpers are thrown in a variety of locations relative to the circling dog.
A beneficial group exercise that not only improves marking but also promotes steadiness, obedience and honoring is the inline walkup. This is a common exercise used at Wildrose Kennels. Two throwers are in front of a line of several dogs and handlers (see Illustration 2 below). The line moves forward with dogs at heel. Bumpers are thrown as marks into various types of cover and at different angles and distances. Dogs in the advancing line are sent from various sides of the line. This would be similar to an upland game walkup. This is a great weekend participatory exercise for 4 to 8 dogs/handlers.
These are a few simple exercises one can utilize to enhance the marking accuracy of the retriever. Obviously, other skills must exist to ensure marking success of the dog, such as the ability to hold lines to the fall area and to deal with obstacles encountered along the way.
In the final installment of our marking series, we will examine taking and holding proper initial lines to a mark: Lining.
A retriever with talent for marking fallen game must master two very important core skills. One is an astute vision of the precise location of the fall. The other is the ability to take and hold an accurate line to the fall area by the most direct, logical route. The dog's ability to arrive at the fall area rapidly and accurately encompasses three elements:
1. Memory: The locations of marks
2. Taking an accurate initial line
3. Holding the line in spite of influences
In our last article on marking enhancement, we discussed memories in relation to marking extensions. In our next issue, we will address overcoming influences with lining. But before that, let's concentrate on the fundamentals of lining.
1. Taking the initial line
2. Holding accurate lines
Alignment on marks is necessary for selectively picking multiple marks in a specific order and in preparation for blinds. Proper initial alignment of a retriever begins with the dog at the heel position. Most handlers align the dog from the off-gun side and insure that the dog's eyes, nose, and spine are in alignment with the most direct route to the mark. The dog is cued to the line with a step forward with the inside leg. The handler's hand is then placed forward of the dog's line of sight, defining the line to be taken. With the verbal release command, a slight, non-distracting hand movement releases the dog. The sequence of line and release should be absolutely consistent with each retrieve. British and spaniel handlers often line differently, but the principles are the same.
A helpful alignment skill for multiple marks is to stand in one spot and practice pivoting the dog while making directional changes. Using "here" or "heel," turn the dog tightly to the left or right like a gun turret adjusting its line of fire. Be sure eyes, nose, and spine are properly lined along the hypothetical route with each stop.
Alignment at heel from a standing position is beneficial on multiple marking and necessary in competitive events, but may pay little practical dividends to marking on the actual hunt. Often retrievers are positioned in boats, blinds, on water stands, or in pits. Hunters may find precision alignment at heel a bit awkward. But alignments drills do prove beneficial in the field in identifying multiple marks and later the transition to blinds. Practice sending the dog from a remote position or seated on singles in addition to lining from the side.
As the dog gains experience, no real alignment is necessary on single marks. If the dog is locked onto the fall area, just delay to ensure steadiness, then release. Often handlers fuss about excessively on lining, especially on marks. Too much body influence or hand movement becomes counter-productive.