Among the most valued skills of a retriever is his ability to effectively mark fallen game. Waterfowlers want a dog that continuously scans the sky for birds, marks the location of downed game, drives out enthusiastically straight to the fall area on command, hunts the area closely and quickly returns an undamaged bird directly to the handler.
A retriever's marking ability can be enhanced greatly by addressing the individual component skills necessary for effective marking. These skills include:
Future articles will address each of these factors and their influences on marking. These skills are also necessary for running accurate blinds. Remember that marking exercises should play a very small part in the early stages of training a retriever. Marking drills are used only intermittently in a variety of locations and environments throughout the Wildrose basic retriever curriculum. The ability to mark is a natural instinct among quality retrievers. All the trainer has to do is enhance the gifts proper genetics has provided. Dogs with weaker natural skills can benefit from properly formatted marking exercises. Place more emphasis in early training experiences on memories, steadiness and handling skills.
Excessive marking can promote unsteadiness with an excitable pup, and often results in a "self-employed dog," a dog overconfident in getting the job done on his own. Handling and memory exercises, on the other hand, promote interdependence between the handler and the dog. The young dog will rely to some extent on the handler, thereby remaining both under control and confident, a much more cooperative relationship. Periodic, meaningful marking activities will not interfere with this relationship as long as the dog is kept calm and marking is not overdone in each session. Never needlessly excite a pup with repetitive, meaningless marks unless the pup has a motivational problem.
The tendency to focus, seemingly scrutinizing the situation, often appears in a potentially talented pup quite young. The pup locks onto the owner's gaze, looking directly into his or her face. This is a most desirable trait and among the best indicators of a compliant nature.
Often standards for focusing on the handler or activities in the field are not properly established and maintained in training. The indicators of lack of focus can be varied:
- Eye contact prior to command is not established consistently
- Half-hearted responses to command are tolerated, even rewarded
- Dogs fidget, move about, or smell the ground, totally disinterested in events while at sit
- Pups give up early on the quest for the dummy
- Memory bumpers are forgotten quickly
- The dog is disrupted on the retrieve by activities, meaningless objects or scent
- Head swinging occurs while the handler is attempting a cast
Unfortunately this list could be even more extensive. To develop a great marker, or a dog that lines and handles well, the dog must possess the ability to concentrate and focus his attention patiently, sometimes for extended periods. In situations where the dog is older and well beyond basic training, yet lacks concentration in the field, it will be necessary to regress to the basics of obedience to reinstitute the principles that promote focus. Hopefully, this experience will also reestablish an interdependence of cooperation and teamwork between the handler and the dog.
For the young pup, begin by establishing focus from the very first training exercises. In either circumstance - old dog or new pup - eye contact is the key.
To develop concentration in a dog, begin with the basics during the obedience training. Condition the pup to make eye contact before any command is given. Gain the pup's attention by calling his name or giving a short peep on the whistle. As the pup makes eye contact, hold the gaze briefly, then give the command. Make sure the pup is absolutely still and focused, awaiting the command. This process is best begun at heel. Call the name, hold the eye contact briefly, then give the "heel" command and step off.
A similar exercise is to have the pup remain at sit. Attempt to hold eye contact as you walk completely around the pup. Repeat the "sit" command or whistle as you keep your hand extended upward signaling sit. If encouragement is needed initially, walk about while spinning a bumper occasionally or displaying a treat. This will assist in maintaining eye contact. Gain and briefly hold eye contact on recall drills and handling exercises. A lack of eye contact during these exercises usually denotes a lack of concentration or even avoidance.
All early lessons for your pup should be short. Once a pup's interest wanes, so does his concentration. Similarly, boring, repetitive drills provide little interesting stimulation for the intelligent, talented dog. Overuse of maintenance drills such as lining to piles, simple baseball or short marks may result in a disinterested student. Change training locations, vary session topics, incorporate obstacles or work in groups to keep the dog's interest keen, and maintain eye contact when applicable.
To hold the attention of the young student, always teach new skills in an area free of distractions. Training with other dogs present is extremely effective but only after skills are established and understood. The pup's attention and eyes must be on you or focused on the field.
Avoid interruptions and interference during sessions such as cell phone calls or chatting with friends. The handler must remain focused on the dog to maintain communication. A dog will quickly recognize that his partner is not paying attention, and the pup's concentration will diminish.
Another strategy to enhance focus is to establish a delay period after a command/response sequence. After the pup responds correctly to a command, do nothing for a short period, a quiet moment for the dog to reflect on the command/response sequence time. Example: Command "sit"-response-delay-next command. This strategy is especially effective on stop to the whistle during handling exercises prior to the cast.
The "Watch" Cue
A method to reestablish concentration in the field after a period of idleness is to condition the retriever to the "watch" command. Begin by verbally instructing, "Watch," very quietly as the thrower prepares to provide the mark(s) in training. Also, repeat the command as you walk out to place sight memories. If done consistently, the dog will learn to focus attention on the field or sky in anticipation.
Concentration can be enhanced in all working retrievers through conditioning exercises. The next part of our series will address how focus extension and steadiness complement one another to enhance marking ability.
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.
As the young dog's confidence builds, so should his steadiness. At this point, memories can be added. Remember, use lots of body movement, gunfire and calls in training to assure these distractions do not compromise steadiness and concentration. Steadiness under all conditions is a requirement for focused concentration. Begin to condition in these factors early in training sessions by avoiding repetitive marking (which causes overexcitement) delaying releasing the pup when a mark is thrown, and emphasizing patience in all training exercises.
The basis of marking is quite simple: the use of the eyes. But the skills required get quite challenging when taken to the level of a superior marker in actual hunting situations. To have a great marker that can handle multiple falls under all conditions, you must field a steady dog. Next, memory enhancement.
Two decades ago D. L. and Ann Walters, noted field trial trainers and authors, defined a mark as, "a fall of a bird, which a dog should watch, remember and retrieve when ordered to do so." This simple yet accurate definition of a mark contains one very important word: remember. A trainer must concentrate much of the dog's development on memory to mold a retriever with superb marking ability. A properly bred and trained retriever will likely possess the natural ability to see a bird fall and run to the location of the fall to make a retrieve. The dog's use of his eyes to make a simple mark is natural and is not where effective training time should be concentrated.
The dog's ability to concentrate and remain focused is imperative to effective marking. Marking memory is the dog's ability to remember the location of multiple bird or bumper falls with precise accuracy. This is where much of our training time is invested: memory enhancement.
Many handlers attempt to develop marking memory by using multiple thrown marks first thrown as doubles at 180 degrees, then narrowed to 90 degrees. Gradually, the angle closes to about 45 degrees. The dog is normally sent to the first bird down, then the second mark, or "memory" bird. Later, multiple marks are thrown and the dog is sent to bumpers in various orders.
Many marks must be run to provide substantial repetitions to effectively impact a young dog's memory development. Herein lies the complication with this methodology. Excessive marking promotes independence on the part of the young dog. Unsteadiness may creep in, and transitions to blinds, where the dog sees nothing fall, may prove more difficult.
To enhance memory at Wildrose Kennels, we use two methods that are similar in design:
1. Sight Memories
2. Trailing Memories
There is a third method, Circle Memories, but we'll leave that topic for another time at a more advanced level.
The sight memory is a seen placement of bumpers, located about 15 yards apart, never in a pile, which could promote switching. The dog should sit while watching the handler walk out and place the bumpers. The dog is expected to remain absolutely still and quiet, no creeping or distracted behavior. Keep the dog's attention. Bumpers are dropped on short-clipped grass in a straight line entirely visible to the dog. The handler slowly returns to the dog and briefly delays the release a few moments. As the dog's confidence develops, the distance is lengthened and terrain variables are added, such as a ditch or cover.
The sight memory may be set up in two ways:
1. Straight Edge - Use a fence line, woods' edge or hedge, straight trail, or even along a long building to provide a straight-line edge to the bumper placements to serve as a stabilizer for the young dog.
2. Land Contours - Select a gradual grade, a downward slope that gradually rises at a distance. With the dog at sit, the handler walks out and places bumpers in a visible position, 15 yards apart. After returning, the dog is released for the retrieve. As the dog drives out, down through the slope, eye contact with the bumpers is briefly interrupted. Sight is quickly regained if the young prospect continues the line through the lower area. With each repetition, distance to the next bumper lengthens. This has proven to be a very effective exercise at enhancing confidence and the promotion of lining skills in addition to memory enhancement.
As the dog's skills develop, switch to colored cloth bumpers placed in short grass to effectively create an unseen lining/memory exercise.
The trailing memory builds upon established skills developed through sight memories. The handler heels the dog into the field and tosses out a bumper. The dog is then heeled away in the opposite direction 180 degrees, effectively creating the "trail." At the appropriate distance for the dog's ability, the dog is turned about facing the memory bumpers. A brief delay precedes the release, allowing the gundog an interlude to focus on the placement area, distance and establishment of what is about to occur. This is a very effective drill at water's edge. Toss in the bumper and heel away. Send for the memory at gradually increasing distances.
As the dog's confidence builds, sight and trailing memories can be run in a variety of locations incorporating lots of factors, influences, and terrains. We now have moved away from the crutch of the straight edge such as the fences to incorporate more realistic conditions.
No marks have been thrown, yet memory is being developed. These methods involve delays, requirement for patience and concentration. No disruptive behavior can be tolerated: No creeping, no whining and no messing about or inattention.
Through consistent repetition, sight and trailing memory exercises will enhance more than memories applicable to marks. They will build a young dog's confidence in his handler while promoting patience and steadiness. As an added bonus, trailing memories that are discretely placed provide a natural progression to blinds.
Next, Distance Extensions.
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.
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.
Teach initial lining drills early, just after you have introduced simple marks. Start with marks that are about 15 yards away. The dog should leave the handler position on command, enthusiastically, by the most direct route to the mark, despite influences. There are several good exercises for this skill.
A. Ball Roll - For the young pup, simply roll a tennis ball across open ground into cover, or hit the ball along the ground with a tennis racket. Release the young pup to take the "seen" line into the cover. A visual line is established for the very young pup by the rolling ball. Lining skills are awakened.
B. Four-Bumper Wagon Wheel - using obvious white bumpers at a short distance, rotate the pup in a circle, and then line him to the indicated bumper. Later in training you'll throw the bumper and then turn the dog to a different target. Progress to less obvious bumpers in medium cover (unseen) and begin to extend the distance.
C. Inline Sight and Trailing Memories (my favorite) - use a natural straight edge (fence or wood line) to encourage alignment. Set bumpers out in opposite directions 15 yards apart to discourage switching.
x x 15 yards dog/handler 15 yards x x
Send the dog to each memory, alternating directions. A fence or hedge connecting at 90 degrees is another good drill. Remember to keep the distances short at first.
As the young pup progresses on initial lines, move to drills that promote holding straight, accurate lines at longer distances.
This drill initially incorporates several natural lining barriers (to keep pup moving out straight) that converge at one point. I have a location with a fence intersecting a wood line. A gate is at the converging point, allowing me to place seen or unseen lined bumpers at various distances in four directions. I can pivot the pup to pick up the bumpers in any order. I teach each leg of the line independently and then link them together until we are lining on quads in any of the four directions supported by the barriers. In an urban environment, one can often find industrial plant parking lots, athletic fields, or sports parks that offer similar environments.
Once your young dog is running supported lines with confidence, move the drill to less supported terrain: foot paths, farm field roads, pond levees, and ditch lines are excellent transitional barriers. Then, finally, switch to open terrain, woodlands, and water.
Lining Past Diversions
Start on the fence line with seen, inline bumpers, usually four. Line pup through on the first run. Prior to release for the second, toss out a mark at a 90-degree angle to the pup/fence (B1). Send for the second inline memory. With each successful lining, narrow the mark close to the line to the memories (B2). If the pup pulls to the mark, recall and shorten the distance to the memory. If problems persist, pick up the marks and begin the experience again with the mark at a wider angle. To avoid boredom, run this drill only once a day with three to four memories. As the dog gains confidence, eliminate the barriers.
x x x x dog/handler
Bumper Lining Drill
Toss out three bumpers in an angle, placing the first some 30 yards out, the next about 20 yards, and the third at about 10. The bumpers are staggered at descending angles from the dog and handler. Establish an angle line of bumpers with the longest bumper directly in front of the dog and others placed progressively closer and at a wider angle to the right or left. Line the dog past the bumper B3 and B2 for the farthest bumper (B1). Follow by picking B2, then finally the closest bumper (B3). This is a great drill for lining on water as well. It may be helpful to initially begin with only two bumpers set at a wider angle. Gradually narrow the placement angle and lengthen the distance to B1.
Other helpful exercises exist, including running a baseball or double T pattern, in which you send the dog through seen bumpers and effectively create a channel. You can also line the pup past a seen mark thrown last for a long mark thrown first by an assistant. Or line the dog in shallow water along a bank's edge to pick in-line bumpers while keeping the dog straight and in the water. Once the dog is proficient on land, move to the water and into field conditions for transitional work.
It is important to teach lining skills before progressing to marking extensions, multiple marks, or hand signals. The dog's ability to effectively hold straight lines to a fall area will make teaching the more complex gundog skills much easier and less confusing to the dog.