Marking off the Gun

Improve your retreiver's marking skills

By Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels - Home of Drake the DU Dog

Marking is a retriever's ability to sight fallen game or a bumper, and accurately remember the exact location of the mark(s), combined with the ability to line to the location and secure the downed game or bumper by sight or scent. Obviously, this is an attribute of utmost importance to the waterfowler and upland game shooter alike. It has been said that great markers are born, but the marking skills of any gundog can be enhanced through practice. For more on marking, please reference the Marking Enhancement series.

Marking encompasses the utilization of several skills that can be influenced through training:

  • Focus and concentration
  • Steadiness
  • Memory (remembering the location of multiple falls)
  • Ability to line to the fall despite influences (terrain, diversions, obstacles or environment)
  • Distance perception
  • Use of nose in the fall area

Preparing the young retriever to mark with accuracy in an actual hunting situation differs from the common methodology employed in field trials and even many working tests. In trials, guns and bird throwers provide "flyers" (bumpers or cold game) and gunfire in the field at variable distances. On the hunt there is no forward-deployed bird thrower or field gunner to attract the dog's attention to the fall area.

The hunting dog must be conditioned to watch carefully at all times at the side of the shooter(s) for effective marking, especially given that shooting occurs without warning often after extended periods of inactivity. Multiple shots and falls may occur, hunters enthusiastically bound from concealed areas firing multiple shots, or they may swing quickly on flushed birds in any direction. The hunter's reaction can prove distracting to the unprepared gundog.

The wingshooter should prepare his or her retriever to "mark off" the gun. Use guns in training to condition young dogs to mark off the shooter's gun barrel, the direction of the pointed barrel and shot, rather than using a thrower's voice, calls, shot or other noises to attract attention to the mark.

Variables

There are three basic types of marking situations when marks of the gun can be utilized:
  1. Dogs positioned by the shooter's side (waterfowl/dove)

  2. Walkup or driven shooting, the dog at heel (upland game)

  3. Flushing (quartering for upland game)

In each of these shooting situations, the young dog can effectively learn to mark game fall by noting the direction of the gun barrel and shot. The barrel guides the eyes and pinpoints the target for the retrieve.

Training Methods

Phase I
The first step is to get the young dog to watch across fields or water for potential marks. The handler stops throwing bumpers as quickly as possible in training - instead use a remote launcher or assistant to attract the attention of the pup. As the thrower appears, the handler whispers, "Watch." Soon, the pup will begin to scan the horizon in anticipation for the "watch" cue. The mark is thrown along with an audible sound from the thrower.

Next, hide the thrower. Use the "watch" cue prior to the flyer's appearance. Accompany the mark with an audible sound from the thrower such as a shot popper, duck call or verbal sound. Begin pointing out the area the flyer will originate at the time of the sound with a long stick, cane, toy gun or a long makeshift gun made by taping a broomstick onto an old rifle stock. These become your pointers. Swing the "gun" as the mark arches high across the sky, and trace it to the ground. Hold the gun on the mark briefly, allowing the image to be established for the pup.

Phase II
After the pup has been carefully introduced to gunfire and is standing under shot and fall, begin to extend the marks. As the mark appears, track the flight path in an exaggerated manner. Wean the young retriever off the audible assistance of the thrower. Point the gun just before the mark is thrown and continue the "watch" cue. The handler fires a popper or shot shell as the flyer appears at the arch of the trajectory. Silent, hidden assistants now throw the bumpers. Be sure the bumper is tossed high initially to provide a clear mark.

Considerations

  • Steadiness must be maintained. Deny 50 percent of the marks.
  • Note any sensitivity to gunfire.
  • Delay release as the pup gains experience. Extend the time between shot/fall and release for the retrieve.
  • Be sure the shooter includes both sitting and standing positions.

Gradually extend the delay period prior to release while adding movement, distractions, noise and conversations. Reload, drop shells and work the calls for a brief period. The retriever must remain focused on the fall area.

Phase III
Construct similar drills using doubles, then multiples. Train from blinds, boats, in water, off elevated stands and while doing walkups at heel. The dog must be exposed to a variety of hunting situations. To begin multiples, place the barrel of the gun a bit in front of the dog's line of sight while at sit or at heel on a walkup. As the bumper flies, swing up on it. The dog's eyes will follow.

To gain perspective on the second mark to follow, simply direct the dog's eyes to the new mark area with the motion of the pointing gun barrel. At first, the thrower may need to provide a bit of noise to attract attention to the second mark, such as a fired cap or blowing a duck call. Again, exaggerate the tracking of the fall as the shot is fired. Dogs quickly grasp the idea that the gun barrel pinpoints the action and that "watch" indicates something important is about to occur.

Phase IV
The dog focuses on the direction of the barrel when the shot is fired. He learns that the shooter's gun will pinpoint the area of the unseen. At this point, bumpers/marks start to come from all directions - behind, overhead and extended distances. You can expand these drills to upland situations while walking the dog at heel in grass fields and woodlands, or for the rough shooter dog working at quarter. In any case, a good marking dog is worth every bit of the training you put into him.