Commit it to Memory
Whether duck shooting or picking up on estates one of the most valuable assets of a gundog is his ability to remember where birds have fallen. Often on a formal shoot you will be asked not to pick up until the end of a drive and on a duck flight you don’t want your dog going out to pick birds when others are flighting in, so the ability to remember where birds have fallen is a big advantage. However this is not the only reason to work at building up your dog’s ability to remember where birds have fallen, or, in training, dummies have dropped. In creating a memory you are also expanding your dogs intelligence and ability to work with you and in doing so can create many training exercises which will help handle a multitude of situations in the future. It enables you to create a confidence and trust in you from your dog and also the ability to develop good unseen retrieves from him when you require it. You want your dog to believe you when you tell him that there is a bird down that he has not seen. This may be a bird that is wounded or floating away and you want to pick this before getting the ones that are dead and will be easier to retrieve afterwards. The development of the memory retrieve will definitely help you to achieve this,
From a very early age, once you have a keen retrieve, with your dog on the lead let him watch as you drop a dummy and then walk him away from it. At first he will want to go back to pick it and struggle a little but encourage him along and after walking only a very short distance (5 to 10 yards) turn him around, slip him off the lead and with a clear signal tell him to fetch. If he is already steady tell him to sit first and with a clear direction with your hand and a verbal command send him. If he is not steady tell him to sit and firmly but gently hold him in front of his chest as you remove the lead and then send him. Some dogs as you walk away very quickly forget about the dummy you have dropped, so do not walk too far the first few times and make it easy to see the dummy as you turn around and face it. With just a few repetitions, you will find that when a dog sees you drop a dummy up close he realizes that you are going to walk away and he begins to walk happily with you. Increase the distance you walk away from the dummy in small stages until you can turn him around and send him back 50 yards or more. I begin to introduce another command at this stage that means that he will be sent for something that he has not seen fall from the sky. I say ‘Back’. At first a dog may not understand this command but will usually interpret the hand moving forward alongside his head as the signal to go fetch. If he does not, say, “Back (followed by)….. Fetch” just to clarify the situation and encourage him for the retrieve. In a short time he will begin to leave you and go out to the word “Back”. As we progress you want your dog to understand that ‘Back’ means go out away from you for something you have not seen down. ‘Fetch’ means go for something you have seen down. Make it clear in his mind through these commands exactly what is expected so that he will trust your judgment and have the confidence to go away from you knowing that he will find something even if he has not seen it fall.
Once you have him confidently remembering and going back you can now begin to vary the lie of the dummy. Down a path or alongside a fence is a good place to drop a dummy, as this will guide him back to the fall on a straight line. To create more initiative and problem solving in your dog, as you walk down a path begin to throw the dummy a short distance away from you, and then one or two yards into the undergrowth. Gradually increase this distance as he learns what he has to do to get the retrieve. Now he has to go into cover and search with his nose. As you walk over the brow of a hill drop a dummy just before the brow so that when you turn him around he cannot see it and learns to go past the crest of a hill and often then out of sight. Use a tennis ball and roll it away from you so he has to go back to the area and then use his nose to track the line it rolled. Often at this stage I begin to use what I call ‘confidence areas’, these are places where I regularly drop a dummy and the dog becomes confident at going back to them and finding his reward. Usually I make these an area a dog can really focus on such as near a distinctive tree, a large post, the corner of a field or the cross roads where two paths meet. These visual clues give a dog the ability to learn much more rapidly and I prefer corners of fields or a large fence post where there is a fence or hedge because then the dog will not overshoot and go hunting too far out. When that happens it can sometimes be very difficult to bring the dog closer at this stage, as he believes he is hunting where the dummy is lying and will not always accept your command. Should it happen that he does run too far out and does come towards you on a recall, most of the time he will come all the way back, miss the dummy, and then begin to lose confidence in you. So this training to get him to come closer and continue to hunt has to be handled very carefully.
One of the big faults we create as a trainer is that we want the dog to find the dummy too quickly and try to handle him. It is better to let him keep hunting and walk closer to him where you can encourage him gradually back to you while hunting and he can find the dummy. In this way he learns that you are helping him and that if he does hunt back towards you he will be successful. Attempting to stop your dog on the whistle and handle at ranges where he has not been taught to stop can lead to a loss of patience and a break down in the partnership. Give him the opportunity and time to work out some of the problems himself and in this way he will gain experience. Realize what your dog is capable of at each stage and do not try to do more than is possible and practical but help him succeed. In this way you will build up confidence in yourself and your dogs and a true partnership that works together.
Another problem often encountered is with a dog that gets to the ‘fall’ area but quickly looses confidence when it cannot find immediately and returns. Usually more short memory retrieves will help, and certainly marked retrieves in longish grass using a difficult to see tennis ball will encourage him to hunt more. However to increase his chances of success put down more than one dummy about one or two yards apart. In this way there is more likelihood of him finding quickly. As his confidence increases you can then reduce the number of dummies you ‘plant’ and he will begin to hunt longer. With this ‘seeding’ of the ground with dummies, do not be too concerned if he sees a second one while carrying another and changes them or attempts to pick up two. Just move towards him encouraging him to bring in the one he is carrying. Although we do not want our dogs to run around a field swapping birds, this part of the exercise can teach him through encouragement and control to bring in the one he has in his mouth first and ignore others he see laying there. Never be too harsh when this happens, he will learn to come back with the one he first picked if you develop control through the basics we discussed in earlier articles, especially a speedy recall. In fact, if he has seen another dummy lying in the grass, use this as an opportunity to teach him another skill. The moment he has delivered the one in his mouth to you, turn him around and send him back for the one he saw. Now we have a dog that is beginning to use his memory, work with you and believe you when you tell him that there is a bird out there to be picked even though he has brought one back.
Developing a dog’s memory, creating trust in your commands, having him hunt in the right areas and find those elusive birds that you would never be able to find otherwise are essential in many shooting situations. In woodland, deep rushes, heavy reeds and thick undergrowth your dog will regularly miss the fall of a bird, or see and hear more than one down. To put these birds in the bag we need to develop a shooting companion that has a brain and be able to work with you to deal with these complex situation. Building the memory of your dog and his ability to think during training is an important part of developing these invaluable skills, and it is beautiful to watch in action!