Whatever form of shooting we do, when we send a dog out on a retrieve we not only want him to pick the bird but to do so quickly, cleanly and with the minimum of disturbance to other game that could be on the ground. To do this effectively it is an advantage to have a dog that marks the fall of a bird accurately, a dog that has the ability to take a straight line to the bird and can estimate the distance. Some dogs have a natural ability to mark the fall, to pinpoint exactly where that bird hit the ground and I am always amazed watching dogs on the grouse moors that go directly to the fall, when all we can see is a mass of heather and nothing to help us fix the spot. There are dogs that are born with a natural marking ability but there is no doubt that all dogs can have their marking improved through training and experience.
One of the prime indicators of a good marker is a dog that focuses on a bird, and fixes it not only with his eyes but also in his mind. Even if he glances away this dog has a mental picture, which when he looks back to the fall, he compares with the present view until they match once more. We have discussed retrieving and the way to develop a good retrieve in past issues, but for a dog to be a good marker there has to also be a real enthusiasm for the retrieve. He has to really want it, be determined to succeed and not be half hearted in his approach. By this stage you should have been ‘reading’ your pup and getting to know the type of dog you have. Does he sometimes give up on a retrieve before he gets to the fall area? If he cannot find the dummy immediately does he give up and return? On a memory retrieve does he forget where the dummy was dropped? Is he distracted by other scent when out on a retrieve? These and many other questions you should be asking yourself and deciding what needs to be done to create the focus of attention that you require. Often the reason is a lack of effective basic training and a weak relationship with the trainer. So get to know your pup and if the enthusiasm and keenness for the retrieve is not there go back to some of the basics and make the training session the highlight of the day.
To build up experience and confidence of distance throw the dummy to the same place and increase the distance by moving further and further away from that place. In this way your dog is always going back to a confident area, one where he knows he has found dummies before. Throw the dummy near a natural marker, such as a bush, a tree, a tall clump of grass, – something your dog can focus on and if there are no natural markers use a traffic cone or pole stuck into the ground to mark the ‘drop zone’. Initially send your dog for retrieves downwind to encourage him to use his eyes to get to the area, most dogs will also run further with a following wind than one that is blowing into their face. Something many dogs do not like and often will turn away from. These retrieves should be done in light cover to enable your dog to find quickly because nothing succeeds like success. With some dogs I will even use white dummies or a white sock on the dummy to give them an added advantage and succeed quickly. Once your dog is going back to this confidence place successfully, create a different picture by moving around the field but again throwing the dummy back to the same place. In this way you are sending him from different angles, the view and the wind direction will be slightly different and he will have to really focus and concentrate on the place where the dummy fell to take a line to it irrespective of wind direction. As your pup gets the idea of what is required and really begins to pinpoint the fall area you can then start to move to thicker cover where he has to use his nose. In fact thicker cover can be used to advantage when a dog has a propensity to overshoot. Find a clump of heavier grass that is surrounded by open ground. Throw the dummy into this grass and now when the dog overshoots onto open ground he should quickly realize the dummy is not there and work his way back to the cover where, using his nose, he will find. The dog in this way learns to work back along his own line until he hits the scent and with practice can overcome the over-running habit.
For those of us who train alone it is sometimes difficult to give long marked retrieves and send the dog within a few seconds of the dummy hitting the ground. But if your dog enjoys retrieving tennis balls, a good way of sending them a considerable distance is with a tennis racket. Not only can tennis balls be hit a long way but they will bounce and leave a short trail, teaching the dog to use its nose once it gets to the fall area. Tennis balls and dummies can also be launched from a special dummy launcher, should your pocket be deep enough to buy one. But a word of warning, ensure your dog is introduced to shot and especially the sound of the launcher before using it.
Enlist the help of a friend to throw dummies and increase the distance. Some wounded birds may tower and fall way back, some birds will be shot by a dog-less friend and it will be advantageous to develop the ability to mark a bird down up to 100 yards. When someone throws dummies for you, start close and get pup to recognize that a thrower or gun means there will be something to retrieve. Do single retrieves from different angles and help your pup to identify and concentrate on the thrower. The thrower can make a noise (Hey! Hey! Hey! or a trilling sound) to attract the pup’s attention before throwing and can, as distance builds up, use a starting pistol. This will also enable you to introduce shot at a distance and associate it with something pleasant – the retrieve. Although we want the dog to watch the thrower, the dummy should not be so close that the dog runs to the thrower. Pup has to learn to switch from focusing on the thrower to focussing on the dummy as it is thrown. To encourage and guide your dog into a long straight run use a hedge, fence line or even a straight path which your dog follows to the retrieve. Once your dog begins to complete these retrieves with ease, change things. Have the thrower ‘out of the picture’ – hidden behind a bush, have him throw at angles, short and long and to either side of where he is stood, as well as throwing square. The important point is never to stretch your dog beyond it capabilities and when it does encounter a problem go in and help. Often the thrower can do this by moving towards the dummy resting on the ground while making the ‘throwing noise’ to catch the dogs attention. You do not want to do this too often however, or the dog will begin to stop and look to the thrower for assistance. If the thrower has to help regularly you have stretched the dog too far.
Once your dog has really begun to focus on the fall and estimate the distance you can begin to include obstacles such as thicker and varied cover, and falls out of sight behind bushes, reeds, over the brow of a hill or even across a stream or forestry ride. When introducing obstacles, again go back to shorter retrieves and increase the distance gradually. Build on success and never think that you can take big strides based on how your dog is doing at any one particular moment. So many times we are trying to create good marking and we end up attempting to handle the dog instead. This leads to frustration on our part and confusion on the part of the dog. If you are teaching marking, – teach marking. What we are developing is a dog that uses his eyes to pinpoint a fall, get out to the right area and then switch from eyesight to nose ‘sight’ and stick the fall until he finds the bird or the track it has left behind.
There is no doubt that marking is a complex skill and as such needs to be developed carefully and gradually but once achieved it can produce the memorable retrieves we talk of for years.