Simulating What Can Happen on a Shooting Day
Preparing our dogs is not just about developing control it is also creating situations where they can learn by experiencing what can happen in the shooting field. Before we take our dogs onto the real thing we need to set up situations as near to the real thing as possible so they can gain experience at dealing with the difficulties they will encounter in the future. Just because our dog can do a great piece of work on a flat field it does not mean it will be able to do the same in high grass, woodland or cover that is dense and changes. Plus of course there are other factors to take into account as we have discussed in previous issues such as wind, temperature, weather, hazards, water and scenting.
When teaching your dog to understand and be able to deal with different factors that can affect his ability it is important that you attempt to deal with one factor at a time and build up the complexity in easy stages. So think out what you want to work on each time you take him out and concentrate on that. If you want him to deal with brambles or heavy cover, increase the density and amount of work you do in each in small stages. Increase distances of retrieves in small stages and help him to learn how to handle one factor at a time. If you keep it simple and make it so that he succeeds fairly quickly at each stage his confidence and yours will grow at a much faster rate.
As an example, strong side winds and retrieving diagonally up a hill often has a dog fading away from the line of the retrieve therefore when giving him experience of this and the ability to keep his focus on the fall of a bird begin with short retrieves where the dog can easily mark the bird. Dummies which are easily seen, a marker where the dummy has fallen such as a tree or a light colored object, even putting a marker down yourself such as a small flag will help him keep his focus and learn how to keep it on one area. From short retrieves of course you can easily build up to longer ones and then remove the marker once he has learned to maintain his concentration on the fall. This use of markers can help especially where your dog has to negotiate hazards such as trees and bushes which turn him away from a direct line to the fall.
You will want your dog to work to the gun, yours and often another gun you are shooting with. Again start simple so that your dog recognizes that birds fall within a distance of the gun and in a direction where the gun is pointing. In addition it is advantageous to safely fire live shots in the direction of the dummy you have to retrieve to help your dog understand shot scent and what it means. Once he recognizes the relationship between the gun and the retrieve you will find him going to the area where the gun is and working distances from him where he knows he will find the retrieve.
Often birds will fall in woods and all your dog is able to mark is the gun shot, and the sound of the bird falling through the branches and/or hitting the floor. So once more make distances short, create recognizable signals such as the gun shot and noises which help your dog to learn and understand this and build up his confidence and ability to go into woodland and search for a bird within the most probable area of finding it.
The important factor in setting up situations for your dog to experience is identifying what problems your dog will encounter and what can affect his work. Some dogs do not initially like certain cover or water entries; some find marking in certain situations difficult. You have to identify these and help your dog overcome them. On long marks make the beginning of his run to the retrieve simple, he is going to be making decisions on the way out to pick the retrieve so keep them to a minimum until he gains experience at making multiple decisions on the way out. Gradually introduce close up hazards such as walls, fences, patches of high cover, hedges and streams and in this way he learns how to deal with each one on an individual basis before you send him through the multiple hazards he will encounter on a shooting day.
Many times we neglect the need for experience on water. Water can create many problems for our dogs and there is no doubt that for success on water he should be good on land before we entertain anything difficult here. Difficult entries into water over slopes, thick mud, and through cover are only part of the equation. Entering the water at an angle, staying in the water and swimming over to the far side, multiple entries where your dog has to go over water, land and then into water again, plus retrieves over water and for a distance away from the far bank are all situations he has to learn to help him do a good job. To help your dog again build up gradually and even when doing advanced work give him two fairly simple retrieves before adding something slightly more complex. On water it is very important to keep it simple and successful because you cannot go forward to help and he can learn you cannot go forward to correct. On water even more than land you keep the rate of success as high as possible.
In any training session where you are setting up situations and doing multiple retrieves remember to have a balance between the distances he has to work over. Not all retrieves should be long ones. The aim is not to see how far he will run and mark but to teach him distance perception. Some dogs if given long marks continually will become poor at short distance ones and over run them. So we need to mix in short marks with the long ones. It is the same with hunting dogs; sometimes because we want them to enter and work tough cover, when they begin to do this we hunt them in tough cover all the time. They have to be able to deal with all densities and types of cover, even very low grass.
Although we build confidence by increasing the complexity in small stages and making success a high priority, once a dog is marking well at a distance begin to put the retrieves in long cover where he has to keep hunting to get the dummy. When working in long cover it is also good practice to send your dog for retrieves across or through the paths he has been before. In this way he will encounter the scent of the previous birds he brought back, this ‘drag back’ scent will have been left on grass, the ground and in the air and he will learn to ignore it on his way out to the retrieve he needs.
There is one particular set up I have found really helps dogs to understand and grow when teaching blind retrieves. This is often called the three-peat set up. In this we look for a piece of countryside where there are three locations we can put a blind retrieve but they have a similar look to them. In the three-peat we send him from the same place by turning him through angles to see the next location as he returns with each dummy. The ‘picture’ we and the dog sees of each location has to be similar, look familiar, and give him the belief that if he tackles each retrieve in the same way he will and in fact is, successful. It may be that the dog has to run between two bushes or trees for each one. It may be that there is a gateway, a tree or some other identifiable landmark behind each retrieve. Sometimes it is just three paths or hedges you can direct him down. The secret is having a clear ‘picture’ with identifiable markers for three different retrieve locations that are very similar. In this way we are gradually changing positions, wind, maybe even slope and other factors but the dog feels confident as he has seen a similar ‘picture’ before.
Until you have built up the experience of your dog, make each set up as ‘clean’ as possible. In other words, have few complexities. When your dog begins to struggle or has a problem with some aspect of the set up, learn from this, identify the problem and then work at overcoming just that one problem until you can successfully mix it in amongst a more demanding set up.