Teaching a Dog to Mark
By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard
This is the third column in our series on developing marking ability
in young retrievers.
Introducing a Pup to Cover
In our last two articles, we stressed the importance of getting your
young retriever to use his eyes when marking. He needs to learn to
use his eyes BEFORE he becomes dependent on his nose.
The pup will have trouble learning to use his eyes if you throw his
first marks in cover. With cover obscuring the retrieve object, he'll
quickly learn that scent tells him the location of the object he seeks.
So early marks for young retrievers should always land in the open,
even if the dog will be passing through cover on the way out.
But you don't want your pup unwilling to penetrate or hunt in cover
simply because he's always expected the bird or bumper to be lying
in the open. So now its time to introduce cover. One good way to do
this is to hand throw a bumper into cover so that it lands a VERY
short distance from the dog, - no more than 10 feet.
Also, throw so the bumper lands only a foot or two into the cover.
From such a close distance, the dog can see exactly where it fell.
A few such retrieves and he will be eager to hunt cover. Then he will
be ready for some longer marks that fall in cover.
To keep him from just hunting wildly all over the place, or pushing
through the cover and running around in the open space beyond, keep
these marks short at first, quite a bit shorter than the other marks
you throw for him. This way he will be able to let his eyes tell him
that the mark fell INTO the cover, and he should confine his hunt
and root it out. He will develop good habits instead of poor ones.
Lengthening a Dog Out
The first rule when lengthening a dog out is to do it GRADUALLY, and
only after laying a good foundation with shorter marks. Retriever
pups rarely lack enthusiasm for marks, so it's tempting to lengthen
them out too quickly. If the marks are too long for the pup's level,
he will start marking the thrower and some of the motion, rather than
the fall itself.
Once you start lengthening out the marks, another common mistake is
to build distance too rapidly. This mistake can have the same undesirable
consequence as lengthening too soon. In both situations, the dog may
learn to run straight at the thrower. Then, when he is a few yards
from the thrower, he'll finally veer off to the side and set up a
hunt. We would prefer that the young retriever develop the habit of
running straight at the fallen bird instead!
In our last two columns we established methods of teaching the dog
to run toward the fall instead of toward the thrower. Diagram A shows
a technique to maintain that habit when you first start lengthening
a pup's marks. In this throwing pattern, the influences combine to
keep the pup off the thrower, despite the fact that he is now running
farther than he's used to going.
Teaching the Dog Where to Slow Down
Overrunning marks is a common mistake of enthusiastic young dogs.
Often this happens not because the dog actually mismarks where the
bird fell, but because in his exuberance he's not concentrating on
slowing down. If his marking was started as we described in our last
two articles, with emphasis on teaching the dog to mark a "spot on
the ground," then a lot of the work to teach the "slow down and look
for it" idea will have been done.
Here are several additional techniques for teaching a young dog to
gauge the depth of marks.
- Patch Marks. Throw single marks into patches of cover that
are surrounded by open ground.
- Downhill Marking Drill. Run the dog downhill to marks that
are thrown in a flat area beyond the base of the hill. Throw a
succession of single marks, each somewhat shorter than the last.
The need to control his own momentum--momentum that is created
by the steep downhill start--will teach him to think about depth.
- Marking Drill. Set up five throwing stations in long and
short positions. We like to place them at the points of an imaginary
"W." Run five singles, alternating between long and short throwers.
To add an additional "think about it!" element, have some marks
thrown angle back, and some "square". (If you can't get five throwers
together, you can set out five chairs and have one thrower walk
among them, but five people in the field at one time will make
this drill more effective.)
- Cover Strip Marking Drills. Throw to the edge of cover.
There are two different ways to use a cover strip for this purpose.
They are shown in Diagrams B and C.
- Thrower-Based Depth Drills. For dogs with consistent "overrunning"
problems, there are several drills that teach the dog to rely on
the position of the thrower as a cue to slow down and start looking
for the bird. We show one of these in Diagram D.
What to do if the Dog Fails?
Help or Handle?
Much of the benefit of these types of drills comes from letting the
dog figure it out on his own. However, if his hunt is so far out of
the area that it is going to be unproductive, or if he may overheat
from too much hunting, then he needs help. Also, if the youngster
starts to return to a place where he previously found a bird during
the drill, the thrower should immediately attract him away from it
and back into the area of the new fall.
We generally prefer to have the young dog helped by the thrower, rather
than handled to the bird. A good thrower knows how to give the dog
the least amount of help required to get him to hunt the correct area
without the dog realizing he's being helped. This prevents the dog
from expecting the thrower to "bail him out."
How much thrower activity is needed to help a dog hunt productively
varies with the dog's temperament, with the nature of his error, and
with his prior experience at being helped. Some techniques the thrower
can use to help a "lost" dog include the following:
- Standing up to create a visual attraction.
- Making a sound attraction.
- Taking a few steps toward the bird while the dog is watching.
- Moving relative to the bird while the dog is NOT watching, so
as to influence the dog's hunt more toward the bird's location.
We think that it is rarely beneficial to repeat the type of marks
that are used to help a dog learn pure marking (as opposed to marking
"concepts" that really present lining issues). Instead of repeating
the exact marks thrown in the above drills, set up the same drill
in a different location and your dog will get more out of it.