Jul 20, 2012, 1:02 AM EDT
By Jerry Sather
Back in the “In the Dog House” blogs where we covered the lingo of dog training and performance, we defined “cheating” as the dog intentionally deviating from the direct line from the position at heel next to the handler to the fallen bird and back with it. Dog’s “cheat” because they don’t want to deal with an obstacle of some kind. It can be something they can’t see through or over like a deadfall tree or a patch of thick heavy cover. Very often it’s a water feature of some kind, like a pond or slough. They are following their instinct to travel the path of least resistance rather than their training to run a straight line.
Remember that a big part of training a retriever to the “finished” level is teaching the dog to run a straight line no matter what it encounters in the course of the retrieve. In tests and trials, the straighter the line out and back the higher the dog is scored. In the field, where the Number One goal is to recover birds no matter what it takes, you might believe the straight line isn’t as important, but indeed it is. It’s for the same reason it’s important for the dog to be steady and not leave for the retrieve until commanded to do so.
The surest way for the dog to accurately mark the location of a fallen bird is to watch it all the way to the ground and lock it’s visual focus on that point. Then it should move to that point without ever taking its eyes off it. It’s just like you as a hunter shooting a deer out in a tall grass field. When the deer goes down and “disappears” into that grass, you try to lock your vision on that spot and walk to it without taking your eyes off it. It’s definitely the most efficient way to find downed game.
If the dog travels on a direct line from the handler’s side to the fallen bird, it can do so without ever loosing sight of the mark, but if the dog “cheats” and deviates off the line to go around a pond, there’s no way it can ever regain the exact visual picture it saw when the bird actually fell. Now going a few feet out of the way to avoid jumping over a downed log is one thing, and running hundreds of yards out of the way to go around a pond is another, but retrieving efficiency is all a matter of degree.
Next to losing steadiness over summer vacation, cheating is the next most common bad habit dogs will fall into during the off-season, so it’s one that must be dealt with in tuning up your pooch for hunting season.
Training set ups that help the dog without knowing it’s being helped work well. Start off making retrieves down natural “corridors” like a trail. When it comes to water we train what are called “channel retrieves” which make the dog swim straight down a narrow path of water to a retrieve.
Another key is to start close to obstacles then back away. With water, you start the training at water’s edge. Then as the dog shows “perfection” in handling these simple retrieves you back away five yards, 10 yards, 20 yards, 50 yards, and so on until you’re running from a couple hundred yards or more from the water. Same goes for hard obstacles. Start close and work your way back.
Consistency is crucial in reinforcing “honesty” in your retriever. Just like it only takes a few slip ups on the handler’s part to put a dog into the habit of breaking, it only takes a couple of times when you let your dog get away with cheating for it to begin thinking it’s okay to do so.
Okay, we’ve covered physical conditioning, reinforcement of steadiness and now honesty in this series on tuning your retriever for the upcoming hunting seasons. Next time we’ll talk about dealing with “big birds” that are the first fall pursuits of so many waterfowl hunters these days.
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