Holding an area may be the aspect that’s easiest to overlook when training, but it’s what can truly make or break a retrieve. In a cold game test, it might work to simply send the dog in the direction of the wind – the area is usually well-trampled if many dogs have been there, so the dog has a good chance of holding the area and staying within it. However, in working tests (with dummies) or field trials/hunting (with live game), the scenting conditions can sometimes be so challenging that there’s almost no scent to be found unless the dog is practically on top of the dummy/game.
I (Elsa) have personally witnessed several such situations, both in trials and in hunting. For instance, when a small game bird has fallen into tall grass or a dummy has landed in a rain-soaked, windless beech forest. In the latter case, the people standing closer to the dummy could see it, but the dogs didn’t pick up the scent until they were 30-50 centimeters away from it (and they couldn’t see it either because it was grayish against the gray-brown ground).
I also experienced it at at a mock trial a while ago: we were given what seemed like a relatively simple mark about 40 meters away, 10 meters in front of the line in a patch of slightly taller grass/some bushes. Surrounding it was semi-tall grass (meadow), and about 20 meters further away was the edge of the forest. I sent Keen to the area, but when I blew the hunt whistle, he was to excited and headed towards the tempting forest edge instead. I stopped him, got him back to the area, blew the hunt whistle again – and he veered towards the forest area once more. The same thing happened a third time (at this point, I was hoping the judge would soon ask me to recall because it didn’t feel like we were doing efficient work). Eventually, we were asked to recall, and during the course of the trial, we saw several dogs do exactly the same thing – they reached the area but didn’t stay and search; they ran too fast and left the area.
So, what am I trying to convey with this? Well, it’s incredibly important not only to teach the dog to use its nose when it hears the hunt whistle but also to slow down and search at a deliberate pace to have time to pick up the scent and stay within the area without expanding it too quickly.
This is something I’ve actually trained a lot with Keen, despite it not being evident in the trial. However, he needs even more training in this regard. Transitioning from running fast to hunting slowly and methodically is very challenging for him. If there’s scent in the area or natural obstacles to slow him down, it becomes easier, but in situations where there isn’t (such as an open field), it’s very tough. When I blow the hunt whistle, I don’t want him to hunt just because there might be scent; I want him to hunt to find scent, and for that, he needs to hunt at a balanced pace.
The video below shows the end of a training session where we’ve focused extensively on holding an area, and we’ve achieved the precise outcome I want. Because Keen is so fast, I almost always stop him before blowing the hunt whistle (unless I see that he’s going directly into the wind or picks up the scent without me needing to blow). After the stop, I also give him a moment to gather himself before blowing the hunt whistle. In the video, I send Keen on a blind retrieve to the center of a large field. I’ve hidden a few small dummies there, so he really has to hunt to find them. Additionally, before blowing the hunt whistle, a friend throws a distraction marked retrieve some distance away.
Good luck with your training!