What are you training for?

I often hear people saying “well, that’s a mark, you shouldn’t cast your dog”. We had a discussion about it as late as this weekend when I attended a course, and it was also discussed on the working test that Lena and I were at on Good Friday. As in so many other discussions, I think that depends very much on one’s understanding. Depending on what you want to do with your retriever, there are different requirements that you need to relate to.

I think everyone agrees that a mark is something that the dog has seen or heard falling and that when you cast, you direct the dog to a specific place. This means that a mark can turn into casting if the handler steps in and controls the dog.

Many trainers in Sweden, are “raised” with SSRK’s B type cold game trials, which is a so-called “trait assessment”. Different traits are evaluated, including the ability to mark. In other words, if the handler steps in and casts the dog to a mark, it becomes difficult to assess the dog’s marking ability. Let’s save the discussion on the fact that even these “traits” are highly trainable and could not have been shown at all unless the handler was involved for another time… 😉

Working test and field trials / mock trials, on the other hand, are competitions, and the dummy / game needs to be delivered to the handler as quickly and efficiently as possible. At the working tests in Sweden, the ideal in order to score the highest points has become that the dog nails the mark without involvement from the handler. Even the smallest signal usually leads to point deduction. The dog searching for the dummy for a while will probably lead to more points deducted than if a signal is needed to get the dog in – so it is always a trade-off for what gives the least points deduction. Some judges will also deduct if the handler points at the marks as they fall or when the dog is to be sent out.

In the A type trials in Sweden and above all the British field trials that are inspiring more and more trials and the training here in Sweden (for example, all Swedish Gundog’s Leagues trials are entirely based on the British field trial rules), you don’t care much about the difference between marking and casting. The game should be retrieved as fast and efficient as possible. If the dog has marked and nails it, that of course is very efficient. But sometimes the terrain makes it difficult for the dog to mark well and sometimes the dog ends up in the wrong wind when coming into the area. Unlike in the B type cold game trials in Sweden, you never know where the game ends up in a field trial. Freshly shot game in rough terrain doesn’t give away as much scent as cold game that has been in the same area for a whole day. It really matters that the dog then ends up in the correct area and stays there, hunting for the game. Even the slightest error when making way to the correct area will make it more and more difficult to get the dog to the area where he can begin searching. In these situations you’ll get to see the nice cooperation between dog and handler, simply working together. In a field trial, the dog will get the chance to continue working as long as he listens to the signals and is doing meaningful things. However, if the dog doesn’t listen or is working in the wrong area, he’ll be recalled and is out of the running.

So where should your thinking be going when training? I want my dogs to be good markers, because I’ll always benefit from that. At the same time, I also want them to be steerable – because if for some reason they didn’t get the mark, or if they end up in the wrong wind, I need to be able to help them. So, I work on both marking ability and casting. Then I adapt to the trial form we’re starting in – or go in with the knowledge that if I don’t adapt, I will get a deduction / remark but I’ll still follow my own handling system. If I have decided to practice the marking ability, I won’t go in and control the dog, but rather redo the mark if there are challenges. If I have decided to practice directing my dog to a mark, I’ll step in and direct the dog as soon as I notice that he’s on the wrong path, for example turning in the wrong direction or getting in the wrong wind. And it is always a challenge – often you’re too late with the whistle, and the dog is already in the wrong place. Or you use the whistle too early – if you had just waited for a bit, the dog might have ended up in the correct spot.

My handling system is not unique, many others have the same. The important thing is just to think through what you want it to look like and that you create a system where both you and your dog know what the different signals mean.

A great many send their dogs on a mark just using the dog’s name, or the cue “retrieve”. If you have multiple dogs that you work at the same time, it is very convenient to send them on different cues. I send using the dog’s name and “retrieve”, or a word that corresponds to the dog’s name because I use the dog’s name as the attention signal, meaning “now it is your turn, but wait for the next cue before you do anything”. I send Keen with the cue “eager” and Diesel with “Diesel – retrieve”.

I stand straight facing the mark that the dog should retrieve and I send the dog when he looks in the right direction. If my dog doesn’t look in the right direction, I’ll help him by pointing with my hand, which may be needed, for example, if it has been a while since the mark fell or if there are many marks to choose from. In training, I try to make sure that I don’t need to use the hand, especially not on direct marks. In that case, I prefer to try the mark again if something goes wrong. If, on the other hand, it is a trial and my dog has missed the mark, I will definitely not send him using the cue for a mark, but instead use the cue for casting.

When casting, I send my dog by putting the whistle in my mouth, stepping forward with my right foot, pointing my hand in the direction he should run and when my dog focuses in the correct direction, cueing “ut” (“back”).

What is your train of thought? How do you send your dog?

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