If your retriever, Ole Magic Marker (hereinafter referred to as “OMM”), has been lying around the homestead since last hunting season, he needs a “tune-up” before this season. Remember last year? He started out really sharp, earning “oohs” and “aahs” from your buddies. His marking remained uncanny all season long, but his responses to control commands gradually deteriorated. He sometimes broke; he slipped some whistles; he held your casts for shorter distances; and so on. But you overlooked all this because he was still picking up your birds, even though that became more and more of a challenge as the season progressed. You forgave and forgot as soon as he plopped another bird into your outstretched mitt.
Now, if you don’t give OMM a preseason tune-up, he’ll start this season where he left off and continue deteriorating from there. So why not devote the seemingly useless month of August to that effort? Granted, August’s hot weather necessitates certain precautions to keep OMM from dying from a heat stroke. But otherwise, it’s ideal.
You should limit this tune-up to basic training in the various control commands for which OMM has lost appropriate respect: basic obedience commands (heel, come, sit, down, stay, OK); lining; the sit-whistle; and arm signals (over, back, come-in). You should add a few simple marking tests, mostly singles, but an occasional double. That’s all you need, and all you have time for.
For starters, devote 15 minutes each morning to the basic obedience commands in the backyard. Put OMM on lead; heel him around the yard, going slow, normal, and fast, turning this way and that. Stop often and insist he sit immediately. If your neighbors won’t shoot both of you, you might even use the sit-whistle for these stops.
Using a check-cord, have him sit, say “stay,” and walk away. If he moves with you, correct him and start over. When he shows adequate respect for “stay,” walk away and call him to you with “come.” When he gets to you, have him either sit in front or move to the heel position, depending on how you have him deliver birds. To keep him guessing, only call him to you about once every three times you leave him after “stay.” Occasionally, before leaving him, have him lie down with “down” before walking away. At the end of each session, release him with “OK” (or whatever release command you use) so he’ll know he’s no longer under control (very important for a happy relationship).
After he obeys these commands regularly, introduce distractions to help convince him nothing matters more than your commands. Have your wife, or one of your kids, suddenly appear and start talking excitedly while OMM is on command. If he “bites” (sorry, couldn’t resist) and moves, correct him. Repeat this drill with various distractions from time to time.
During those early-morning backyard obedience sessions, you can also refresh him on the proper canine attitude toward decoys. Before starting, spread a few decoys around the yard. Then heel him among them, making a correction if he so much as sniffs one in passing. Have him “stay” in the middle of the decoys and then “come” to you through them. Finally, after he understands how one-way you are about undue attention to decoys, toss a dummy among them for him to retrieve.
Sitting on the Whistle
To obey the sit-whistle properly, OMM should almost skid to a stop, turn to face you, plunk it down, pop his head up, and focus intently on you, awaiting instructions. You can’t intimidate OMM into responding so positively, but you can motivate him into doing so happily. Just use the following simple technique, which you can use in a large backyard. But, if your backyard is too small, add it to the end of your field-training sessions.
Don your hunting vest and stick an easy-to-find white dummy in the game bag. Now turn OMM loose with “OK” and let him romp about freely. When he’s paying no attention to you, toot the sit-whistle. If he ignores it (“slips a whistle”), correct him as you did when first teaching this skill. Let him romp again and when he’s once more totally distracted, toot the sit-whistle again. Continue drilling this until he sits fairly promptly.
Then, after he’s sitting, toss the dummy straight behind you. If he breaks, stop him and put him back where he belongs. Then, send him to retrieve the dummy. He’ll think, “Wow, what a great new game!”
Before repeating this drill, let him romp a long time, to keep him from anticipating the sit-whistle. You always want it to surprise him. I usually give only two well-spaced sit-whistles per session.
When he remains steady after you toss the dummy, start tossing to his left and right side, so you can work the “over” casts into this drill. Then, toss it between him and you, for the “come-in” cast. Eventually, you can toss it over his head and straight behind him, for the “back” cast.
If you do this drill in your training grounds instead of your backyard, you should set it up so at least some of the casts are into water. That will keep OMM wet and safe from over-heating. Throughout this work, use a white dummy so he can find it easily. If he has to go into a hunt to find the dummy, he’ll stop carrying your casts as far as you want him to.
Lining & Marking
You should refresh OMM’s lining with whatever drills you used initially to teach to take and carry a line (to a blind retrieve). Or, if you’d like to learn some different lining drills, get a copy of my book, “Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves,” from the WILDFOWL Bookshelf.
Since August is usually very hot, and dogs are so much more susceptible to heat than humans, you should do all your lining drills in water. Hey, you’re a waterfowler, so most of OMM’s real blind retrieves will probably be in water. If you want to add some lining drills on land to this refresher course, make them mostly on land, but partially through water. That will keep OMM wet and cool.
During this tune-up, give OMM a few very basic marking tests, again in or through water. For this, you need a couple of training buddies or remote launchers. You can use retrieving dummies, but a dead duck would be better.
Keep your marking tests short and simple. You don’t have time to get fancy. You simply want to re-awaken OMM’s fabulous marking talents, and remind him of his manners.
So, set up a simple single mark in or through water. When the bird goes up, shoulder your empty shotgun and fire a blank pistol two or three times while the bird’s in the air. If OMM breaks, correct him appropriately and try again. If he sits steady this time, send him to retrieve. On the rerun, if he sits steady, wait a few seconds, and fire a couple more shots from your blank pistol, as if sluicing a cripple. If OMM breaks correct him, and so on.
Later, you can mix in a few doubles, using the same steadying techniques. But most of these marks should be singles, because they really sharpen up a dog’s concentration and marking. Doubles are mostly for memory work.