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Losing the Mark

When should you step in and handle?

After you've trained young Feather-Fetcher to do blind retrieves, you will occasionally have to handle him (with blind retrieve whistle and arm signals) to a bird he marked but has apparently forgotten. The most difficult, and the most critical part of this process is deciding whether, in a given situation, you should toot the sit-whistle and start handling.

If you handle your retriever when he doesn't need help, you can damage self-confidence in his marking ability. If you do it too often, he'll stop trying to find birds on his own and rely totally on your assistance. He might even start running out to the area of the fall and immediately be "popping," that is, turn to face you, sit down and ask for directions. Then, you will have to mark every bird very well or risk losing it. Retrievers are bred to mark well so their owners won't have to. A well-bred retriever can mark far better than a typical owner.

On the other hand, if you don't handle him when he really needs your assistance, he might run all over the area. Handling him back to the bird you shot will be much more difficult and time-consuming. And it won't endear either you or your dog to your hunting buddies.

Making the Decision
Clearly, your decision as to whether or not your dog has lost his mark is critical. The criterion sounds so simple: Your retriever has lost his mark when he either hunts extensively out of the "area of the fall" or hunts without his usual intensity within that area.

The November issue Retrievers column explained how to determine the area of the fall for any given mark.

As long as your dog is hunting industriously within that area, you should not blow your whistle. Nor should you holler encouragement. You shouldn't distract the dog in any way. Let him do the job he was bred to do. If that takes a little longer than you think it should, so what? Do you always complete every job on time? Let him hunt! He's enjoying himself, and every true retrieverite loves to watch a well-bred animal hunt the area of a fall thoroughly until he finds the bird.


However, if the retriever wanders out of the area of the fall and hunts elsewhere for some time, you can assume he has lost the mark. Similarly, if the retriever loses intensity, even while hunting within the area of the fall, he has lost his mark. As soon as you are convinced the dog hasn't the least idea of the bird's whereabouts, step in and take appropriate action. What constitutes appropriate action depends on whether you are in a training session, actually hunting, or participating in a hunt test or field trial.

Handling in a Training Session
If Feather-Fetcher loses the mark in a training session, you should almost never handle him to the bird. In training session marking tests, you're trying improve your dog's marking ability, so handling him to a mismarked bird tends to be counter-productive.

Instead, you should take the following three corrective steps:

First, to convince him you are not overjoyed, vocalize your displeasure with heartfelt emotion: "Hey, you! What are you doing out there?" This will prevent him from looking forward to the assistance he is about to receive.

Second, have your thrower pick up the bird, get your dog's attention, and toss the bird straight up so it will land again where it fell the first time. Your dog will pick it up and bring it to you. "Good dog!" Say no more.

Third, you should immediately rerun the test exactly as you ran it the first time. Your dog now knows precisely where the bird is, so should mark it well. This is like sighting in a rifle by firing repeated shots at the same bull's eye.

As stated above, you should almost never handle your retriever to a mismarked bird in a training session. But you should handle him occasionally, just to make sure he will accept your assistance when necessary.

Some dogs, usually excellent markers, have such confidence in themselves that they respond most grudgingly to handling on marks, with frequent slipped whistles and cast refusals.

Handling While Hunting
In hunting, as soon as you're sure your dog has lost his mark, you should start handling him. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to recover every bird, many hunters tend to begin handling too soon rather than too late. Some start tooting whistles and waving arms frantically even before their poor beasts have reached the area of the fall. Nothing could do more damage to a dog's marking ability.

Control yourself. Let your dog hunt as long as he hunts intensely within the area of the fall. Obviously, since the dog is where he belongs, he has marked the bird. Besides, the dog has his nose to help him, while you have only your eyes.

However, when he either abandons the area of the fall or loses his intensity, you should step in and help him. Toot the sit-whistle and cast him toward the downwind side of the bird.

Once you begin handling, continue doing so until the retriever has the bird in his mouth.

If he takes your cast only a short distance and then resumes hunting on his own, toot the sit-whistle again and give him another cast. Once you start handling, you should not let him again go in business for himself. If you allow it, his handling will deteriorate rapidly, even on blind retrieves, especially if the dog is an excellent marker that resists handling in general.

However, if he suddenly takes off on a beeline, or even a zigzag beeline, he might be chasing a running crippled bird. In this case, you should let him go, let him use his nose.

Handling in Competitions
During a hunt test or field trial, the rules and customs of the sport necessarily affect your decision whether you should handle or hope. In both sports, the judges run marking tests to test the dog's marking ability and blind retrieves to test his responses to handling.

Ideally, a dog should pin every mark and line every blind. I've never seen it accomplished, but the closer your dog comes to that ideal, the better his score.

Clearly, in both sports, handling on a mark hurts a dog. A dog can usually survive after being handled to one mark out of four to maybe 15, but will probably be dropped after being handled to a second one. Therefore, whether you decide to handle or not depends on your circumstances.

In a pass/fail hunt test, if your retriever has done well all the way to the last mark, you can safely handle withou

t fear of failure for handling. However, in the first series, you might decide to let him hunt a little longer rather than handle, lest you have to handle again later in the day.

In a competitive field trial, you face a bewildering array of factors that can affect your decision on whether to handle. If you need a win to complete your dog's AFC title, you will handle reluctantly. If you need only a JAM to make your dog a Qualified All Age dog, you will handle more quickly.

However, in both of these dog games, common sense must override fanciful hopes and expectations. If you know your retriever has lost his mark, the judges also know it. Even if your dog eventually finds the bird after a long out-of-area hunt, he will be penalized at least as much as he would have been if you had handled him. Darrell Kincaid, the finest retriever judge I ever knew, called such a performance an "LMSOB" (Lost Mark — Stumbled on Bird) and penalized it severely. Therefore, when your retriever loses his mark under judgment, you can let him hunt a little longer, but you shouldn't allow him make you both look bad with a long out-of-area or out-of-gas hunt.

Jim Spencer's books are available from the Wildfowl bookshelf, including Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadow, Retriever Training Tests, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, Retriever Hunt Tests: A Handler's guide to Success, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.

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