BASED ON ORIGINAL MATERIAL BY PIPPA MATTINSON, UPDATED BY HEATHER JULIE CLAYTON FOR THE GUNDOG CLUB – OCTOBER 2021
Gundog training can seem complicated. And in some ways, it is. It helps to have a clear path to follow, a plan.
This helps us to make our way from one step, to the next, without worrying too much about the final destination.
There are many different paths we could take, and different instructors have different paths to get to the same place.
But sometimes when we are just starting out, we just want someone to tell us ‘this way’ – not to hear a dozen different ways and try to pick one that sounds suitable. The Gundog Club grades can help you with this.
Let’s have a look at retriever training as an example.
Go with the flow
As you can see from this diagram, there are two types of retrieve, and these both share some of the same key training processes – that’s the list in the middle.
In theory, with good marking and lining skills, a dog being sent on a mark should not have to be handled too much.
In practice of course, sometimes the dog will not mark accurately enough. And will need to be handled, but the main use and purpose of handling is for blind retrieves.
What we have in the list of things to train for retrieving is a list of six skills
Very often the novice trainer has no idea what order to teach these skills in. In some cases it doesn’t matter. In other cases the skills involved need to be built on other skills, so these foundation skills must come first. Or at least progress at a parallel rate.
So in many cases we work on one skill a little, then on another, then back to the first again, so that we make progress evenly across the skills that are interlinked. We make a little progress in one direction, and then a little progress in another.
Breaking it down into stages
Each of the skills listed above needs to be trained in stages. Let’s take marking for example.
Marking is the most basic form of retrieve. The dog sees you throw a dummy and races after it.
With a little practice, he gets better at judging distances and building mental pictures of where that dummy is located.
At first, marking is about the eyes, rather than the nose.
Later, as the marks get more complex, more distant, and fall into thick cover, we’ll be relying on the nose a lot more. But with marking, the eyes should be what steers the dog whilst his retrieving drive powers him forward to the area of fall.
Keeping him keen
The reason we need to be careful to break this process down into stages, is to make sure we don’t damage the engine that powers the dog – his desire to retrieve.
We can’t practice so much that the puppy loses his desire. Nor make the challenge so hard that the puppy loses his confidence.
Marks need to be short at first. If they are too far away, the puppy will start hunting before he reaches the area of fall and this is something you want to avoid.
Because we want the puppy to use his eyes, not his nose, at this point, we start with short marks on an open clear surface, then progress to longer marks still on an open clear surface.
We also follow an important training rule: when you make one aspect of the task harder, make all the other aspects of the task easier.
So when we progress to retrieving in short cover, we go back and make the marks shorter. Lengthening them slowly as the dog’s skill grows.
When we move on to deep cover, we repeat the process again, throwing very short marks to begin with, then making them gradually longer.
A complicated mix
The problem is, if you then apply this process to all the other skills involved in retrieving, and then try to combine them, you can see just how complicated things are becoming.
Do you start teaching the stop whistle before or after introducing marks in cover? How far should your dog be lining before you introduce remote stops?
What about casting? Does that come before lining or afterward? How much progress with casting should you make before you start cold blinds?
There is no single right and wrong answer.
Trying to make sense of all this is one of the aims of the Gundog Club training scheme, which breaks training down into individual stages using grades.
At each grade the various skills you need are tested and the levels of difficulty increase incrementally as you work your way through the system.
The requirements of each grade tell you how far along you should be in each of the skills.
Building your retriever
Retriever training combines your dog’s natural instincts with a range of learned skills. No two trainers will follow the exact same route to a fully finished retriever, and this can be very confusing to newcomers to our sport.
In upcoming articles we’ll look in more detail at each type of grade and at how you can fit your training programme right into them. So that it makes sense, and you make progress evenly across all the skills you need to build an efficient gundog.