By Mike Marsh
While anyone can train a retriever basic fetching, it takes a systematic approach to teach more complex retrieves. Basic tenets include teaching the dog to fetch a tossed dummy after it sees and marks the fall, to come to heel on command while holding the dummy and to sit when it hears a whistle. A dog that can do these things flawlessly is a yeoman hunting dog that may also serve as the casual hunter’s house pet. But to make a true hunting retriever that can bring downed game birds to bag, even when they fall in multiples, takes a dedicated training regimen.
While some would like to think there are shortcuts, there really are not. There is, however, a tried-and-true method, a standard used by nearly all professional trainers whether they are turning their retrievers into gun dogs, master hunters in hunt-test circuits or bringing along as field trial hopefuls. The great thing is that this standard training aid, dubbed the “Double-T” layout, can be used by anyone to turn his dog into a better handling hunter. Another excellent training drill is the wagon-wheel lining drill.
The first thing to do is to disregard any time factor. The following training layouts and drills are based on weekly goals the average hunter can expect if he spends a few evenings and weekend days training his dog. Those with more time, sharper skills or highly trainable dogs will accomplish these goals much faster, while others might take a year or longer to finish the basic Double-T.
Rather than the time it takes, the more important thing to remember is not to skip any steps. Get in a hurry and proceed before the last step is ingrained into the dog’s performance and you risk confusing the dog — and frustrating the trainer. If, at any time, the dog appears to have lost its concentration and is having difficulty moving forward in its training, the best thing to do is give it a rest, then go back over a previous step or steps before going on to the new step.
The Double-T layout is exactly that. The vertical leg of the T is 100 yards long, and the crosses to the T are essentially lower case. The crosses are 50 yards wide — 25 yards on either side. Drawing the Double-T and labeling the layout looks like this:
Point A is the farthest point, located at the top and 100 yards from Point B. Point B is the beginning point, from where the dog will always be sent once training is completed. Point C is 75 yards from Point B, perpendicular and 25 yards away from the line between B and A. Point D is 75 yards from Point B, perpendicular and 25 yards to the right of the line between B and A.
Point E is 25 yards from Point B, perpendicular and 25 yards to the left from the line between point A and B. Point D is 25 yards from Point B, perpendicular and 25 yards from the line between Point A and B.
Along the line between Point A and B are the two crossing points to E-F and C-D. The first crossing point at 25 yards from Point B (E-F) is P-1 (Pitcher’s Mound 1). The second crossing (C-D) at 75 yards from Point B is labeled P-2. Centered between P-1 and P-2, 50 yards from Point B, is P-3. Think of Point B as Home Plate. Think of Point A as Second Base. The three Pitcher’s Mounds are in the middle between Points B and A.
In correlation to P-1 first base is located at Point F and third base is located at Point E. In correlation to P-2, first base is located at Point D and third base is located at Point C. From this basic setup, all handling and voice commands are established. This layout can be established on land, in water, or any combination of the two elements as long as its orientation remains the same.
Week 1: Establish the main line, or backbone of the Double-T between Points B and A. Place a white bleach bottle at Point A and a pile of dummies in front of the bottle. From a few yards away, toss a dummy to the pile. Send the dog from heel with a flat hand, fingers down above its head aligned toward the pile and command “back,” or say the dog’s name, and accept the return. Move back to P-2. Send the dog to the pile from heel. If it doesn’t head for the pile, toss a dummy to the pile. Always have a dummy in your hand during any sequence and toss it to appropriate dummy pile if the dog needs visual help. This instills confidence and reinforces the line. Continue moving back to P-3 then P-2 and finally to B. Continue working the dog along the entire length from B to A in short segments until it is ingrained.
Week 2: Establish the bottom of the Double-T, or “Simple-T” (left and right commands). Place a pile of dummies at Point A and move the bleach bottle to Point F. The white bottle provides a visual clue that helps the dog identify piles at new points as training progresses.
Send the dog from Point B to Point A and accept the return. Walk the dog to P-1 and return to B. Toss a dummy to the pile at Point F. The bleach bottle and visual mark will get the dog going in the right direction. Accept the return.
Send the dog to Point A and accept the return. Send the dog toward Point A again and stop it with a whistle at P-1. Extend your right arm and command, “Over.” If the dog has trouble, toss a dummy to the pile at Point F. After every perpendicular retrieve, send the dog to Point A and return it to B to re-establish the main line. Repeat this sequence for Point E, extending the left arm and voicing the “over” command. Once these left and right commands are ingrained proceed to the top of the Double-T.
Weeks 3 and 4: Complete the Double-T. Send the dog from Point B to Point A and accept the return. Send the dog again and stop it with a whistle command at P-2. Extend the left arm to help it identify the bleach bottle at Point C and command, “Over.” The dog should immediately work left, identify the white bottle and the bumper pile. While the dog is returning, move to the right with a right-hand signal to get the dog back on the line between Point B and Point A. This should be the dog’s natural tendency, but it may need help to stay on line during the return. Repeat the sequence for Point D and the Double T is complete.
The training layout now becomes a drill layout. It is used every week or two for mental maintenance and physical fitness. Don’t be surprised if you and your dog make mistakes, especially after lay-offs. The goal is reinforcing training and it is a mentally and physically tough drill for both of you. But any dog/handler team that can complete the Double-T consistently without too many missteps will always be able to pick up multiple birds, whether or not the dog has marked their falls.
Week 5: Establish the multi-mark or wagon-wheel drill. This drill helps the dog take a proper line. Even if it has seen several birds fall (“marks”) it may or may not remember them. Getting the dog started on the right line will either help it remember a mark or help the hunter handle the dog to the bird it has not seen fall once after it is heading in the correct direction. The dog will remember the B-A (Home Plate to Second Base) from the Double-T and head in that direction once it is oriented at heel and sent with a hand signal and the “back” command.
The wagon wheel training drill is conducted on a semi-circle layout. While sophisticated trainers may use a full circle layout, it is difficult for most amateur trainers and hunters to maintain the mental composure it requires.
The semi-circle is 30 yards in radius. The trainer begins with the dog at heel in the center (Point D). The layout appears as spokes of a wagon wheel, with Point D the hub. Point B is straight ahead. Point A is perpendicular to the left. Point C perpendicular to the right.
Place dummies at A, B and C. Sit the dog at heel at Point D. Toss a bumper to A and send the dog. Accept the retrieve. Turn toward point B and make sure the dog pivots to orient itself properly. Patting the pants leg is a common way to get the dog to “click over” to the correct alignment for the next retrieve. Repeat the sequence for Points B and C. Once the lines have been established toss no more dummies. Send the dog and it should remember points where the piles are located. Once the lines have been established, add a line between A and B (Point E) and a line between B and C (Point F). When conducting the drill, it important to be sure the dog is aligned properly before sending it. The backbone of the dog tells the tale. If it is not oriented to the appropriate point, the dog will begin off-course and probably require a whistle-stop and hand-signal correction. Corrections are made with the commands learned through the Double-T.
In the beginning, bleach bottles or white dummies will help the dog identify the various points on the wagon wheel. The reason they are initially spaced at 90-degree intervals is that placing them closer can confuse the dog. The 30-yard distance allows time for correction to get the dog back on line than a shorter distance would allow. It helps to place a piece of carpet at Point D, where the dog will feel it when sitting at heel. The dog feels the carpet and knows it is in the correct location at heel.
Once the lines are ingrained, increased confidence can be instilled by switching to red bumpers, which the dog will have difficulty seeing. This increases trust in the handler in the field, when the dog accepts that it will not always have a visual cue to rely on for making a retrieve.
While some may accept only a Simple-T as complete training, others may want to increase their dog’s capacity by training it beyond the 100-yard distance established for the Double-T. In field trials and in open water hunting, retrieves can span greater distances. However, in hunt tests, judges create retrieves within 100 yards because this distance represents field conditions hunters are likely to encounter. Any dog/handler combination that completes these simple training drills is a team to be counted on, whether vying for a ribbon or hunting wild ducks from a blind.