Marking Drillsby George Hickox
There are two fundamental requirements if a dog is to become a fine retriever: exceptional marking ability and an excellent nose. Although there is no substitute for genetics, both of these traits can be honed by experience. The more opportunity your flusher has to mark and retrieve fallen birds, the better it will be at performing these duties.
Most of us would prefer not having to wait until a dog has five or six hunting seasons under its collar before it excels at these jobs. Fortunately, appropriate training will accelerate the dog's development into an outstanding retriever. You started this process early. Your pup got considerable experience with birds during your sessions in the retrieving corridor and received even more while picking up lockwings, clipwings and shot flyers during patterning drills. Indeed, by this point in your dog's training, simply shooting numerous flyers for it will have improved its skills significantly. The dog should now be marking birds well and delivering them to you consistently.
Your dog's ability to mark to pinpoint the location of the fall can be improved with specifically designed marking drills. Initially, you should conduct these exercises in a low-cut field rather than an area of high cover where your pup can't readily find thrown birds and training dummies. Ideally, you should have two helpers to do the throwing, and there is an important reason for this. If you always throw the marks yourself, your pup will think it should always look for the bird or dummy to come from your side. In real hunting situations, of course, the bird will first appear well ahead of the gunner. Thus, the dog must learn to focus out in front and not fixate on the handler.
In addition, there is a limit to how far you can hand-throw a dummy or bird, and your dog will get in the habit of running that distance and no more. Such retrieves are well short of the falls it will encounter in the field. By varying the positions of your helpers when they make their throws, you will help the dog learn to mark long falls as well as short ones.
To set up a marking drill, once again think of a baseball diamond and picture yourself standing on the pitcher's mound. Start by placing one helper in "left field" and another in "right field," both about 30 yards away. With your dog at your side, have one of the helpers call the dog's name (or whistle to get its attention), then toss a dummy. The dummy should be thrown in a high arc to make sure the dog sees it clearly, and it should not land too close to the assistant. Send the dog for the retrieve. When the dog brings the dummy back and is repositioned at your side, have the other helper throw his dummy. Send the dog for that retrieve. As the dog runs out, backpedal toward "home plate," and receive the bumper there. By gradually increasing the distance between you and your assistants, the dog will learn to sharpen its concentration on the mark.
Instead of dummies, you can use clipwinged pigeons in marking drills. These birds will fly 20 to 30 yards, forcing the dog to focus on the mark for a longer time. Of course, live birds will instill more enthusiasm in the dog during these training exercises. So will employing a gunshot to prompt your dog to look for a mark. (Of course, it is imperative that the dog has been properly introduced to gunfire, and it should be line-steady or steady to wing & shot.) With your flusher at your side, fire the gun, whether it is a .22 blank pistol or a shotgun with popper loads. At the shot, your assistant should throw the mark. When it hits the ground, send the dog.