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Double Mark Head-Swinging

by James B. Spencer

Most retrievers, while learning double marks, slip into the counterproductive and aggravating habit of "head-swinging." This fault can take two forms, either of which adversely affects the dog’s marking and memory. In the first type, as soon as the memory bird comes down – sometimes even while it’s still falling-the dog swings his head around to look for the go-bird. This happens most frequently when the memory bird is a control bird and the go-bird is a shot flier. In dog-games, if the guns are visible from the line, a retriever can tell when one station is about to shoot a flier, which is far more exciting than a control bird. Dogs learn to distinguish between the two because three people (one thrower and two shooters with shotguns) normally stand at a flier station, whereas only two (one thrower and one popper with a blank pistol) normally stand at a control bird station. Knowing this, a dog may swing around from the ho-hum control bird to the exciting flier before he has had an adequate opportunity to mark the former. Consequently, he frequently pins the go-bird, but has all sorts of difficulty finding the memory bird.

In a dog-game, about the only defense against this type of head-swinging is to stand so you block your dog’s view of the go-bird station until after the memory bird is down. Some handlers try to keep their dogs from so much as seeing the flier station until then. However, that increases the risk of a break when the flier surprises the dog. So other handlers allow their dogs to see the flier station, but then block it until the memory bird is down. To do this consistently, a person must train his dog to work from either side. That way if the flier is on the right, he can work his dog from his left side, which puts him on the dog’s right side. Similarly, if the flier is on the left, he can work his dog from his right side, which puts him on his dog’s left side.

As stated above, that is about the only defense against this type of head-swinging when it happens at a dog-game. However, by using the drill described below in training, you can prevent it from happening.

In the second type of head-swinging, the dog watches the memory bird well, and swings around to see the go-bird at the proper time, but, before being sent, he looks back around at the memory bird. Then he may even swing his head back and forth several times between the two falls, which can only weaken his marks on both birds. Or he may remain locked in on the memory bird, which dims his memory of the go-bird.

If the handler sends him when he is looking at the memory bird, the dog can make any of three serious mistakes. First, he might go to the memory bird area, establish a hunt, then quickly switch to the go-bird area. Second, he might run through the memory bird area without establishing a hunt and head for the go-bird, thereby disturbing cover between the falls unnecessarily. Third, even if he finds the go-bird satisfactorily, he might, when sent for the memory bird, wonder whether he hasn’t already picked it up, since he started in that direction before retrieving the go-bird. Thus, he might head straight for the go-bird area again, which is returning to an old fall. But let’s say he avoids all three serious mistakes. Let’s say that, when sent initially, he does indeed complete the retrieve of the memory bird first. Let’s even say that he does a better job on it than he would have done had he retrieved the birds in the normal sequence. His mark on the go-bird bird will be weaker than it should be, so his gain on the memory bird is washed out by his loss on the go-bird.

Consequently, whether in a dog-game or in training, if your dog swings his head back to the memory bird after the go-bird is down, you shouldn’t send him until you bring his head (and mind) back to the go-bird. If you send him when he’s looking the wrong way, you can gain nothing, and you risk three serious errors. How should you bring his head back around to the go-bird? If it’s to the right of the memory bird (and your dog is on your left), turn away from him and pat your leg to bring him around. If the go-bird is to the left of the memory bird, turn into and slightly in front of your dog to force him to turn toward the go-bird.

So much for how to deal with both types of head-swinging after the fact. How can you prevent these habits from getting started? Well, you can take a giant step in that direction by training your dog to shift with you as you turn to face each mark just before the bird is thrown. If, instead, you set your dog up in one position at the line and keep him there through both falls, you encourage head-swinging. But if, after the memory bird is down, your dog shifts around with you to face the go-bird station, he will be less inclined to swing his head back to the memory bird after the go-bird is down.

But what if your dog is a chronic breaker? Since shifting between falls encourages such dogs to break, anyone who has one should plant him in one position for both falls. Happily, chronic breakers normally aren’t head-swingers. They lock in so tightly on the most recent bird that you might have difficulty physically bending their heads around to another fall, previous or forthcoming.

If your dog is not a chronic breaker, you should train him to shift with you between falls. He’ll almost certainly still swing his head occasionally, but it won’t become a habit as easily, and the drill described below will be more effective in curing any head-swinging problems he develops.
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