"Stop Counting!" Drill
This drill teaches the dog that he cannot rely on his own eyes to tell him how many falls he is about to see. When you bring him to the line, he sees two throwers standing out there in plain sight. Your dog’s experience to-date tells him he is about to run a double mark. But you fool him. You run each fall as a single, using the other as a decoy, so to speak. Back and forth you go like this. Then you sneak in a double. Then back to singles. If you do this often enough, he will lose faith in his own ability to predict how many falls he will see in a given test. This will encourage him to pay attention only to the bird in the air, and ignore extra gunners out in the field.
Purpose of Drill
Most retrievers, while learning double marks, slip into the counterproductive and aggravating habit of "head-swinging."
This drill helps the dog stay focused on each fall as it is thrown for him, rather than to look immediately for another. It also helps him remain focused on each fall, rather than peek back at the previous fall. In other words, it cures, at least temporarily, both types of head-swinging.
The only prerequisite is that your dog has begun to swing his head in either of the two above-described ways on double marks.
Equipment and Facilities
You need two assistants with blank pistols, or two dummy launchers, or one assistant and one dummy launcher. You also need several dummies. You need a suitable field, typically with light to moderate cover and no hazards. You should not make the marks difficult, for you want your dog to succeed easily on each retrieve.
Precautions and Pitfalls
Don’t overwork your dog in any one session.
Process - Steps in Training
Set up a relatively simple double mark for your dog. Both assistants should be visible from the line. If you use dummy launchers, each one should be marked somehow (perhaps with a chair) so your dog can spot them from the line. Heel your dog to the line and let him look at both stations. Then set him up in your normal manner. Signal for either bird. After it’s down, send your dog for it. When he returns with it, set him up again and signal for the other bird. When it’s down, send him. Go back and forth like this a couple of times. Then, give him both falls as a double. Finally, give him each fall as a single again. That’s the total procedure when everything goes right, which it seldom will, at least at first. Now let’s look at how you operate when things don’t go right, that is, when he swings his head during this drill.
If he swings his head toward the other station after a single mark is down, help him re-focus on the single that is down before you send him. If you send him while he’s looking the wrong way-in "See! Serves ya right!" mode-he will learn nothing. He’ll wobble out toward the wrong assistant, and wander all over the pasture. Instead, make sure he’s looking at the mark that was actually thrown before you send him. Then, immediately rerun the same mark. If he swings his head again, repeat the above, and then rerun the same mark again. Do that mark as a single until he doesn’t swing his head two successive times. Then go to the other mark, and repeat this process. When he has succeeded twice on it, too, give him the double.
If, when you intend to give him the double, he swings his head too quickly from the memory bird to the (anticipated) go-bird, don’t signal for the go-bird. Instead, re-focus him on the memory bird and send him for it as a single. Repeat the memory bird as a single until he doesn’t swing his head two successive times. Then try the double again.
If, on the double, after both birds are down, he swings his head back to the memory bird, immediately heel him off-line and have your assistants pick up the birds. In other words, give him nuttin’. When you bring him back to the line, give him the go-bird as a single until he doesn’t swing his head two successive times. Then, try the double again.
If your dog has learned to identify flier stations in dog-games, and consequently does the first type of head-swinging, set up such a double in training. Put three people, two with shotguns, at the flier station. Put either one or two persons at the control bird station. Then run the control bird as a single-again and again and again, until your dog stops swinging around to the flier station before you have shifted around to face the flier. This is a good drill to give such a dog shortly before a test or trial.
James B. Spencer is a well-known retriever trainer, clinician, hunting test judge, as well as an award winning and engaging writer. He is the author of Training Retrievers in Marshes and Meadows, Retriever Training Tests, the companion to this book, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, and several other titles. He writes regularly for Gun Dog and Wildfowl magazines. He resides in the midwest with his wife, Theresa.