The 'miracle' of handling

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series on teaching your dog to take handle with the use of hand and whistle signals. For part two, click here.

I still remember that morning in November of 1986 as if it were yesterday. I was hunting on a large reservoir near Mexico, Mo., with my friend Richard Petty (not the race car driver) when four widgeon came screaming through our decoys about 35 yards out.

We rose at the same time and emptied both barrels of our doubles. Two birds immediately folded in the decoys, and two sailed over the blind and dropped about 80 yards out in the field behind us.

Richard yelled "back" to his black lab, Delta, and she burst into the water for one of the drakes in the decoys. I instinctively started out of the blind to pick up one of the ducks that landed behind us, birds the dog could not have seen.

Richard looked at me as though I had lost my mind, and asked what the heck I was doing.

"Going after the birds, of course", I replied.

"Let the dog get them", he shot back.

"Look, Bud, I know that Delta is good, but unless she has eyes in the back of her head there is no way she saw those ducks fall," I said.

"So I will run them as a blind," he said taking the second marked retrieve from Delta. With that he turned the dog to the milo field behind us, yelled "back" and sent the dog flying out in the direction of the downed birds. A few whistles and casts later both birds were in the blind and I was speechless. Never in my life had I seen a dog run a blind retrieve. I was utterly amazed by the miracle of her handling.

Almost twenty years later I still find dogs that handle amazing. However, I now know that running a blind isn't a miracle, it's merely a function of good training. It is my belief that almost any retriever with a strong drive to retrieve can be taught to handle. The key is to approach training methodically and consistently, as though you are building a structure. That means that you must have a plan — and you must follow it.

Starting with a good foundation

Like building a house, the job of teaching a dog to handle starts with a good foundation. At our kennels all training is broken into three basic phases: foundation training, yard work and advanced field work.

Foundation training begins very early and includes introduction to retrieving, fun bumpers, basic obedience, force-fetch, and collar conditioning. We start playing handling games with our pups when they're as young as four or five months old.

We do this very informally and we keep it fun. The goal of this early work is to simply set the stage for later training by developing the pup's desire to retrieve and teaching the simple mechanics of casting.

At the conclusion of this phase the successful pup will be obedient to voice and whistle, fetching on command and delivering to hand. And hopefully it will be focused. It will understand the mechanics of "over" and "back", and will have a good attitude toward work.

Building with a blueprint

With foundation training behind us, more structured yard work begins. It is at this point that many people fail in training their dog to handle because the task seems too complex — much like building a house without a plan. To avoid being overwhelmed we use the following seven-step blueprint as a guide:

• Simple three-handed cast or baseball

• Run/force to pile

• Single T

• Double T

• Water T

• Pattern blinds

• Cold Blinds

Three-handed casting/baseball

This is the first drill that we teach in the yard. Many people refer to it as baseball, because the set up resembles a baseball diamond.

The first three steps are conducted on a well mowed yard such as a golf fairway or an athletic field where the dogs can easily see the training dummies.

The procedure starts the handler standing on home plate and the dog sitting on the pitcher's mound facing home. From this position we will toss a dummy back over his shoulder to second base. We then cast the dog back with a hand signal.

When the dog makes the retrieve we step forward and receive him at the mound and remove the dummy with him still facing us. This process is repeated several times, with the dummy randomly thrown to each base. Because it's much easier to teach "over" than "back", we run the dog back to second base almost twice as frequently as to first or third.

We will continue with this drill for two or three days until the dog reliably and correctly takes 90 percent of the casts. Next we modify the drill by placing piles of dummies at each base prior to bringing the dog onto the field.

Once again we start by throwing a dummy to one base or the other with the dog facing us. After the dog becomes comfortable with the piles we begin attempting to cast him without the throw. We proceed through this portion of the training slowly and patiently, continuing until the dog will reliably take a cast to any pile with or without a dummy being thrown. This process will usually take a couple of weeks at most, with many dogs mastering it in a number of days.

Run/force to pile

Once the dog understands casting from in front of us, we must teach him to cast (or leave) from our side. We start this drill with the dog in a heel position next to us and a large pile of white dummies in front of us. I like to place a visual aid behind the pile such as the Dogs Afield Confidence Cone ($12.99; call 1-800-863-3647 or visit http://www.dogsafield.com/ ).

We then walk the dog to within a couple of feet of the pile and cue the dog with a verbal "dead bird" followed by dropping our hand in front of him to point out the pile and commanding "back."

In the beginning this command may be confusing since the dog is accustomed to turning on the back command. If so, you may have to use the command "fetch" instead. However, you should be able to replace the "fetch" with "back" very quickly.

The goal here is to get the dog moving away from you on the verbal command without seeing a bird fall. Once the dog starts to fire off to the pile you should gradually back away from it, starting the dog to it at an ever increasing distance.

If you have chosen to train your dog with an electronic collar you may use collar pressure to "force" the dog to the pile. Regardless of whether or not you use an e-collar, one thing is certain: If the dog becomes confused you should move closer to the pile and simplify the drill.

In five or six days you should be able to consistently send the dog to the pile from 80 to 100 yards away. At this point you may begin stopping the dog with the whistle, first on the return from and later en route to the pile.

It is not uncommon for the dog to become confused when we start trying to stop and start him, so patience here is essential. If the dog gets confused, move closer to the pile and simplify. This is perhaps the most stressful portion of training a dog to handle. Be as upbeat as possible and keep your training sessions short. This is about quality, not quantity.

Don't overdo the starts and stops. As a rule of thumb, you should send the dog straight through without stopping at least three times for every one time you handle. Over-handling can encourage "popping" (stopping and looking back for direction without a hearing a whistle) and other undesirable behaviors.

Upon completion of this step the dog should be able to run from your side to the pile from 80 to 100 yards away and, you should be able to stop and restart the dog with a high degree of reliability.

In his next column, J. Paul concludes the series on handling with steps three through seven. Don't miss it. For more information about J. Paul, visit www.loneoakretrievers.com.

Courtesy of Delta Waterfowl.
For more information visit their website at www.deltawaterfowl.org.