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Commands, Cues and Releases – Rich Carpenter
If you are just getting ready to start training your first retriever, it’s a good idea to give some thought to the verbal ways you will communicate with this young dog. Like so many areas of retriever training and hunting, there are different schools of thought about what you should say to your dog.
Non-verbal and whistle communications will be very important as well, but this will just address the verbal communication. As you read your books, watch others train and handle their dogs in person or in videos, pay close attention to how they use their whistle and what non-verbal communications, such as hand signals and body movement and position, they are using.
This is certainly not the be-all, end-all for verbal communications between a trainer/handler and a retriever, but hopefully will give you enough to think about to customize the list by shortening or lengthening it, and making substitutions that meet your preference. As you establish your list, it’s good to remember the old advice to avoid commands similar to the dog’s name and commands that may sound like another command. A comment may accompany some of the words or phrases below.
Once you have your own list, you can look at it and think about optimum times to introduce things to the dog and to help you be consistent. Consistency will be as important here as in other areas of training.
Verbal communications for our retrievers fall into basically three categories: commands, cues or releases. With a command, we are telling the dog what to do, not asking it. For example, “Sit.” We want the dog to sit right now and sit until we release it. With a cue, we are trying to let the dog know what is coming. For example, “Dead Bird.” We are telling the dog this will be a retrieve that we will direct it to, not a mark it is expected to see and locate on its own. With a release we are freeing a dog from immediate control. We may use a word like “Free” to release the dog to go air.
Perhaps for new trainers an important example of a command vs. a release would be how we send a dog for a retrieve. Sending the dog for a blind retrieve is a command. Sending a dog for a mark is a release.
There are those who want to minimize the number of words used for commands in training, and those who tend to expand on the number. There are also words that may be used to mean two different things in different contexts. Fortunately, many of our dogs seem to have enough situational awareness and key off our tone, inflection, etc., to minimize confusion. But in early training it’s good to be aware of this possibility and address it in a way helpful to the dog.
Here is a list of verbal communication words I’ve used. Again, there is nothing magical about them, and many would choose to do it differently, and that would be just right for them. A couple are very situational and dog specific that probably won’t apply and I’ll note such. Think about what you know you will do with your dog, and what you might do with your dog, and be prepared to establish those lines of communication with your dog.
AHHHH. A mild “NO.” Dog should not do what it is doing or looks like it’s about to do.
BACK. Initial send on blind, or go further back when handled.
CLOSE. Stay close while hunting or while accompanying the handler, but not at heel.
COME. Come to me. “Here” is probably more commonly used for this.
DEAD BIRD. Cue that this will be a blind retrieve, not a mark. “Dead Bird.” “Back.” Some use “Blind Retrieve” instead.
DROP. Turn loose of the dummy/bird. (I don’t use Leave It for this.)
EASY. Hold bird or bumper gently! Take a treat gently. Also used as a cue to alert dog to a very short mark, or a hazard in its path
FETCH. Pick up a dummy/bird/etc. If used as Force Fetch command, “Fetch” would not be used to release dog on a mark.
FIND A BIRD. Start upland hunting (quartering). Not used to encourage the dog to hunt up a mark it is having trouble finding.
FREE. Release. Dog is free to do as it pleases (within reason and reasonable distance).
FUN ONE. A cue that a fun bumper is about to be thrown and that no steady is required.
GEE. For handling on a blind retrieve. An Over cast to Right (handler’s right). Most use “Over” to cast either right or left, but some prefer a verbal directional cast for when the dog is out of sight. Yeah, I know, we are never supposed to let the dog get out of sight in training, testing or hunting, but it does happen.
HAW. Over cast to Left (handler’s left) on a blind retrieve.
GONE AWAY. Resume quartering after fly- away hen or missed bird when upland hunting.
HEEL. 1. Take position at heel. 2. Walk at heel. (Left side or right side heel indicated by hand motion, if two-sided heeling has been taught.) 3. “Heel” moves head away from leg when lining up for a blind retrieve.
HERE. 1. Come to the handler. 2. Used in lining dog up for a blind retrieve when at heel. “Here” moves head closer to leg.
HOLD. Hold the dummy or bird.
HUNT IT UP. Hunt an area for a dead bird or dummy. Different from command to track or trail and from “Find a Bird,” releasing the dog to quarter in upland hunting. The notion is that “Hunt it up” should hold the dog in a specific area to find something that is known to be there. Upland release would reflect freedom to cover more ground, looking for something that may or may not be there.
IN. This is a verbal command to come toward me when being handled to a blind.
KENNEL. Get into house, car, kennel, onto a tree stand, or whatever.
LEAVE IT. Don’t pick something up or bother it. For example: don’t pick up a duck on the blind floor, or harass the neighbor’s cat.
MARK. A cue. Prepare to spot a bird/dummy in the air.
MARK LEFT. Mark a bird to the left (i.e., swing head to left). This, and Mark Right, are commands that I taught a previous retriever out of necessity. My first HRCH, Amos Moses, had to have an eye removed when he was about eight years old. It really cut down his peripheral vision, particularly on his blind side. Like his namesake in the song, Amos wasn’t a model citizen or real eager to listen to his handler’s suggestions, but he could see he needed this and picked it up real quickly and continued to hunt and run Finished tests for two years. I haven’t taught this to subsequent dogs, though sometimes I wish I had if dog remains locked too long on a mark or distraction and not following the gun to the next mark.
MARK RIGHT. Mark a bird to the right (i.e., swing head to right).
MOVE. Move out of the way or away from where the dog is. I’ve used this for around the house and with snake training.
NO. Serious command for don’t do it or stop what you are doing.
NO BIRD. Use when honoring another dog. Tells the dog you don’t get this one.
OFF. Dog is to get down if jumping up or gets on furniture.
QUIET. Stop barking or whining. “Stop the noise” and “Hush” often used.
REST. Lie down on floor or ground and stay there till told to move.
RIGHT THERE. Used with “Hunt it up” to hold dog in tight hunt area. “Hunt it up. Right There!”
SIT. Sit and stay until told to do something else.
SKY. Release for my current retriever to retrieve a mark. His call name is not Sky. I’m of the school of thought that does not want to use my dog’s call name as the release for a mark. My reason being most dogs that are released on their call name will, at least once in their career, leave when their name is said, but not intended as a release. For example a handler may be saying “Sparky, SIT!” as Sparky is bouncing on the line as the marks go up, but Sparky is well on the way to the bird before he hears the “sit” command, if he ever hears it. Be aware, I’m in the minority on this and most trainers send on a mark with the dog’s name. Your choice.
STAY. Don’t move until told to do so. The dog is not necessarily sitting.
TRAIL. Used to have a dog find something by trailing or tracking, not by searching around an area to find something with its eyes.
WRONG. Used instead of “No” to indicate dog looking wrong way lining up for blind retrieve. Some believe this is important and others don’t. Not a command I currently use.
YARD. Stay in yard at home.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of HUNTING RETRIEVER.