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Thinking About Set-Ups in Training and TestingRich Carpenter

With the dog and me taking turns being on Injured Reserve this past hunting season, there was plenty of time to think. Time to think about the hunting days we were missing. Time to think about if we’d both be mobile at the same time before season ended. Time to think about what we would be doing out training this spring, whether it be just Din and me, as part of our training group, or as part of our local club training days. Time to think about an upcoming HRC Judges and Handlers Seminar. Too much time to think.

As it became apparent the seasons would close without Din and me being any danger to upland birds or waterfowl, my thinking focused on upcoming training and getting to see HRC folks at the seminar. I’d not seen most since hunting opened in early September. As I thought about it, and looked at some old notes and made some new notes for training, the thought crossed my mind that, when it comes to set-ups, if we are approaching things correctly, whether it be maximizing progress and retention in our training, or, as judges, setting the stage for fair and accurate assessment of retriever performances, there are a lot of similarities.

If most of us who have trained and judged for any amount of time are perfectly honest, we can roll some old mental film clips about training set-ups and land and water tests that we were responsible for as judges that we can feel justifiably proud of. Then there are a few that make our eyes roll completely backwards in our head bones as we ask in anguish, “Yikes! Did I really do that?” Yup. Probably more than once.

Without worrying about whether what’s to come pertains to our training set-ups or what we set up if clubs forget our past screw-ups and ask us to judge again, I’m going to toss out a list of things to think about in set-ups. If you are new to dog training, some may not make much sense and you may need to do a little internet searching for terminology or get with some of the experienced people in your local club. The list is too long to go into detail. Besides, there are many things about training set-ups that are variable both as to the setter-upper and the retrievers involved. Same would be true with judges and their individual approaches, experience, the level being set up for, and what they are given to work with for test grounds and water.

This is in no particular order of importance, topical grouping or level of training, and is pretty much skeletal and left to your experience and preferences to decide what different items might mean to you. It’s not intended as any kind of official or last word, but hopefully something that will provide some grist for your mental mill as you go along in this great HRC organization that offers so much in the way of having a better hunting retriever, both from training opportunities from being active in a local HRC club as well as from running our UKC licensed HRC hunt tests that focus on hunting realism.

Remember as you gain experience, it’s not always a matter of absolute right and wrong, but what makes sense in a given situation. Different people view things differently and when it comes to how I see things, your mileage may vary.

Wind. Marks and blinds. Upwind is seldom what you want. Downwind and crosswind, used appropriately, are better. We can’t always have what we want or prevent the wind from shifting at the worst times, but whether setting training set-ups or tests, having alternative marks and blinds in mind for changing conditions can be worthwhile.

Cover and terrain. What is appropriate cover to expect Started dogs to negotiate? On water? On land? What is appropriate terrain and terrain change to expect Started dogs to negotiate? Multiple water entries or cover change? Maybe okay on a shallow river and bare sandbars, not with cover and swim water and losing sight of fall area.

Hot blinds and poison birds in general. Location, distance from the line to poison bird marks, visibility, tightness, as well as how close to the line to another bird, or how far from the blind, all affect the likely outcome. All these take practice, but are important for training and in realistic hunting tests.

Specified order of pickup of marks, out of order diversions, blinds run before last bird or birds of triple picked up, mark picked up by honor dog, seen or unseen by working dog. Again, all advanced skills needing good training. At the same time these are skills that are regularly needed in hunting by a truly finished dog, and need to be seen with some regularity in Finished tests if we are serious about realistic hunting tests. Needless to say, good test-setting skills are needed to present these in realistic, yet fair and judgeable contexts. But if I hear again that a dog can’t be expected to remember a mark after having to run a blind after the first or second mark of a triple, or after being asked to pick up a bird other than the go bird first, I’m gonna puke.

Roads, trails, paths, gullies, ridges and depressions, sprinkler circle ruts, etc. can all affect a dog’s direct progress to the bird or bumper.

Dog safety. Have we walked the set-up or test area for safety hazards? Do set-ups involve something like current that could be hazardous to the older dogs, or a steep bank a hard charging dog could easily crash into.

Horizons. Think about the effect on a dog of a mark breaking various kinds of horizons. Not just hills, but strips of cover like food plots, tree lines, islands with cover, etc. It’s important for dogs to learn to handle marks with multiple or apparently shifting horizons. A lot of dogs, particularly with limited experience, start the hunt beyond the horizon broken. Throwing a long mark behind cover vs throwing in cover can make for a very different mark. Dogs need to learn to differentiate, as do test setters.

Hillsides tend to influence dogs for both marks and blinds. Add in wind, and things can get even dicier. Dogs drifting with wind and gravity can make lines hard to maintain and marks hard to find. I remember taking a young Finished dog out to run marks and blinds across a steep hillside and with a 90 mph cross wind. Then we went to a small pond for short crosswind marks and blinds in the big waves. Tough on me to remain upright, and he didn’t line many blinds or step on many marks, but the amount of learning about wind effects and shouldering into factors was phenomenal and stayed with him. Dogs’ normal tendencies to square a variety of things on land and water can affect mark and blind difficulties in a myriad of ways. Dogs tend to over-run downhill marks if they don’t have some experience with them. Many dogs will misjudge distance on up and down marks.

Crop rows, especially, with significant furrows, or tall remaining cover like corn fields. Squaring or running down the rows is going to be common. It’s tough to keep the destination in mind when shifted off course. Tall, thick corn stubble can test the dog’s heart to take it on to get where they needed to be.

Water - Current and Wind. Waterfowl hunters need to get the dog solid on dealing with moving water and drifting birds on water, be it current or the wind. We also need to have the dog responsive to handling in both splash and swim water, and know when the dog can hear the whistle.

Water. Out to Sea blind retrieves can be tough for Finished dogs not familiar with the concept and spooked with the notion of heading to an invisible bird with an invisible far shore. Probably something we’d want to ease into in training our Seasoned dog. Often logistics will eliminate the temptation to set this in a test, as there is a lot of wading or rowing to set the blind.

Water - multiple entries. Multiple entries are a challenge in tests and in training, whether marks or blinds. Often the challenge in training is to find that kind of water to train in.

Being able to thread a needle on a blind retrieve can be critical in both hunting and testing situations. It’s only developed through practice and knowing the dog and how it responds to handling in close quarters. For example, does our dog uniformly turn right or left at the whistle? Good to know when the path is very narrow, or death in the tall grass lays either left or right of, and very near to, the desired path.

Dog-Out-of-Sight marks, both land and water. In training or testing we probably would tend to make the test for the dog to understand where the mark landed. The desired test is not how hard we can make it for the dog to find it when it gets there, since the handler cannot see to handle.

A dog losing sight of area of a fall or the line they are taking when going through heavy cover or down through a ditch. More experience helps, and not throwing it all at a young dog at once usually helps.

Suction and factors. Old falls, pick-ups by Honor or working dog, scent, strong wind, weather, gravity, terrain, cover, visible bird stations, etc. This is a short and partial list that includes almost unlimited possible headaches for dog and handler. A number of list items fall in this category.

Stumps in the water and stick ponds and floating logs all add a challenge for the dogs. With no experience they can be intimidating and difficult to where inexperienced dogs may have no success.

Decoys. Are we using them in a realistic hunting set, or purely to trick a dog? For example, on a long tight water channel blind, when near the blind suddenly the cover has a break on the right and there are decoys off the path to the blind that may suck the dog out of sight. It may be fine if we are just training on control at distance, but if we are testing, we probably should reasonably expect to be asked, “What the heck are your decoys doing totally out of gun range in a realistic hunting test?”

Temptations to cheat. While de-cheating the dog is the trainer’s responsibility, for sure by Finished, and some would feel by Seasoned, still, in training and testing we need think about the effect on marks or blinds of the kind of cover and terrain we’ve chosen to use, and incorporate or eliminate as appropriate.

Angle entry and/or angle exit water marks or blinds. Clearly something we expect our Finished dogs to learn to handle, and so, too, our Seasoned dogs to work on, but as we work on this kind of set-up some thought to the details can help maximize positive outcome.

Visibility of marks, including, arc, hang time, back ground, intervening cover, etc. There has to be a special pile of coal in Hell for judges who set marks where the initial part of throw is screened at the line from every dog’s view. Whether training or testing, we need to be thinking of the dogs at the line that may be particularly tall or short so that cover doesn’t unfairly screen one or the other from a good view of the mark. Bottom line: in training or testing, good marks call for the dog getting a good look at an appropriate segment of the thrown bird’s arc.

Landmarks. I don’t think there is much question most retrievers utilize landmarks in marking. A triple in a uniform unmowed alfalfa field or sagebrush pasture challenges marking skills. Throwing multiple marks in pretty uniform cover where, for example, they land to the left of something like an oil field pump at distance, when there are perhaps ten in view, can make success a tough brass ring to grab. Whether training or testing, we can use or avoid these landmarks as appropriate. But, with no landmarks, when our dog needs handling to the fall, we might like even a subtle landmark.

As we contemplate our set-ups, we need to avoid marks that penalize right-heeling dogs or honor set-ups made difficult with one of dogs right heeling and one left heeling. This can also be an issue if as judges we set too narrow a line to send the dog from or run the dogs from a duck blind with the dog hole in the front left corner.

Order of throw. Which bird or bumper we choose as the memory bird can make a test vary a lot in difficulty. This is important depending on if we are trying to give a young dog a leg up on a set of marks or add starch for the experienced dog.

In-line marks can be challenging to dogs, particularly in a special case of in-line marks, the Over/Under. Do you use it as a double? As two of three birds in a triple? In Seasoned training? In Finished training? In tests? Do you do them out of order with the deep bird thrown as the go bird? This is seen as tacky by many, if set in a test, but if we are truly hunters and that is the focus of the end product of our training, we better train for Over/Under marks, as we’ll get them out hunting, both in order and out of order. But there is no penalty for handling on an out of order in-line out hunting. Certainly a dog can learn them, some easier than others. Techniques exist to help teach the skill to a dog.

Down the shore marks and blinds. For pure hunting training these may not seem important, but if encountered in testing and the dog does not have experience with the concept, a ribbon is unlikely to be forthcoming that day. The skill may also be important in getting a bird out hunting.

We need to be careful of marking set-ups that are apt to cause inadvertent switching, and as test setters we’ll do well to think about things like tightness, wind, drifting birds, etc., that can cause problems of switching or cause confusion where areas of falls actually overlap.

Patterns of throws can have a lot of effect on level of difficulty and some require exposure in training. If interested, look up Hip Pocket, Fountain, Flower Pot, Mama and Papa. Basically, these named marking concepts relate to where throws originate and how they land with respect to other marks. Thrower location, if poorly camouflaged, can alter the dog’s marking and retrieving process.

Effect of distance in marks. Punch memory birds and check-down memory birds need worked on. The Indented Triple is a special case that can eat lots of dogs when they’ve gone long on both outside marks and then the center memory bird is very short. Some dogs are almost guaranteed to overrun the last bird. For some dogs primary selection may be needed for success. There are a variety of ways that distances, not only absolute, but relative, affect difficulty of a mark. We need to remember it does not require long distance to make challenging marks.

Tightening marks increases the difficulty and often even more so with converging marks than diverging marks, or when other memory challenging ingredients are injected into the set-up.

Mixing land and water in Started. Great idea on hot days, but unless they are way, way far apart, run the water mark first to get the Started dog wet and cool to help avoid a young dog saying, “To heck with it, I’ll cool off and then get the mark.”

180-degree swings in Seasoned training or tests. Pure and simple, don’t do it! It makes rock steady line manners impossible. You don’t need it to see if a dog swings to the gun. If you really, really want to know, have the go bird hand thrown and see if your dog has been turning with the gun or to the noise of the winger.

Marks set with traps to get the hard driving or inexperienced dog in trouble. If we have made sure our young dogs are solid on water entries, and then set a land mark that lands in front of water, we are just doing a disservice to those young dogs and it almost promises problems. Placing a mark at the crest of a sharp hill with inviting high cover behind it hurts those same dogs.

Use of Flyers. Great to train on, though we seldom see flyers anymore in Seasoned and not frequently in Finished. Order is important. Generally, the flyer would be shot last and if not, would be considered an “out-of-order” flyer. For a Seasoned dog, getting them to swing off the shot flyer to the go bird would be a bit much. In Finished it could be just fine. Flyers in training or testing can be used to really rivet a dog’s attention and can help a tough mark. Flyers can wipe memory of previous birds. Flyers can present tremendous suction as a poison bird. To successfully and economically have flyers part of a training or testing set-up, it is imperative to have both throwers and gunners who are good at throwing and shooting flyers. Experienced throwers may be harder to find than good gunners.

Blinds with traps. Traps can be close or at the end. We need to think of these as we do set-ups, whether training or testing. A close trap could be a diversion thrown near the line that must not be picked up until after the blind is retrieved. A trap in the middle might be a scented area from a previous fall or blind or inviting cover. A blind with trap at the end might be a blind placed very close to heavy cover or at the crest of a hill or a drop-off into a creek. All necessitate very timely whistle use and good depth perception by the handler, and they penalize the fast dog, but they are good to train on and they do occur in tests. It’s often said a good blind needs a beginning, middle and an end, but as we train, we probably don’t want all blinds with traps in too many locations if we want a confident dog. As judges, unless we are not bothered with the handlers who have run the test gathered and muttering about tall trees, short ropes and nervous horses, every blind doesn’t have to set a new record for difficulty.

Angling and squaring issues. Do you know what to expect from the dogs in a blind that is run from above a draw at an angle to the drainage of the draw, with the blind up on the opposite side hill? Are we ready for a finely-angled channel blind? Fine entry angles can be very hard for young dogs or dogs not trained for them. The same issue can affect sharp marking.

Blind visibility to the handler. Stakes are better than ribbon for handlers to know if dog is behind or in front of the stake, and can help with depth perception. Use of big old wooden rat traps can be very helpful to hold a duck or a bumper for a water blind when wind or current would causes the bird to move. Knowing exactly where a blind is located can go a long way to not having an otherwise good blind totally unravel at the end. Most handlers at a test would like to wrestle with getting the dog to the blind, not struggling with guessing where the blind is as the dog gets closer.

Windshield wiper marks. A mark thrown so that its arc goes over the line to a previously thrown mark can act as a good memory eraser. They have a place in Finished, but probably not something we are training in Seasoned. Blinds run under the arc of a mark seem to be in vogue.

Points. They influence both marks and blinds, and are often used to affect degree of complexity, especially in blinds, where a dog may need to go on one point and past another. It’s important to train on points. You’ll certainly see them in tests and they will affect hunting retrieves.

Channels or small water on the line to marks or blinds. Getting a dog so they roll confidently through multiple water/land changes is important. And for Finished work, it’s important a dog will enter water at distance from the line.

“How would I hunt this?” might be a better question in setting a test than in training, though it might be excellent for some training as well. It’s always good to be thinking about our end game, and that is birds in the bag come fall, and helping our dogs be as prepared as possible to not leave many to the coyotes. In training, we need to set so we can get progress in the dog in the needed hunting skills. In testing we need to see that the scenarios are reasonable, realistic, common in hunting, and that lend themselves to fair and accurate judging.

Difficulty. It’s fine to have it vary, whether in training or tests, but in training each dog has a rough percentage of successful runs needed to keep the momentum where we want it. It’s up to us to gauge that and keep in enough challenge without getting the dog’s dauber down with too little success. In testing, there is no prize for setting up the most difficult test you’ve ever seen. A reasonable test will almost always get reasonable judges reasonable answers. Setting training set-ups or judges’ tests to challenge the very best dogs does a real disservice to the majority of the dogs during training and is not in keeping the notion of testing to a standard. Exceptionally skilled and talented dogs are awesome to watch. They are not the standard. Neither should professionally-trained and handled dogs nudge the judging standard upward.

Thinking like a dog. That can be the toughest challenge of retriever training I think, but at the same time I think it can help us achieve maximum progress with our dog and reduce amount of needed corrections and minimize frustration in dog and trainer alike. At its best, retriever work and training needs to be a reasonable challenge and have enjoyment for both dog and trainer. Sometimes it’s hard not to have such a lock on the final goal as to not take time to let the dog smell the roses and bask in the good effort of even a partial success, if it represents progress. Praise is not a four-letter word. Always reward the try in a dog. As retriever training Guru Rex Carr is to have said, “Leave something in it for the dog.”

Good training and testing.


This article originally appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of HUNTING RETRIEVER.


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