Ponds and Parks
An Introduction to Field Training
by Laurie Collins
So you want to see whether your dog has a natural aptitude for field training. You’ve come to the right place!
If you’re interested in competing, you’ll obviously have to make sure your dog likes to retrieve birds. (Unfortunately, some dogs can be retrieving fools but think birds are totally disgusting!) For now, since birds aren’t always available, we’ll start our training using bumpers. You’ll start out using white bumpers, but if you continue, you’ll want to get other colors (orange, black, camo and/or black and white) so the dog learns to rely on their nose when they get close to the bumper instead of just their eyes.
How to Act As a Gunner (Person Who Throws Birds or Bumpers):
Make sure your bumpers have rope on them so you can throw them further! To throw a bumper, you’ll want to hold the end of the rope and toss it underhanded. You may want to practice some bumper throwing before you start training with dogs. Don’t be embarrassed if your throws aren’t always perfect because I don’t think anyone can say they’ve never had the bumper (or bird!) land behind them or almost hit them in the head! Practice throwing by using a target. (Surveyor’s tape tied to a few blades of grass is usually used in tests.) You want to keep your throws consistent so the scent isn’t spread all over the place if you’re training with multiple dogs.
Make sure when you throw the bumper, you throw it so the dog can see it in the air and when it hits the ground. You want to get a good arc on the bumper, and you want to make sure you throw the bumper a good distance away from you. You want to get the dog used to going past the gunner, so you angle your throws back about 45 degrees. There are usually excellent throwers with good arms (or mechanical wingers) in tests, so you want to make sure your dog doesn’t get used to thinking that a bumper is going to land within a couple feet of the gunner station or they’ll be lost in a test!
When you throw a bumper (or a bird) for a dog, you need to wait for the handler to signal you that they’re ready for you to throw. When you see their signal, most people say, “Hey, hey, hey,” and then toss the bumper as the dog is looking at them. Other people use duck calls or shots from starter pistols to get the dog’s attention in their direction. When you’re starting out with a new dog, you want to make a lot of noise out at the gunner station so the dog gets really excited about what you’re throwing. You can even add a few, “Woo woos,” in with your, “Hey, hey, heys”! As the dog gets more seasoned, you can tone it down a bit.
Okay, you’ve thrown the bumper and the dog is now on its way out towards you. If all goes perfectly, the dog will go straight to the mark (where the bumper fell), pick it up and head back to its handler. But, as we know, life is not always perfect! So what do you do if a dog heads out to you but gives up before it gets to you? Make some more noise, “Hey, hey, hey,” and see if the dog comes back in your direction. If the dog still isn’t sure, say, “Hey, hey, hey,” again and take a few steps towards the bumper. With some dogs, you may actually have to go all the way to the bumper, pick it up, make some excited noises, and give it a little toss (trying to keep it close to you this time so the scent stays in that area). Give the dog as much of a chance to figure it out on their own as possible, but try to avoid the dog going all the way back to the line (where the dog was sent from) if you can. Ideally all help should come from the gunners in the field, not the handler. Only use the dog’s name to get it to come out towards you if it’s totally ignoring you.
What do you do if the dog comes to visit you or tries to pick up a bumper or bird that you may have at your feet? Ignore it! Look away from it (and towards the mark) to try to direct its attention that way. You should always have your extra bumpers or birds in a bag (preferably a dark one!) at the gunner station so make sure you step on the bag opening if you need to so the dog can’t go shopping. If the dog is really persistent about visiting, the handler can tell the dog to, “Find it,” or, “Fetch it up,” again, and if you need to, you can take a few steps towards the mark as described above. You definitely do not want to reward a dog for visiting the gunner station! Usually they learn that visiting is no fun once they’ve been ignored a few times.
How to Handle (Run) A Dog:
First of all, you want to make sure your dog will pick up bumpers. Even if your dog is a tennis ball fiend, it doesn’t mean they’ll pick up a hard plastic thing with knobs! It’s also best to have a dog who’s reliable on a recall since you can do so much more if you don’t have to worry about attaching a long line to them.
Once you know your dog likes bumpers, it’s time to get a friend to act as your gunner. Most dogs are used to having whatever they’re retrieving come from their owner’s hand, and it’s a big change for them to pick up something that someone else has thrown. You want to start out by keeping your marks short. A local park would work beautifully for your early field training. As your dog heads out to where the mark went down, they can see the bumper on the mown grass and they get an instant reward for finding it. Eventually you’ll want to find areas that have more cover so the bumper is not so easily visible, which is where the nose work kicks in!
For the first throw, you’ll have your dog sitting next to your left side, in the heel position, while you hold onto their collar. At first we want them to be really excited about the retrieving game, so if they don’t stay sitting, don’t worry so much about it now. Control can be worked on later. The gunner should be about 50 feet out from you. You’ll want to get your dog lined up so their whole body and head is facing at the point where the bumper will land. Again, if you’re having a hard time with this, don’t worry so much about it at first. That’s something that can be worked on later.
Tell your dog to, “Mark,” and then, when your dog is looking out towards the gunner, you can signal the gunner to throw the bumper. If the dog is looking everywhere but at the gunner, ask the gunner to make some noise. A couple, “Heys,” should be enough. Once your dog is focused on the gunner, signal that it’s okay for the gunner to throw the bumper. Most people make a waving motion with their right hand. You want the gunner to see it, but you don’t want it to be so much movement that you distract your dog.
The first few times you have a bumper thrown for your dog, you’ll release them as soon as the bumper hits the ground, or even a little before. Again, we want to keep the motivation and excitement up from the beginning for this cool new game they’re playing! Some people send their dogs on their name. Other people use, “Fetch,” or, “Get it,” or, “Take it.” Whatever you choose, be consistent.
Hopefully your dog will go out and get the bumper immediately and bring it back to you. If they don’t, try your best to let the gunner help them figure the game out rather than you going out and helping them. Ideally the dog will bring the bumper all the way in to you and go back into heel position without dropping it, but they may need some encouragement. You can always work on delivery to hand in backyard fetch games so don’t worry about it too much in the field at first. Most people use three short toots on a whistle to call the dog in to them. Feel free to use as much encouragement as you need to get the dog to come in to you with the bumper.
If your dog has done a beautiful job retrieving the first bumper, with no hesitation, you can back your line up a little bit. You always want to leave the gunner in the same spot so there are not too many scent pools in the field. It’s much easier to back up your line. So maybe go back another 20 feet or so and try it again. If your dog does a good job on that one, too, change where the line was totally. Maybe go 50 feet off to the right side of the gunner and try running your dog from that direction. Again, the bumper should fall in the same area for scent purposes.
Eventually your dog will be able to retrieve from longer and longer distances. In a hunt test, the marks are usually about 100 yards (a football field) from the line. In field trials, they can be two or three hundred yards! A WC test has two marks that are 40 to 50 yards from the line, and a WCX test has three marks that are 60 to 100 yards from the line.
Since you want to keep your dog’s motivation up, don’t do too many throws in one session. You definitely shouldn’t try to go from 50 feet to 100 yards in one day!!! You want to quit while your dog is still excited about retrieving, so I would probably keep your first session to maybe half a dozen throws. The next time you go out, try running your dog at the distance you stopped at the time before. If they’re successful, you can increase the distance again. If they have a problem, move your line closer to the mark. Again, it’s all about motivation!
When you first start running your dog on water, you want to set them up as close to the water’s edge as you can. Have the gunner throw the bumper so it makes a big splash maybe just 30 feet in front of the dog. Again, at first let the dog go as soon as the bumper hits the water. If they do a good job at that, let the gunner change position to lengthen the mark this time. Make sure to back up to shorter distances if your dog needs encouragement to make it out to a longer mark. You obviously can’t help them much in the water, so make sure your gunner has a pile of rocks to throw towards the bumper if your dog can’t find it.
Swimming distances in tests can be anywhere from 25 to 100 yards (or more for field trials). Again, you don’t want to increase the distance too rapidly. Eventually you can set the line up further away from the water’s edge, but you want to make sure your dog goes straight into the water rather than running the bank. Bank running is definitely not a good thing to do in tests!
So you’ve been out a few times and your dog is retrieving reliably at 30, 40, 50 yards or better. The best thing to do at this point, if you haven’t already, is to join a training group with some experienced people so they can help you proceed. Your local golden retriever club should know someone you could contact or you can do a search on AKC’s website for local hunt tests or field trials and contact the club who’s putting them on. They should be able to help you find someone to hook up with. You’ll be expected to throw bumpers or birds for other dogs on training days, but you’ll be able to run your dog as well.
If you really have to do most of your training on your own, here are just a few things to work on after you’ve completed the basics:
- Wait at least three or four seconds after the bumper has gone down before you send your dog.
- Throw your marks in heavier cover (longer grass) so the dog has to use his nose to find the bumper
- Have the terrain change in between the line and the mark (cross a dirt road, go from short cover to heavy cover to short cover, have the mark land up hill from the line, down hill from the line, cross a small gully, etc.).
- Make sure your dog returns to heel position before you take the bird from him.
- Add one or two more gunners in the field. Make sure there’s a good distance between them (at least 90 degrees) and have them throw the bumpers in the same direction so the bumpers aren’t falling towards each other. Line your dog up towards the first gunner, have them throw, and once the dog brings that bumper back, line him up towards the second gunner and have them throw. Make sure your dog goes for the bumper it’s sent for and doesn’t switch to the other gunner station (gunners can help out with this).
- Make sure to vary the distance of your marks. They don’t all have to be 100 yards!
- If you have access to birds and your dog doesn’t want to pick up a duck on land, try throwing it in water. A lot of times they’ll pick the duck up in water before they do on land.
- Make sure you give your dog a chance to hunt before the gunner helps them find the mark. Some dogs establish a wider hunt pattern than others. Usually if they’re running purposefully in big circles, they’re trying to find the bumper. They need to learn to rely on their noses rather than a human to help them, so, if possible, let the dog work it out on their own. If they’re really in trouble and they’re obviously giving up or maybe heading towards a gunner whose bumper they’ve already picked up, the gunner can give a couple, “Heys,” to keep them in the area of the fall.
Most of all, you want to have fun watching your dog do what it was bred for. There’s a lot more to field training than just this, but hopefully this will give you a good foundation and you’ll be able to figure out whether it’s something you want to pursue. Good luck!!