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It's a Slippery Slope: Finding the Balance Between Trained and Natural Behavior

Achieving a balance between trained and natural behavior in marking is essential for success in every retriever venue. Early in my professional career, I was committed to developing a highly trained, disciplined dog. My priorities were focused on a dog that would take a perfect line, enter the water and stay in it at all costs, fight against a strong crosswind, and ignore drag-back and flyer scents. My goal was to create a fine-tuned machine. This approach seemed obvious and led to short-term success, but at what cost?

Over time, I began to realize that I had created dogs more concerned with how they got to a mark than the mark itself. I took pride in my dog's commitment to swimming to the end of the pond when other dogs wouldn't. Many weekends, this approach paid off. However, the unintended side effects of this "do or die" approach started to become apparent. It wasn't until I competed at a national level that I realized my dogs were afraid to think. Their dedication to following the rules I had set out was overriding their natural instincts. It wasn't until I appreciated the critical balance between trained and natural behavior that I began to see my dogs succeed at the highest level. Striking this balance is truly the art of dog training. Too much structure and too many rules can cause your dog to rely less on their natural instincts, while not enough discipline can result in rogue behavior, causing the dog to fall victim to various factors.

It would be impossible to cover all aspects of marking in this blog. However, I will touch on a few key points. It all starts with solid line mechanics. A dog that creeps, makes noise, won't heel to the line, and is unresponsive to your communication is not a good starting point. Investing time into developing a well-mannered dog on the line is time well spent. Constantly correcting your dog for these behaviors during marking setups will only interfere with marking advancement. Some people believe that allowing your dog to be "loosey-goosey" on the line promotes a dog that is a good marker solely concerned about the retrieve. I disagree. I'm looking for a dog that sits still and watches the marks intently. Developing this behavior right from the start is key. Good habits are easy to live with, and the key word here is "habits."

The first step in developing a good marker is to teach them to use their eyes when they enter the fall area. The old technique of using white bumpers on short grass holds true today. The next key component is not to be in a hurry to lengthen your retrieves with young dogs. Too many people become infatuated with how far their pup will go on a mark. This can create a dog that gets into the habit of running toward the gun instead of the bird. Fifty to sixty-yard marks with white bumpers and big throws in short cover is great practice.

Gradually adding factors and making marks a little harder to get to, but easy to find is the next step. Educating your thrower on how to help your pup if necessary is an important component. With young dogs, the person throwing the marks is more valuable than the person handling the dog. Throwing a second bumper when your dog starts to fade with a crosswind or square a ditch is an important tool when adding more challenging factors. Eventually, you will handle your dog for giving into these factors. Challenging your dog, then simplifying the lesson on succeeding setups is the approach you will take throughout their journey. Exposing young dogs to singles off multiple gun stations is a wonderful way to educate your pup to deal with distractions. My friend and colleague, Jim Van Engen, will set up as many as six stations at a time for young dogs. They learn to stay focused on the mark while running close to other throwers and previous retrieves. Remember to be quick to simplify when your dog struggles with a lesson. I am more apt to replicate a mark than to repeat the same mark when a young dog fails to mark a retrieve. Learning not to return to an old fall is best learned through habit, not through pressure.

Earlier in this article, I spoke of the pitfalls of making a dog overly concerned about the rules of going straight and not cheating factors. However, at this stage, we must teach our dogs not to cave when dealing with factors like water, wind, and terrain. It is not uncommon to temporarily get out of balance when teaching these lessons. You are going to spend multiple days focusing on training your dog to go straight to a mark. When dealing with cheating singles, treat these marks like you would a blind retrieve. This is the one time where I am more prone to repeating a mark. I am interested in seeing if my dog understood the lesson. I am also monitoring his understanding of what it means to be handled during a marked retrieve. It is possible to de-cheat a dog using other methods, but this is an opportunity to expand your dog's understanding of the language of handling. The sophisticated dialogue between handler and dog takes on a new level during this process. You will want to make certain that you do plenty of therapy marks at this time. Therapy marks are retrieves that are solely intended to relax your dog. Underchallenge them and don't add many factors. The goal is nearly one hundred percent success rates when doing therapy marks.

Test design and tracking success rates are key aspects throughout your dog's development and are especially important in advancing marking. Anyone can design a setup that no dog can complete, and anyone can build a set of marks that all dogs can complete. It takes a lot of effort to build a set of marks that offers just the right amount of challenge for the level of dog you're working with. There's nothing wrong with occasionally over-challenging your dog, but the key is in how you manage the situation. If you find yourself in trouble, be quick to simplify, and be careful using pressure. Confusion and pressure do not go hand in hand. This is a warning label that you need to pay attention to!

Here's a tip of the day: Avoid making e-collar corrections on the first infraction. For example, you are doing a water triple with a memory bird that has a tempting cheat on a re-entry. Your dog is a little uncertain on the line when sending for this mark. You get a pretty good start. However, when your dog gets on the point and approaches the re-entry, he turns slightly to the right in an effort to take less water. You stop him with a whistle. What now? Do you just give him a cast, or do you make an e-collar correction and then cast? Ninety percent of the time, I will choose to give the dog a literal cast without a correction and then correct if the dog refuses to take the cast and continues to cheat. There are a couple of key points here. The first one is that this mark was a memory bird. The second is that the dog's memory was foggy. Remember what I said about the danger of making dogs afraid to think? You might be thinking, "He knows better. He cheated the water, and a correction is justified." Stopping him on a whistle is a form of correction. If the dog is committed to the cheat, they are likely to do so even after given the cast. By managing a set of marks this way,

you will dramatically reduce the amount of anxiety your dog will have when they are unsure of where a tough memory mark is. You are not condoning the cheat or lessening your standards. You are just reminding the dog of the rules and correcting if necessary. This is probably the single biggest change I made in my training, and it made a world of difference.

I have one more piece of advice: Keep your marking setups clear with understandable standards. If you have a difficult mark with a lot of complicating factors, don't retire the gun. Or do it as a single. Avoid having multiple marks in a setup that have big challenges. If you have one difficult mark, make the other two fairly simple. Make sure you mix in some marking setups that are just intended to relax your dog. Doing difficult setups one after another is a formula for a poor attitude. It's also a good idea to repeat a concept in a simpler form after a poor performance.

I could go on and on. Building marking setups and evaluating effort is probably the biggest challenge we all face as retriever trainers. This is another reason to keep your setups uncomplicated. The clearer the lesson, the easier it is for you to interpret your dog's behavior.

Stay tuned for more of Pat's Perspective…

Stay Thirsty, Pat

P.S. Here's your chance to immerse yourself in the world of high level retriever training and mark your path to success! Join me and my longtime friend and respected colleague, Andy Attar, for a 4-day workshop this December. Don't miss this unique opportunity to witness the art of setup design and dog evaluation up close and personal. Experience the thrill of watching marking setups come to life, observe dogs in action, and engage in in-depth post-test discussions.

Our 40+ years of combined expertise will be at your disposal as we delve into the very principles I've discussed in this blog. Mark your calendar for December 14-17, 2023, in the scenic locale of Boston, Georgia. Click the link below to get the 411

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1 Comment
Oct 11, 2023

Great article! Thanks for the info Pat!

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