In my most recent newsletter, I reflected on this year's National Amateur Retriever Championship and drew attention to the length of the marks throughout the event. The longest retrieve covered 262 yards, and the longest mark spanned 256 yards. Nowadays, 400-yard plus marks are a common occurrence. The judges had the option to lengthen the marks considerably due to the grounds' layout, but they used well-thought-out bird placement to challenge and separate the top 112 dogs in the country. What I witnessed was very refreshing. Yes, it's all about bird placement! Let's take a closer look at some of the key marks in this National and discuss why they were so effective.
The first test I want to talk about is the 3rd series water triple. It was a beautifully designed setup with both memory birds thrown across water. The left-hand retired gun resembled a bridge mark with its arc of throw resembling a bridge across water. The right-hand retired gun had a similar theme, being thrown onto an island. I want to focus on the right-hand retired gun because the success of this bird was not about the factors leading to the fall area, such as water, terrain, wind, or cover. It was about the factors in the fall area itself. Crucial to the success of this bird was the wind direction, which played a key role in ensuring that the dogs didn't smell the bird while taking the path of least resistance, typically land. At first glance, one might think that the dogs would hunt around the holding blind before venturing out to the island, but that wasn't the case. Most dogs chose to cross the water at its narrowest point and drove up the hill past the bird. Looking at the ground view of the dog's approach line, one wouldn't even see water on the right, which likely encouraged dogs to favor the right-hand side to avoid the water. Many dogs ran right over the top of where the gun stood, crossing the water where it narrowed down and climbed the hill to the road. Very few dogs recovered from this point. The lack of factors leading up to the fall area made this mark more challenging, as there was nothing to slow the dog's momentum down, and they continued to drive through the fall area, resulting in many needing to be handled. This retrieve was not about a disciplined line; it was about marking. Aren’t that what marks are supposed to be about?
The next series I want to draw attention to is the 5th series land quad, which is always key to having a great national. The left three marks were a classic indented triple with a short-retired gun, making it challenging in itself. Most handlers chose to secondary select and pick up the retired hen pheasant 2nd. Some of them were successful and a few had trouble checking down on that mark. The strategy for most handlers was to send for the right-hand flyer 3rd. Thus, leaving R#2 for last. The right retired gun was genius, and once again, the wind direction worked in the judge's favor. The wind was mostly down-wind to slightly quartering to the right, making it easy for dogs to miss this bird on both the right and the left. If the dogs favored the left side, they were up-wind of the bird and at risk of going over to the duck flyer, which was slightly deeper and on the left. If they were disciplined and didn't go over to the duck flyer, they might line right past the holding blind and must be handled back to the bird. If they veered a bit right, the angle of the channel pushed them further to the right, where they encountered a large piece of water that was not visible from the line. Directly in front of the line was a mowed section. The perfect line required the dog to angle into the cover about halfway down the mowed strip. If they stayed in the short grass, they ended up a bit outside the mark on the right. But once again, this mark wasn't about factors en-route or the distance; it was about the location of the bird itself. In both the 3rd and 5th series, it was the well-balanced, good marking dogs that excelled.
The grand finale of the championship lived up to its name with the 10th series, a work of art. The deciding factor was the water quad, which would determine the 2023 NAFC winner. Included here are photos of the entire test and a close-up perspective of the two middle retired marks (#1 and #3). These retired guns had several factors for the dogs to negotiate during their approach. The first bird thrown was another example of a bridge bird, and any time a mark was thrown across water, it would provide challenging answers. The third bird was thrown down the hill to the edge of the water, with a long, flat arc. Some dogs chose to get out of the water early on the left side of the mark, climbing the hill behind the holding blind. Some of them managed to recover after hunting up the hill, but others continued further up the hill and had to be handled back to the bird. It was also possible for dogs to stay in the channel just on the outside of the bird and miss the mark as well. The #1 retired gun was slightly longer but required less swimming. Dogs that cheated a bit to the right were at risk of heading over to the right-hand flyer. For those dogs focused solely on staying in the water, they could easily swim right by this mark as well. The wind changed from quartering right to left, then angling slightly left to right, with each wind direction making one of the two retired guns more challenging to come up with. The moderate distances on all these marks made for good visibility. All in all, this national championship kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Kudos to the judges for their exceptional work in designing these challenging setups. Whether you are training for field trials or hunt tests, the placement of your marks is essential. I devote a lot of energy to designing my setups where I don't have to micromanage a dog's route all the time. Encouraging dogs to figure things out on their own is my goal. Anytime I can create a mark that allows me to be patient and let the dog sort it out on their own, I take full advantage of it. The lessons that dogs figure out on their own are far more profound. Island birds and birds thrown out in the water are great examples. Once the dog achieves the fall area, they can’t come up with the bird without eventually executing the desired behavior. Typically, they will hunt in the easiest location without success. After exhausting those options, they will volunteer to search elsewhere. When they decide on their own to quest into the water or out to an island and get rewarded by finding the bird, you have created an aha moment. I am not suggesting that you start letting your dog cheat factors on the water en route to the fall area. I am talking about the fall area itself. I've learned from past experiences when I obsessed about teaching my dogs to go straight at all costs, I threw their balance off. They became more concerned about how to get there than where the bird was. Over time, I pivoted to a more balanced approach, finding the right mix between trained and natural ability. I urge you to become a student of quality bird placement, as it truly is an art. Whether you are training or judging, you'll end up rewarding the dogs for the right reasons. Watching a dog think its way through a well-placed bird never gets old for me, and I'm sure you'll feel the same way. Good luck and happy training! Pat