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Test Theming: The Power of Repetition

“Test Theming”

The Power of Repetition

As a professional retriever trainer with over 40 years of experience, I always emphasize the importance of Commitment, Consistency and Repetition in mastering skills. Especially when it comes to teaching retrievers complicated marking skills. In this blog post, I want to talk about the power of repetition. There’s no substitute for repeating a lesson over and over in helping a dog excel. This approach is especially true for training retrievers for field trials and hunt tests.

I covered Land Tune-Up Drills and Swim-By Review as two of my early season must do drills. Another one of my early season training rituals is Test Theming. This technique involves repeating a marking concept over the course of multiple days, allowing the dog to build its confidence and skills. I am not referring to repeating the exact same marks. I am talking about repeating the same concept 8 to 10 times in a normal training week.

I work with three main themes: short memory birds, middle-distance memory birds and long memory birds.

With advanced dogs, most of these memory birds will be run as retired guns.

Let’s start with short memory birds. These are marks where the dog is required to check down on the second or third bird retrieved after a long go bird. Once a dog has gone long on a retrieve, it is common for that dog to want to go long or longer on their next mark. Whether that is a man-made tendency or is just the natural response of a retriever is not relevant. What’s important is that many judges use this concept to trip up dogs at field trials and hunt tests. A few examples of short memory bird concepts I like to start with are depicted in the diagrams below.

All four of these setups are simply asking the dog to check down on the 2nd and/or 3rd bird retrieved after doing a longer go bird. Once the dog has gotten comfortable checking down after going long, I progress to more difficult scenarios that require Secondary Selection.

Let me explain what Selection means. Selection is when the handler decides what bird the dog will retrieve next, rather than letting the dog the dog choose. The most common scenario is the dog will retrieve the last bird thrown first and then the next shortest bird. It is a successful practice for retrieving difficult short memory(retired) birds and requires skill and teamwork. Let me review that, I start with short memory birds then progress to the more difficult Secondary Selection situations. They are both short memory birds. However, the Secondary Selection aspect adds another layer of difficulty to the mix. Here are two classic examples of Secondary Selection tests.

In both the “Indented Triple” and the “In-Line Triple”, the middle bird (G#2) is the most difficult bird. Demanding the dog to pick up the middle bird 2nd requires the use of Secondary Selection. These scenarios are a part of a marking theme I would call short memory or check down birds.

The next theme I focus on are middle distance memory birds. These marks are neither Long nor Short memory birds, but fall somewhere in between. When well placed, many feel that they are the most difficult of all the retired marks. They are marks that you can fail by over running them or hunting short.

To help retrievers learn how to handle middle-distance memory birds, I like to start with what we call a “JP Triple”. Many of the classic tests have been named after the person that made them famous. The “JP Triple” was named after the Hall Of Fame field trailer John Parrott. Here is an example of a JP Triple.

Here is another typical option for the Mid-Distance Theme.

During early season test theming, I am not concerned about adding factors. Often, I look for a featureless field with little or no cover. These setups are more clinical than natural. I will do 2 or 3 similar tests each day for about a week.

The last theme that I focus on are long memory birds. These are tests where the dog must drive by a previously retrieved bird. In some instances, fighting multiple factors including long distances, drag back scent, cover changes, wind and terrain are necessary to successfully complete the mark. The classic example is a test that has been coined “Texas Double” or a “California Double”. In this instance, the test is named after a region. In this part of the country, it was common practice to have a test where there is a very long retired mark past a live shot flyer. Driving past the already retrieved flyer and dealing with the both the scent of the flyer and drag back scent are key components in the challenge of this setup. In both these regions the lack of cover and the large wide-open spaces made this test popular with judges.

It is a paramount practice to repeat the key concept of one bird within the test. Here is a good example of that. In the setup below, we have 2 long memory birds. One is thrown out of the test and the second is thrown tight behind the back of the go bird. G#1 has the factor of angling the road as well as a crosswind. Notice G#2 resembles the challenges of the “California Double”.

Short retired, middle distance retired and long retired are the three most encountered tests that you are going to see throughout the year. Committing time in your early season training is the best way to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. When you look at the tests done at nationals, you will recognize these 3 themes as key components in many of them.

After spending a few weeks focusing on specific marking themes, you are ready to get into a more normal type of training. I am describing a balanced approach to your marking scenarios with more variety. However, don’t hesitate to repeat a concept on multiple tests as well as within a test. This is the best practice for advancing a dog’s understanding of these classic complicated marking situations.

I hope this has been helpful for you. Remember, Commitment, Consistency and Repetition are the keys to long term success.

Thank you and happy training!


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Great stuff I'm all ready in my tune ups, And waiting for the water to warm up ....

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