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Water Tune-Up Drills: An Annual Tradition

Every year about the middle of June, I could count on spending a week running a water tune-up. The older dogs were off running the National Amateur or getting a well-deserved break. The younger dogs w

ere getting some extra attention. One day, I recall running close to 100 water blinds. I can only imagine how many whistles I blew over the course of the next 5 days. I’m sure that I blew over 1,000 whistles while completing 5 days of the Water Tune-Up drill that I’m going to share with you. Prior to each of those 1000 whistles, I read the dog’s behavior, made the decision to intervene by blowing a whistle, and gave a cast based on the information I had aquired. These drills are equally valuable in advancing the handler’s skills as well as the dog’s skills. A mentor of mine once said, “I do best what I do most”. This is a great example of what Rex Carr was referencing.

Arguably, the Water Tune-Up Drill is one of the top three exercises to include in any advanced retriever training program.

Without a doubt, “Tune-Up Drills” are one of the most valuable training tools we have available in our training toolbox! I was first introduced to them at Rex Carr’s in the early 80’s. These tools were referred to as “Panic Drills”. They were designed to ease tension around the water. It was common for dogs to feel stress following the rigors of de-cheating work. The purpose of these early Tune-Up or Panic Drills were to help dogs become more comfortable accepting whistles and being handled in and around the water. Like so many of our modern drills, the Tune-Up drill has evolved into a more sophisticated application. It still accomplishes many of its original benefits. However, it can do so much more…

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key points in this Tune-Up. ( Refer to the above photo) I want to draw attention to blinds 3, 4, 5, & 6. These four binds share multiple things in common. The initial entry is into the same bay of water. All four retrieves require the dog to angle as they exit the water onto the first point. They all have re-entries into the water. The key lesson is that each succeeding blind addresses the same factor to a greater degree. The angle of the entry and exit is sharper as you progress from blind #3 to blind #6. Likewise, the re-entry requires the dog to take less of the point each time. The increased commitment to each factor is the crucial lesson to draw attention to.

There are some valuable guidelines I would like to share with you regarding designing and running Tune-Up Drills. The first I covered in the previous paragraph. Pick a valuable lesson and repeat that lesson 3 to 4 times in succession. Now let’s talk about how to run the drill. You are going to handle your dog tighter to the line than you would normally. You will end up blowing a lot more whistles. The reason you are going to do this is to clearly identify the key factors during the first couple of days. If you don’t establish the standard you hope to achieve early, it won’t make sense to the dog towards the completion of the Tune-Up. You’re probably worried about popping or the lack of momentum, right? I have found that won’t be the case. You will balance out the technical nature of the Tune-Up in the few weeks after completing the drill. I will cover that later in this article. Here is a “Biggie”. Be very sparing in the use of the e-collar throughout this drill. The value in the Tune-Up Drill lays in the repetition, not in corrections. A better way to deal with poor initial lines and cast refusals is to blow more whistles and use attrition in lieu of pressure. Use the e-collar as a last resort, not the first. With that being said, I enforce going and stopping with pressure when necessary. I’m not suggesting you lower your standards. I am only advising you to use methods other than the e-collar while navigating the key factors of these blinds.

A great example of this is the story of 2x NAFC Ebonstar Lean Mac. After winning his first National Amateur Championship, Max went into a tailspin. His water blinds deteriorated dramatically. The classic methods of dealing with his failure to commit to the water were only making his behavior worse. Mike Lardy described that when Max looked at the water, all he saw was fire on the banks. In Max’s case, the use of pressure was back firing. He was at a breaking point. If this didn’t turn around, Max’s career would be over. The above Tune-Up Drill was the turning point. Mike said that initially, it to five to six whistles just to get Max into the water. Resisting the use of e-collar pressure and using attrition to encourage compliance started to pay off. Max gradually started to buy in. It didn’t happen overnight, but Max regained the trust and confidence to do a water blind. He went on to win three more nationals. At the end of his career, Max was one of the most reliable water blind dogs in Handjem’s team.

The photo above is an overhead view of a 6-leg Water Tune-Up I did in Dayschool this spring. This turned out to be a very valuable and challenging drill. I have included ground view photos of all six blinds. There are a couple of things that I want to draw your attention to. Here are a few key things: Note the recurring theme of blinds 1-3. Much like the blinds from the previous Tune-Up, focusing on angle entries and re-entries. The second thing that is valuable to point out reference blinds 5 & 6. I like to finish my Water Tune-Up Drills with the greatest commitment to the water. Both blinds 5 & 6 require the dog to stay in the water more than the previous blinds. They resemble blinds you might do on a normal training day. I suggest you study both these versions and look to mimic some of these concepts in your Tune-Up Drills.

The last thing worth mentioning is your training plan after you complete your Water Tune-Up. There are 2 things I want to accomplish in my post Tune-Up agenda. The first thing I do are a few simple uncomplicated sets of water marks. The sole intention here is for relaxation and therapy. I don’t want the dogs to overthink things on these set ups. These are just “Go Gettum” marks. The second thing is to do a week of less technical blinds. The purpose here is to focus on momentum and to balance out all the technical handling you did on the Water Tune-Up you just completed.

The story of Lean Mac is a great example of using a Water Tune-Up for rehabilitation purposes. However, don’t wait until you have problems to incorporate this valuable drill. I am confident that you will see a marked difference in your dog’s water blinds after completing your Water Tune-Up. I hope this article has been helpful and sheds some light on the value of including Water Tune-Up Drills in your training plans. Thank you for your time. Until next time…

Happy Training,


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