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Retriever Training: Marking for Gun Dogs

Waterfowl Magazine - April/May 1992

Debra Folsom

Have you ever noticed, that when the bird is sitting out in the middle of the water, in plain sight, where you could actually go out and pick it up yourself, that your dog does a wonderful job retrieving? On the other hand, when the bird sails over a hedge row, out of sight, big "Jake" will hunt up and down that row of cover forever, never thinking the bird might be beyond it 20 yards. Have you considered giving your dog a few lessons on making these difficult retrieves? This type of training is called "marking". A marked retrieve, is a retrieve where the dog can actually watch the bird fall and "mark" it with his eyes. A bird that the dog does not see fall and must be directed too, using the whistle and hand signals, is called a blind retrieve.


To practice marking, have the dog sit or lie down beside you at heel. If you hunt the dog from a down position, practice with him down. This will also help him to learn to stay down while you are shooting and the birds are falling. You can have the dog on a short leash and stand on it to prevent him from popping up or breaking for the bird before being sent. I like to start young dogs retrieving, sitting up. They can mark the actual fall better and have better depth perception when their sight plane is higher off the ground. You want to give a youngster all the advantages possible so that he will be more successful and remain eager to retrieve.


It is important to remember, that a dog cannot mark a bird when he can't see it, either because he wasn't looking or you've positioned him in cover he cannot see over. Kneel down to the dog's level for a "dog's eye view". Does he have a clear view of where you're going to throw the bird? Likewise, if the dog runs, jumps, or spins on the leash, trying to break for the bird, while it is still in the air, he is not going to be paying much attention to where it actually lands, and won't be able to mark the fall very well. With a young pup we like to hold him up by grasping the extra skin below the ears on either side of his head, pointing him toward the spot the bird will fall. In this position he can't jump or spin, no matter how anxious he is to get to the bird. By holding him up higher so his front feet are off the ground, we also raise his sight plane.


When you throw a mark, always position the fall so that the dog will learn something new from it that will help him later on, in an actual hunting situation. A dog's normal tendency is to stop at a natural barrier and hunt for the bird there. It is repetition and training, that teaches the dog to penetrate the barrier to find the bird. Look for cover lines, ditches, islands or spits in a pond,that you can teach the dog to go over, when you are setting up a mark. Throw the bird 20 or 30 yards beyond the natural barrier.If the dog stops at the barrier and won't go beyond it, have your thrower shoot again to attract the dogs attention and throw another bird if necessary to get him over to the fall. Repeat the mark until the dog catches on and runs right out to the area of the fall to hunt. 



Hold a young pup up by grasping the extra skin on either side of the head so that he must watch where the mark falls and be able to make a successful retrieve.

If the dog is trying to hunt it up somewhere relatively close to the area, we like to let him work it out himself. Don't be too quick to help the dog. Remember, it is his job to find the birds, that you can't. We hate to have the thrower yell "hey, hey" and help the dog. Pretty soon, when the dog can't find the bird, he'll run over to the thrower looking for help. If we have the thrower help the dog, we don't want the dog to know he's actually being helped. We accomplish this by having the thrower, throw up another bird while the dog is looking the other way. When the bird is up in the air, he fires a shot to attract the dog's attention. The dog turns around and sees the bird fall but doesn't know where it came from. We want the dog to believe that he is finding it on his own. 



Unlike many other breeds, the retriever does 50 % of his work with his eyes and 50 % with his nose. We like to use white bumpers for much of our marking, especially with young dogs to encourage the dogs to use their eyes. When a pup jumps through a row of cover, or comes up over an island in a pond, we want him to see that white bumper out there and run or swim directly out to it, and make a successful retrieve.


You can start a pup marking, by hand throwing the training bumpers yourself. As the dog advances, you will need an assistant to throw for you, as the dog will learn the distance you can throw and run only that far to hunt. When we get a new dog in the kennel for training, we can usually tell how far the owner can throw a bumper!


Next time your dog runs up and down a hedge row, hopelessly hunting for a bird that fell far beyond, don't ridicule him. Find an assistant, go out with some white bumpers and practice marking.


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