Field Training with Your Flat-Coat

By Mary Young

This article discusses some basic training ideas that may be helpful in developing your Flat-coat as a hunting companion and perhaps also in preparation for organized events such as hunt tests or working certificates.

Some guidelines for young puppies…

If you have acquired a young Flat-coat puppy, the time to start training your future retriever is as soon as you get home. Whether your puppy is destined to do most of his work on waterfowl or on upland birds, it is important to encourage good habits early and to accustom your puppy to the outdoors. Try to find safe places where you can take your puppy for long walks-just the two of you. If there are no hazards and your puppy is still young enough so that you can easily catch him (or let him drag a light line), encourage him to explore a bit on his own. Always reward him with lots of praise and perhaps a treat when he comes back to you. Encouraging a puppy to range out a maximum distance AND return promptly when called will be invaluable in developing his potential as a flushing retriever.

Puppies can start retrieving as early as 7 weeks, with certain guidelines in mind:

  • start in safe/non-distracting area like a hallway/room/fenced yard
  • use small soft objects like a rolled up sock, tennis ball, or specially designed puppy bumper
  • incite chase instinct by teasing with toy before throwing and vocal encouragement
  • make your throws as short as necessary-starting with just five or ten feet
  • running backwards encourages a return as does getting down on their level and patting ground and using an encouraging voice
  • have a second identical retrieving item that you can tease the puppy with or even throw past you to encourage a fast return
  • Always leave them wanting more; two or three retrieves are probably enough
  • As soon as possible, accustom the puppy to dragging a very light line (about 6-8 feet in length) while doing these simple retrieves

Introduction to birds and guns

If you have the opportunity to introduce your pup to birds, take advantage of it. Treat the bird as an extra-special retrieve object-tease the puppy, allow him to sniff it, pick it up if he chooses, etc. The only purpose of this is to introduce the smell and feel of birds. If your dog starts to chew or otherwise play with the birds, that is enough for that session. We want them to think that birds are fun and fascinating-but not chew toys either. Sometimes it is useful to allow a puppy to observe an older dog retrieving birds-this can build enthusiasm and birdiness in a youngster that lacks confidence.

If you have the opportunity to expose your dog to gunfire, that is also good-as long as it is at a significant distance from your dog and the dog associates the loud noises with some fun activity-like walks in the woods, retrieving, birds, etc. If possible, start with a pistol and gradually move to a shotgun.

Obedience is critical for success in the field

Time and commitment are needed to develop a dog that is obedient off lead under distracting circumstances. But a dog cannot do field training until basic off-lead obedience with distractions is mastered, especially the recall exercise (see below for additional discussion). The best way to get started is through a local obedience class, through books and videos, and perhaps also by observing a top-quality professional trainer. It is a good idea to incorporate the use of a whistle as a substitute for the verbal commands of "come" and "sit" as early as possible.

How to develop a reliable recall

What is a recall? It's the second half of a retrieve! Many dogs have enough prey/chase instinct to run after a thrown item but most need to be trained in a strong recall to come back reliably. A dog that comes reliably in the yard or house is still a LONG way from a dog who can be trusted off-lead in hunting or field training environments where there are birds, guns, people, other dogs, and lots of excitement. If one were to teach only one obedience exercise to a dog, it would have to be a truly reliable recall. Your dog's life may depend on it and without it, it is unlikely you will be able to continue with field training. Your dog must come when called or it risks getting shot by hunters, annoying people, getting lost, or getting hit by a car.

As mentioned in the section on puppy retrieves, it is a good idea to get a puppy used to dragging a long, thin line so you always have control of your pup. This same method can be used if you have acquired an older dog that has very poor recall habits. Do recalls as often as you can. You want your puppy or dog to think that being called is best game ever invented. Use food, use toys, use your voice-but don't reel them in like a fish on a line. The line is just to keep them from leaving. Never punish a dog that finally comes to you.

Another important rule of dog training is to never give a command you cannot or will not reinforce. A dog should never realize he has a choice in coming when called. If, for example, your Flat-coat is frolicking in the field and you KNOW he isn't going to come when called--DON'T call him. Walk out and bring him to you (bribe if necessary--but if wearing a line, step on the line). Rule number three involves consistency. If you give a command, make the dog comply each time on the first command, even if you physically have to place the dog in position. There can be no gray areas since dogs only understand black and white.

More obedience commands

SIT. Dogs must also be trained to sit quietly until told to retrieve (to be "steady") and should sit quietly and allow another dog to retrieve game ("to honor").

DOWN. Down is a useful command when out hunting, especially in waterfowl blinds and when honoring.

HEEL. Precision isn't required but a dog should at least walk quietly on a leash without dragging the handler and should ideally be trustworthy to heel off leash for extended periods of time.

The Electric Collar

Many, if not most, field trainers now use the electric collar for reinforcing obedience commands. The electric collar is NOT a teaching device-it can only be used as part of a total training program once the basic commands have been very thoroughly taught using other methods of instruction. There are good videos, books, and seminars available one the use of the e-collar. Its use as part of a total training program is best done by a professional trainer or under the supervision of a professional or amateur that has extensive experience (and good results) with this method of training.

Starting basic field training

So your dog can reliably come when called, even with distractions and will retrieve in the yard. Now it's time to introduce some real field training.

First some terminology:

SINGLE: one bird or dummy is thrown
DOUBLE: two birds or dummies are thrown before the dog is sent--he must remember the location of both
TRIPLE: three birds or dummies are thrown
GUNNER: person in the field who is throwing the birds/bumpers; may be
shooting a gun or yelling "hey, hey" to alert dog that the throw is coming
LINE: the starting point for the retrieve and also the path taken to the bird or dummy
MARK: a bird or dummy that the dog sees thrown; "to mark" is a measure of how accurately the dog remembers where the throws landed
MEMORY MARK: After the dog picks up one bird or bumper of a double or triple, the remaining marks to be picked up are called the memory marks

What Equipment You Will Need:

  • Soft plastic bumpers with cord tied to end
  • Buckle collar with drag line
  • Starter pistol or .22 pistol
  • Whistle

Once you are sure that your dog will retrieve bumpers that you throw, the next step is to have another person (a gunner) throw for you. Usually such a mark would be farther away than you could throw a bumper yourself-resulting in retrieves that are longer than if you were just throwing your own. Alternately, if your dog will sit and stay, you can go out in the field and throw your own marks-send the dog on an arm signal or voice command to let him know that it's OK to make the retrieve. It is very important that the dog learns to mark at a distance that is farther than you can throw and from a perspective where the falls come from out in the field rather than from your hand.

There are a number of references, listed at the end of this article that can give you more specific information on how to advance your dog's marking. In general, you want to consider how some of the following factors may affect the difficulty of a retrieve:

  • distance of retrieve and angle of throw (does dog have to run past the thrower to complete the retrieve?)
  • role of wind
  • variations in cover and terrain

Try not to add too many factors too quickly for your inexperienced retriever. The goal is to set up retrieves so that the dog is successful at least 75% of the time. Try to do "walking singles" where the gunner walks across a field rather than just repeating the same mark over and over. The purpose of simple singles is to give the dog practice in marking a throw under a variety of conditions and learning how to problem solve by developing a good hunt pattern.

If your dog lacks enthusiasm, you might try allowing him to watch another dog retrieve and also keep sessions extra short. If your dog is noisy or out of control, it is probably necessary to return to additional obedience training before continuing in the field. If your dog is doing well, start early on getting him to sit quietly and "honor" another dog's retrieving. This is a requirement for a good hunting dog and also for many competitions.

Introduction to water

Most Flat-coats love to play around the water and to make simple water retrievers. The first step is to develop a positive attitude about water in general and the second step will be to develop a good working attitude around water. Some general rules of thumb for puppies or dogs with little water experience:

  • no steep drop offs or water that has lots of "scary" objects
  • if your dog volunteers to go in cold water, that's fine, but don't train in water below about 55 degrees-training in cold water and hunting or playing in water are two different things
  • be willing to go in with pup
  • no throwing or pushing or forcing of pup
  • following an older (friendly) dog can be good but you don't want pup to be dunked or otherwise frightened by a larger, enthusiastic dog

Advanced training: multiple marks, force fetch and beyond

You can start teaching your dog to "count" for doubles and triples when they are very young. You can throw one bumper down a hallway or one side of a fence and the other down a different hallway or opposite side of the fence. The bumpers or retrieve objects should be visible.

When you start doubles in the field with two throwers, try throwing each of the marks as a single first and then putting it together as a double. Make the memory mark the easier of the two marks to find at first-you are trying to build on success here. Be sure the angle between the two throwers and between the two marks is very wide-at least 90 degrees and preferably more.

Some of the typical problems that develop with multiple marks are an inability to remember the memory mark (either not going when sent to retrieve or returning immediately to the first mark), switching (leaving the area of one mark without getting the bird to try for the next bird), or even trying to run from one mark to another before delivering the first to the handler. Many of the reference materials at the end of this article offer suggestions on how to deal with these problems.

Virtually all retrievers that continue with advanced field training go through a program called "force fetching" at a minimum. Many also receive a comprehensive training program using the electric collar (this program is often referred to as "collar basics"). The purpose of force fetching is to ensure that your dog will retrieve an object gently and carefully every time-no mouthing, no dropping, no pulling feathers, etc. Continuing in the field with a dog that has not been taught how to properly retrieve and carry game can create some problems-while a few dogs never develop sloppy habits, most eventually do and that is the reason for teaching a proper retrieve early on. The e-collar basics program also requires that a solid foundation in basic obedience and force fetch has already been well established.

If your dog will be doing a lot of flushing work, this is also the time to expose the dog to quartering, preferably with a drive line of gunners with thrown or shackled birds. In a drive line you will need at least two gunners, one walking about 15 yards on either side of you; they are carrying birds, concealed from the dog. The gunners may take turns calling the dog back and forth, teaching the basics of quartering and occasionally throwing a bird out as the dog passes them. The dog should not see the throw, which simulates a flush that happens behind the dog, but should hear a shot. The next step is to get the dog to actually flush the bird either using "dizzied" planted birds or a release box. You may find that your dog's obedience deteriorates with the excitement of flushing the bird-you may have to work at close distances with a check cord or e-collar to solve this. For a dog that is hesitant to flush, it may be helpful to pair him with a gentle but experienced older dog that will show him the procedure. Finally, before you head out for wild pheasant season, you should try to do a few planted bird hunts to get additional experience.

Retriever Clubs

Every state has at least one retriever club that is oriented toward working retrievers. The names of clubs can be found at Working Retriever Central on the World Wide Web. Clubs are a possible source of training grounds, seminars, and training partners.

Other Resources:

Books

Tritronics Retriever Training (Dobbs)
Retriever Working Certificate Training (Rutherford)
Retriever Training Tests (Spencer)
The Working Retrievers (Quinn)
Training With Mike Lardy (22 articles from the Retriever Journal)

Videos

Mike Lardy - Set One
Mike Lardy - Set Two on Marking
(available from Younglove Broadcast Services 1-800-848-5963)

Periodicals

Gun Dog
On-Line
The Retriever Journal 1-800-447-7367

Online

Working Retriever Central - www.working-retriever.com/
Direct Book Service - www.dogandcatbooks.com
A great source for all dog training books!

Mary Young has been breeding and training Flat-coats for over 20 years. She successfully competes with her owner trained dogs at the highest levels of Field Trials and the AKC Hunting Test Program. Mary is a licensed AKC Field Trial and Hunt Test judge and also shows her dogs in obedience and conformation.

Mary would also like to thank Don Freeman, another long time Flat-coat owner, trainer, hunter and handler for his contributions, particularly on the upland game training portion of the article.