Teach your retriever to mark better for more effective hunting
Many people believe you don’t need to teach a retriever how to mark a bird falling to the ground. That they will just do it naturally. And some might. But marking is a skill that retrievers can learn, and working on the concept will increase the odds of your dog finding the bird you shot down in the field. Here are four easy marking drills for retrievers.
What does “mark” mean in hunting and dog training?
It can be confusing when you have words that mean two different things depending on the context. If you search the internet for “marking and dogs” you will get a lot of posts that talk about marking in the context of male dogs peeing on things to “mark” their territory.
That is not what this article is about. In this context, we are talking about a dog learning to “mark” a bird or bumper as it falls to the ground. Marking is a vital part of hunting with a dog. If the dog does not mark the bird, he/she may spend a long time trying to find the bird after it is shot down. Additionally, if you are training your dog and your dog does not mark the bumper that was thrown, they may put up a very long hunt trying to find the bumper. If your dog’s marking ability is very bad, he/she may never find the bird or bumper.
Why is marking important?
Most of us hunt with a dog because we love watching our dog work. But there is a practical side to hunting with a dog also – conservation. Hunting with a dog increases our chances of finding the birds that we shoot down. We don’t want to shoot birds down and leave them in the field. We want to take them home and prepare them for food.
A dog does the work of watching where the bird falls, running out and retrieving it.
If your dog cannot mark well, he/she cannot do the work for which he/she was breed. And you may have to walk out and find the birds yourself, which really defeats the whole purpose of hunting with a dog.
Marking for hunt tests
If you don’t hunt your dogs but prefer, instead, the hunt test games, marking is even more important. When competing in hunt tests, you will be judged on your dog’s ability to mark. And your ability to advance in hunt tests will be hindered if your dog is a poor marker.
How do I teach my retriever to mark?
As I have already stated, you can teach your dog to mark or to mark better. The way you do this is by working through some marking drills that teach your dog different marking concepts.
Most marking drills require you to have some help – a person who will act as a thrower. Being a thrower is not a difficult job. Many children are able to do the work, or your spouse, or a fellow retriever lover who wants to train his/her dog also. I highly recommend finding someone to help you with the training for the most effective progress.
Some of the drills can be done alone, but it requires some additional training prior to doing the drills. See post on doing Stand Alones. In addition, doing the drills by yourself will require you to do A LOT of walking and will take considerably more time.
How to do marking drills without an additional thrower
If you absolutely do not have someone to help you with training your retriever on marking drills, you can use mechanical throwing devices. These are expensive and will still require you to do a lot of walking or using an ATV to refill the launcher after every mark.
In addition, mechanical launchers cannot vary the throw if your dog is having problems or adjust on the fly like a person can. So, in my opinion, they are not a great substitute for these types of drills.
You can also do some of these drills using the Stand Alones method, but again, you will be doing a lot of walking to accomplish a drill that could be done very quickly with a little help.
The key to teaching your retriever to mark
The key to teaching marking drills to your retriever is that you want to follow this advice:
The marks should be:
- Hard to get to, and easy to find, or
- Easy to get to and hard to find.
You do not want your marks during training to be both hard to get to and hard to find. That will make your training far less effective.
So, what does this mean in terms of training your dog. It means that as you select a location to train, and plan your drills or set ups, you need to keep in mind this advice. If the cover is very, very deep and hard for the dog to run through, then you should make the mark easy to find once they get to the location (i.e., tamp down an area where the mark is going to land). If the cover is very low and easy to run through, then the marks should be more difficult to find (i.e., into slightly higher cover).
Remember, you are training not testing your dog! You are teaching your dog concepts that he/she can use when in the field.
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What equipment do I need for these marking drills?
For these four marking drills you will need:
- A bucket filled with 6-12 white bumpers
- A person to act as your thrower
- A large field
- A starter pistol (optional)
Does the color of bumper matter?
When training your dog on marking drills, the color of bumper you are using does matter. If you want your dog to learn to mark better, you should be using white bumpers. In the winter, if you live somewhere where there is a lot of snow on the ground, you should use black bumpers. Contrast is very important for teaching your dog to mark better. Do not use orange bumpers for these marking drills. Dogs have a hard time seeing orange, so orange bumpers are generally used for blind retrieves, and not for marking drills. Blind retrieves are retrieves that your dog has not seen fall to the ground. Only dogs that have been formally trained to handle should be sent on blind retrieves.
4 easy marking drills for your retriever
Here are four drills that can help your retriever learn to mark better.
Drill #1: Walking Singles or Bird-Boy Marks
Walking singles is a geat drill for dogs of all ages. This drill can be done often, even a couple times a week, especially if you can do the drill in different locations.
How to do the Walking Singles drill
Once you have identified a field or area to do the drill, start by determining where you will be standing to run your dog (commonly referred to as the line), what distance you want your first throw and what distance you want your final throw to be. Plan for 4-6 marks.
Next, set your thrower up at Position One with a bucket of bumpers and a starter pistol if using. (Only use a starter pistol if your dog has already been properly introduced to gunfire.
As you progress through this drill, your thrower will move from position one, to two, then three, etc.
The mechanics of the walking singles drill
Have your dog sit at your side at HEEL at the LINE. Use a tab lead if your dog is not steady (will sit and wait until you send him/her for the mark). Signal your thrower to throw a bumper slightly angled back.
Send your dog for the mark. Your thrower should stand still until your dog has picked up the mark.
As soon as the dog picks up the mark, the thrower should move to where the first bumper landed and prepare to throw the next mark.
Take delivery of the bumper from your dog and have him/her SIT and wait for the next mark.
The drill looks something like this:
The beauty of this drill is that each time the dog delivers a bumper and sits facing the thrower, it is a completely new mark because the thrower has moved while the dog is running back.
Drill #2: The Y Drill
The Y Drill is a good drill to teach your dog to mark better. It also helps teach your dog to run over old scent to find the newly downed bird.
How to do the Y Drill
To set up for the Y Drill, find a large field area to work in. Determine the distance of marks you want to work on. For hunters this is usually somewhere between 50 – 60 yards, depending on the kind of hunting you do. For hunt tests, you may want to work on marks up to 100 yards or so.
Have your thrower set up somewhere mid-field around the yardage you want to train for. See diagram below:
For this drill, your thrower will be throwing either an angled-in throw, an angled-back throw or a flat throw. You should select the order you want for the marks based on the lesson you want to teach your retriever.
For example: if your dog is having problems running through old scent to find the new bird, you may want to have the angled in throw first so that there is some scent in the grass for your dog to run past on the other marks.
If your dog is struggling with short marks, you may want to do the longer throws first. This would make your dog want to go long and the short mark will be a teaching moment.
Some trainers may do this same drill but with the flat throw being on the opposite side of the thrower. We don’t like this practice because we have found that it often teaches a dog to hunt on both sides of the gunner, a practice that can be problematic in the long run both in hunting and hunt test scenarios.
Drill #3: The Back-Up Drill
The Back-Up Drill is perfect for dogs that are struggling to run out far enough to find longer marks. Often, especially if your dog has been trained with only hand throws, a dog will struggle to run all the way out to longer marks. We see this often and it can be a huge problem when you start hunting your dog.
The Back-Up Drill will teach your dog to mark the throws and run out further.
How to do the Back-Up Drill
To set up for the Back-Up Drill, find a long narrow field that you can work on. Position your thrower deep in the field with a bucket of bumpers. Your thrower will be throwing to the same location with each throw.
Walk your dog toward the thrower to a distance that you know your dog is able to successfully mark and use that as a starting point. You may want to carry a bucket with you on this drill, since you will need to collect the bumpers as your dog delivers them to you and carry them as you back up.
Have your thrower throw a mark and send your dog for the mark. As your dog is running out for the mark, back yourself up 5-10 yards, so that your dog will be delivering to you at a distance further than the distance he was sent from.
Have your thrower throw another mark, send your dog and back up again.
If, at any time, your dog struggles to find the bumper. Stay at that position and do a few more marks at that distance until your dog is finding the mark quickly. Then resume backing up.
If your dog is really struggling, you may have to move forward again for a few retrieves, before resuming the backup part of the drill.
Drill #4: The Dirt clod/snowball drill
Does your dog struggle with perseverance? If your dog gives up after a short hunt for the bird, then you need to work on teaching your dog perseverance. The way to do this is with the Dirt Clod/Snowball drill.
How to do the Dirt Clod/Snowball Drill
When setting up for this drill, you need to find a few dirt clods (clumps of dirt) or in the winter, snowballs. Add these to your throwers bucket of bumpers.
Set your thrower up at a distance that you think is a good distance for your hunting dog generally around 50 – 70 yards is good.
The first throw your thrower is going to make is with a dirt clod. When the dirt clod lands, you will send your dog for the mark.
Timing is critical for this drill. You need a thrower that is really paying attention to the dog because after the dog hunts for a while, the thrower will need to toss a bumper out, but this must be done at a time when the dog DOES NOT see the toss.
Why this drill works
The goal of this drill is that your dog will hunt for a while and not be able to find the bumper, then just when the dog is ready to give up, he/she will find the bumper.
This is achieved by letting the dog hunt and when the dog is hunting wide or away from the area, the thrower will toss out a bumper. You want to do this without the dog seeing it happen, so make the throw low and quick. It doesn’t have to be in the exact location that the dirt clod fell, just out away from the thrower.
Ideally, your dog will finally circle around and find the bumper which in his head he will think it was there all along and he just needed to hunt longer. But if he/she doesn’t find the bumper and starts running back to you (the handler), signal your thrower to yell “HEY-HEY” to draw the dog back to the area.
This can be a really challenging drill as your timing has to really be on spot to make this drill work. As your thrower gets more experience, they will be able to throw the bumpers out without your dog seeing them and will be able to sense when there is a need to call the dog.
Also, you don’t want to do this drill a lot. Just every once in a while to build up your dog’s perseverance to hunt longer
Teach your dog more concepts by adding challenges
Each of these drills help your dog learn to mark better, but you can add even more challenges by doing some slight alterations to the drills. You can set up decoys between you and the thrower so your dog has to learn to run through the decoys and not be distracted by them. Alternatively, you can do the marking drills out of a boat set on land, or while sitting on a bucket. Or, you can add diversions at the line, such as hand throwing a bumper as your dog returns from a retrieve, so he/she learns to deliver the bird in mouth before going for the new mark.
All these additions are a great way to train your dog to adjust to the ever-adjusting conditions during hunting.
Final thoughts on four easy marking drills for retrievers
Training your dog to mark is important training for all retriever breeds. It challenges your dog to learn to watch the bird fall carefully and run to the area. Also, it can help you retrieve more of the birds you shoot down resulting in less lost birds. And dogs love to do marking drills!
Remember, if you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I’m here to help! You can email me (email@example.com) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.
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