LET NO GAME GO UNRETRIEVED
by Nancy Anisfield and Rob Shaw
Every bird-dog-owning grouse and woodcock hunter knows that finding a downed bird in thick cover is no easy task. Autumn leaves, tangled blowdowns, air-washed scent, swirling winds, depth distorting conifers, rocks, crevasses and ground debris seem to exist to confound hunters and dogs. As shooters, we can keep our eyes on the bird and note visible landmarks where it drops. As dog handlers, we have another set of eyes and an impressive nose available to help. Even though a dog’s nose and instincts are superior to ours, there are things we can train and ways we can handle our dogs to give them the maximum advantage in finding downed game.
Rob Shaw is a member of both NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association) and NADKC (North American Deutsch Kurtzhaar Club), and a former AKC Hunt Test judge. A highly experienced retriever trainer, Rob owns German shorthairs and Labs. When asked for advice on how we can train our gun dogs to be better retrievers, he says, “Marking comes from basic obedience – being taught to be steady on point or to whoa on a flush.”
“The dogs are supposed to watch the bird. In the grouse woods, it’s no different from sitting in a blind and watching a duck. The dogs need to be taught to stop what they’re doing and follow the game with their eyes.” To that end, teaching a dog to be steady and not run on the shot is key. As Rob explains, “The dog should watch, and when released, put himself where the bird was last seen. If he breaks, he can’t see where the bird fell.”
Rob points out that there are situations where the dog does everything right but doesn’t see the bird (just like us). “Then it’s a handling situation, which is harder to train,” Rob adds. He uses a different release for marked retrieves as opposed to unmarked retrieves. If he knows the dog has seen the bird drop, he uses the dog’s name to release him. If the dog doesn’t have a mark, Rob uses the commands “over” or “back.”
The commands have a left or right directional component, indicated by a hand signal. Rob doesn’t teach a straight back, the logic being that when a dog is sent to fetch, it usually goes straight out to the bird, so why stop it? “I teach angled backs. When I whistle, the dog stops his movement and looks for my hand signal, which along with the command ‘Back!’, will send it on a 45-degree angle from its position to the left or right. ‘Over!’ sends the dog in a 90-degree direction.”
Teaching a dog the hand signals that accompany the over and back commands is done in a series of repeated drills that gradually work the dog from seen to unseen bumper throws and from repeating the same angle to mixing up the retrieves randomly. Rob starts by working one command and angle per week for four weeks – left over, right over, left back, right back. His method is simple and focused, placing the dog in a stay position then repeatedly flipping bumpers by the dog’s head so the dog can see to the side and angle being taught. Rob then gives the command with the accompanying hand signal. After the particular angle and command are reinforced, he puts the bumpers out without the dog having seen them thrown and repeats the drills.
In the woods, if a dog is having trouble locating the game after either seeing it drop or being sent on a mark, Rob recommends walking into the area and calling the dog in to search. “If I find the bird first,” Rob says, “I don’t pick it up. I wait for him to find it. Always let the dog get the reward.”
Note: NAVHDA members use many different methods in their dog training. The information in this article doesn’t represent an official training method standardized by NAVHDA International.