A dog that runs or swims directly to a downed bird is one of the greatest assets a hunter can have. While we all marvel at the scenting abilities of various sporting breeds, keen eyesight takes precedence in those initial moments after a bird is hit and begins tumbling downward. The skill of focusing on a falling duck or pheasant and then retaining that focus on the spot where the bird dropped is called “marking.”
Regardless of your dog’s excellent breeding history, eyesight or drive, it still takes lots of repetitions of thrown bumpers and birds in the training field to develop a consistently good marker.
As with most aspects of gundog training, almost any drill can be improved. When it comes to marking drills, I try to ensure that every throw is a challenge that a dog can learn from. Standing in one place and flinging a bumper 40 yards over and over might make for fun exercise, but it won’t do much to help your dog improve its marking skills. Keep these points in mind to develop your dog into a solid marker.
Use Contrasting Colors
Your dog can’t mark what it can’t see. It’s very important, especially with a young dog, that you provide as much help as possible to ensure that the dog can clearly see the object being thrown. In summer it’s hard to beat all-white bumpers that stand out against dark foliage. In winter or against a bright sky try using black or half-white/half-black bumpers. I’ve even tied contrasting streamers to bumpers, to make them stand out better as they fly.
Next, don’t be in a big hurry to run marking drills in heavy cover. It’s more important to help your dog gain confidence in its ability to judge angles and distances.
Last, as you work on marking drills with a young or inexperienced dog, have your thrower wear a white shirt or jacket. When I first started training professionally, I figured white coats were the exclusive domain of retriever field-trialers. After all, we don’t typically wear white while hunting, and you don’t see throwers wearing white at hunt tests, right?
My position on this has changed 180 degrees. For good marking, you must build a foundation before advancing to more challenging training. A thrower wearing white gives the dog something to focus on and gets it to run hard to the fall rather than stopping and checking behind every hay bale and bush on the way.
Reinforce the Focus
Sometimes a dog will watch a bumper as it’s thrown but then look away from the spot where it fell. This sometimes happens after you’ve introduced the dog to multiple retrieves. In anticipation of a second bumper being thrown, the dog starts to look for it and therefore loses focus on the initial throw.
To address this, go back to concentrating on challenging-yet-confidence-building single marks in very light cover. Then vary the amount of time before you send the dog for the retrieve. On the first throw, for example, silently count to five before sending the dog. On the next throw wait two seconds. And on the next one 10 seconds. The dog should soon realize that this single throw is the only place it needs to look, and locking in on the spot of the fall is going to help in finding the bumper faster.
A Note About Wind Direction
To further reinforce the point that marking is about eyes first, pay attention to the wind. Run drills with the wind at your dog’s back. You don’t need to “help” the dog by running marks into the wind. If you do, the result becomes a dog that “breaks down” before the area of the fall and starts zig-zagging and hunting with its nose.
When it comes to marking, it’s all about the eyes first.
While it’s obviously important that your dog knows how to use its nose, that’s an instinct you can safely assume the dog can figure out without much coaching. A dog that’s a good marker will run right to the spot of the fall by using its eyes. Its nose is there for the assist, not as the primary means of finding a dead bird.
Training Tip: The Fire Drill
A reliable helper with a strong arm to assist you in marking drills is a must. But there are other ways your thrower can help, and one of those is what retriever trainers call the “fire drill.” This is something I often do when I’m trying to get a dog to run longer marks but it’s hunting short or exhibiting a lack of confidence in stretching the distance.
In the fire drill, after your helper has fired the gun and made the initial throw, he or she is always ready with another bumper. If the dog is on its way to the retrieve and starts to slow down or run with its head down as if it’s about to start hunting short of the fall, your helper can instantly shout, “Hey, hey!” and toss another bumper to the same area as the first one.
Having the fire drill always ready as a backup plan ensures that every mark will be completed successfully and further reinforces that when it comes to marking, it’s all about the eyes first. Everything else is secondary.
Jessie Richards owns and operates Full Throttle Kennel, in Campbellsport, Wisconsin, and trains in Boston, Georgia, during the winter. She specializes in training retrievers for upland and waterfowl hunting and competes in AKC field trials. In addition to guiding in the fall, Richards spends Octobers waterfowl hunting in Saskatchewan.