Sporting Dog and Retriever Training the Wildrose Way, Part III: The Big Mistake

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Twelve-year-old Pickett (left) didn’t benefit from Wildrose training methods, which is why the much younger Murphy is a more disciplined dog when it comes to breaking on live birds.

photo by Tim Bronson

This is the third in a series of blogs looking at Sporting Dog and Retriever Training—The Wildrose Way, a book I worked on with Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels. It’s a remarkable book, and each week I’m going to touch on one aspect of the training. Last week, we talked about why you should start training from the second you get your dog.

There is no more iconic vision of a dog and his master than the classic walking along the beach throwing sticks. Great fun for all and not a bad thing if the dog is a house pet, but if there is one definitive thing I learned about training a retriever when I was working on the book with Mike, it is this: Throwing countless bumpers for your dog and watching him tear across the field or launch into the water is great fun, but for a well-trained and controllable hunting dog, it is counterproductive.

“Fun bumper retrieves are just thrown around for entertainment with no discipline required. They are commonly used in many programs for rewards. Avoid fun bumpers. Why wreck a perfectly good training session where patience and calm behavior has been encouraged, valued, and rewarded with a tossed bumper that encourages a dog to break and run?”
-Mike Stewart

I can attest to this with authority because I have two dogs. Pickett, who is 12 years old, was trained long before I met Mike, and Murphy is two and was trained while I was working with Mike. I love them both and Pickett is as good a dog as I’ll ever have, but his incredible desire overrides his discipline when a bird falls. I have never been able to completely break him of the habit of breaking and by necessity use an e-collar, particularly in situations where there are other hunters and dogs to be considered, such as when we’re working driven shoots.

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The dog walks patiently at heel as the handler places the bumper. The dog and handler heel away the desired distance. The dog must display patience before he is aligned
for the memory. The fence encourages straight lining..

illustration by James Daley

This is completely my fault, for when he was young, I threw countless bumpers for him just for fun. I figured it was enhancing his desire to retrieve, and it was great fun to watch for he is spectacular when he launches into the water. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I would pay for this in the blind or in the field when I wanted him sitting quietly and instead he was gone before the gun was even up. My fault. A well-bred retriever wants to retrieve, particularly when there are birds involved. You don’t have to enhance that. What needs enhancing is his willingness to work with you.

Murphy, on the other hand, has never been thrown a mark. From day one, I used Mike’s methods called memories. There are trailing memories, circle memories, 180 double memories, sight memories, and so on, but the point is that they all reinforce patience and control. It would take me more space than I have here to get into the details, which is why the book is so beneficial, but in simple terms, virtually every training retrieve that Murphy has ever had has been some type of memory. I’ve included two diagrams by James Daley that are in the book and show the basic trailing memory and the 180 double, which are perfect for early retrieval training.

The trailing memory is simple. Walk out with the dog at heel, drop the bumper and give the dog the command “NO, HEEL,” and then walk back. “NO” is not a reprimand, but is a deselect that tells the dog we’re doing something else. Also I’m not using his name, as that is his signal to go. We walk back to a spot, turn and line up for the bumper. When Murphy is quiet and looks up at me giving me eye contact, I then line him for the bumper and send him with his name “MURPH.” In every case, patience and control is required. I started this from day one, and now when I throw a bumper, the first thing he does is look at me.

The variations on this theme are endless—the book is full of them and they are used in more training scenarios than you can imagine—but the premise in each is the same. The dog is looking to you for a command before he does anything else.

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Established with the dog walking at heel, this is similar to the trailing memory. The dog and the handler turn and walk in the opposite direction of the first memory to place the second. Heel the dog away from the second memory and line him for the first. Upon completion, line for the second memory completing the double.

illustration by James Daley

Even so, I’ve made some errors. I initially made the mistake of working Murphy and Pickett together on a driven shoot. Basically, I got too big for my britches and thought I was a better handler and trainer than I am. Competition with his big brother plus live birds is a lot to ask of a two-year-old, not to mention that keeping Pickett in line due to the aforementioned training error is a full-time job. I did this a couple of times and realized it was a mistake. When I work Murphy by himself without the competitive issue with Pickett, his focus returns to me and we are much more successful at overcoming his youthful excitement with live birds. While he is near perfect in training, the excitement of live birds, gunfire, and other dogs are a quantum leap for a young dog, and he needs my undivided attention. Good lesson for me. The good news is, the right behavior is ingrained, and unlike Pickett, Murphy is easily reminded with just a whistle command, no e-collar necessary.

If you have a retriever that’s just a companion and you want to throw bumpers or sticks on your walk at the beach, it’s great fun for both you and the dog. But if you are serious about having a hunting companion who works in concert with you and is under control and looking to you for direction, throwing bumpers for fun just to watch them go get them is not going to give you what you want. Take it from me: I have two great examples of the difference.

(By the way, I’m not a killjoy. I do take Murphy for walks on the beach, and I do throw bumpers into the ocean, but I use a sight memory. I walk him to the water’s edge toss the bumper out into the water and then heel him away and back up the beach. I then turn, line him up, wait for him to sit quietly, give me eye contact, and then send him. He has just as much fun, and I get the hunting companion I desire.)

Paul Fersen is the Senior Managing Writer for the Orvis Company and worked with Mike Stewart as co-writer and editor for Sporting Dog and Retriever Training—The Wildrose Way.

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