Sporting Dog Training the Wildrose Way, Part IV: The Most Versatile Training Tool


Scented tennis balls can help a pup learn to use his or her nose.

photo courtesy Paul Fersen

This is the fourth 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 the problems created by waiting too long before starting to train your pup.

A few months before I picked up Murphy at Wildrose, I met one of Mike Stewart’s associate trainers, Craig Korff, at the Game Fair at Orvis Sandanona in Millbrook, New York. We began a casual conversation about training methods and philosophies, as one would expect, but then he took me to his truck and pulled out something that has proven to be not only the most valuable, but the most fun training tool I’ve ever used—scented tennis balls.

One would think that tennis balls would be the last thing you would use in training with Wildrose methods, given the emphasis on patience, delays, and denials in retrieving training. The first thing that comes to mind with tennis balls is someone throwing them endlessly in the park and a happy-go-lucky dog tearing across the grass or in the water to get them. Great fun, but not the stuff of patience, delay, and denial. But what Craig showed me was a zip-lock bag full of duck feathers and tennis balls.

What I learned is that they are the perfect tool (and great fun) to use in training a dog to hunt with his nose, particularly in deep cover where the object of the retrieve is not apparently visible. Rolled into deep cover, they create a scent trail that encourages the dog to follow his nose. With a puppy, it is great first exposure to following a scent trail rolled in front of him, allowing him to discover his nose and begin to awaken the hunting instinct. I have used these in almost every training session from the beginning because Murphy can get bored easily with drills, and these tennis balls always bring him back to peak interest.

My favorite drill is to walk with Murphy along a line of tall grass or cover. With him at heel, I wait until he is looking forward and subtly toss a ball behind my back into the cover, marking the spot. Once I have three out, I go back and line him into the area of the first ball. As soon as he is in the grass, I give him the “HUNT DEAD” command. Once he returns with it, we heel to the next spot and repeat.

Another drill is with Murphy at heel on the way out to a training session, I throw all three balls into the woods in a specific area. I pick a tree or other marker so I know where they are when I return. I then proceed to the training session, go through the drills, and then on the way back, some 30 minutes later, stop at the spot and send him after the balls. This builds his memory, as well, as he remembers these balls being thrown even after an extended period of time. It is important for me to have a good sense of where they are, so I can use hand signals if necessary to get him in the vicinity, particularly on the last ball when there is some residual scent left from the first two balls. Not only does this build the understanding of hunting hard when I tell him, but it works handling as well.

It didn’t take long at all for him to grasp this, as the scent and the fun of finding the ball were fun for both of us. The result is a dog that loves to hunt deep cover, and this has paid tremendous dividends when I’ve worked him at driven shoots, as often wounded or dead birds go down in thick brush. Once he gets near the spot, I give the command, and he is relentless in his search. If the bird is wounded and moving, it is gratifying to watch him work the area until he finds the bird. I attribute this first to his breeding and second to his love of this exercise over the past couple of years. The other benefit is the translation to walk-ups, as the same instinct kicks in the moment he picks up the scent; the only difference is the flush.

Mike recommends taking breast feathers from a game bird, putting them in an open zip-lock bag and allowing them to air dry for a few days. Then dampen the tennis balls and close them in the bag for a couple of weeks. I have also used bottled game bird scent. A couple of drops on the ball and you have one of the best training tools you will find, and for Murphy and me, an incredibly versatile tool that keeps our training sessions upbeat and great fun.

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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