My Dog ... A Washout?
Nobody likes to wash-out a dog from competition. This series is meant to help you reach the goals you set when training your dog for a career in the field. All dogs have a different level of ability to perform in various arenas of competition available to Golden owners today. It is important to know if your dog will have the ability to be a star in the area you choose to compete. Once this is determined then a solid training program can bring that dog along as far as it is able to go. Today I will focus on a discussion of the different attributes needed in order to be able to compete in the field. In Part II of this series which will appear in the next issue I will review different training practices that will help keep you, and consequently your dog, on track. Even though your dog may be talented, and you may have experience training dogs for the field there are pitfalls to watch for. The second part of this series will focus on them.
Part I - Selecting the right dog for the Job
Listen to your dog
When I think of the topic of abilities I always think of my bitch, Hope. She was unique, as we all are and didn't follow the prescribed plan for a field dog as I had wished she had. Yet Hope was a great teacher, all I had to do was listen.
Hope had a fine field pedigree and lots of natural ability, however she was missing one thing - the desire to be a field dog. We started her on marks when she was a puppy as we did all of our puppies but she just didn't show much enthusiasm. Hope loved fun retrieves, but didn't like the formality of marks in a training session. I knew that she lacked enthusiasm when it came to field work but I hoped that somehow I would find the right motivator to make her sparkle. Her formal training went through force fetch when I finally stopped because of her poor attitude. Pressure wasn't an answer to developing a more enthusiastic retrieve since it only destroyed what little enthusiasm she had to retrieve.
During the time that we washed out Hope from a possible field career my husband and I became interested in Search and Rescue. We had been exposed to Search and Rescue when we bred our German Shepherd bitch to an internationally known Search and Rescue dog. When a new club was forming in our area we decided to join and chose to try to retrain Hope and her dad, Ryan for Search and Rescue. Hope caught on quickly and used all of her wonderful attributes that would have made her a good field dog (good nose, athletic ability, endurance, intelligence, etc.) to become a great Search and Rescue dog. Search and Rescue is hard work, but it didn't daunt Hope for she was committed to find a lost person. Her hunt was serious and focused, all that I had hoped I would see when she was being trained for field work, but which never materialized in that arena. The difference was that Hope loved people and would put forth the energy necessary to find a lost person, but she didn't care about birds or retrieving. Whenever she found a person she literally sparkled.
Hope showed me that a dog must have the attributes and the interest necessary to fill the job description if it is to become successful in performing the job. This interest can be defined as the desire to do the job because this cannot be taught, it is a given. Hope was a washout in the field but was a success at Search and Rescue. Therefore she taught me that the first step in preventing your dog from washing out in the field is to evaluate the dog for the job of field dog just as if you were hiring a perspective employee for a position in your company, looking at both ability and attitude.
Think this through carefully. Some of you may have experience writing job descriptions and others may not, but the key to a good job description is to think of all the tasks one must do to perform a specific job in a company, than list the abilities and attributes one must possess in order to perform those tasks well. If you have ever gone to a AKC Hunt Test, a Working Certificate and Working Certificate Excellent test, or a licensed Retriever Field Trial, you have seen the beauty of a Golden working within its natural element, as it was bred to do since the founding of the breed. While these trials are all different in the level of difficulty of the tests, each demonstrates the abilities a Golden needs in order to be a successful hunting dog. The level of difficulty of the test is based on the qualities the judge is testing for, thus the higher level stakes look for a finely honed demonstration of these abilities.
From my point of view, the following abilities are the most important necessary for your dog to possess if it is to fill the job description of Field Dog:
Contrary to the opinion of the general public, the field dog is not a tightly wired spring that is ready to explode at any moment in an unauthorized way. The field bred dog is the dog that has the ability to give a sharp performance, demonstrating power, athletic ability and ability at a field trial or a training session. However Field dogs are expected to have great control over their abilities and must have impeccable line-manners as anything less would not be tolerated. Needless to say, these dogs work off leash often 300 yards away from the handler. Every step along the way, from waiting quietly in the blind until called to go on-line to sitting at the handler's side, with game in mouth, waiting for the bird to be taken, then heeling off the line or quietly honoring another dog's retrieve, is a demonstration of the calm control the retriever has over its natural drive and abilities.
Good Marking Ability
One of the unique qualities a retriever possesses is the ability to mark the fall of a bird in the brush at great distances. Somehow, they are able to remember where the bird fell and run quickly to that spot, over creeks and through brush, then hunt for the bird in a small area surrounding the fall. Field bred Goldens possess this ability which is absolutely necessary if the dog is going to be able to find the bird and bring it back to the handler. All field tests include "marks" which evaluate the dogs marking ability. There is a saying among field-trialers, "marks win trials, but blinds keep you in". This means the best marking dog will win the trial if everything else in all other competitors' performances are equal.
A retriever test should also demonstrate that the dog has a good nose. The dog's hunt for the bird should be tight and persistent, keeping to a small area surrounding the fall of the bird. Even if it takes the dog a while to find the bird, if the dog is hunting continuously and keeps to the area of the fall, the dog is not penalized too severely for a long hunt.
Memory is necessary for a dog to do multiple marks successfully. In higher-level tests, triples (3 retrieves in succession) and quads (4 retrieves in succession) are often very difficult. Dogs must watch three or four birds being thrown (one may be a flyer which is a live bird being shot), and then after all birds are down, the dog is sent to retrieve one at a time. He must remember where the bird fell and retrieve each bird, one after another. Memory is another of the remarkable abilities that a retriever possesses.
Prey drive is the love of a chase. Very often high prey drive gets the dog out there fast after the bird has been thrown. This prey drive coupled with the courage to run through brush and over other obstacles and swim through water keeping a straight line to the fall is the ability that gets a dog out to the fall, fast and stylishly.
Ability to take Direction
In the upper level competitions dogs must also demonstrate that they can be handled to a bird they did not see fall. This test is called "a blind". The ability to take direction is a very important quality the working retriever must possess. This ability combines the innate intelligence of the dog along with his tractability. Through handling drills, the dog learns to go when he is sent for a bird he did not see fall as quickly as if he saw it fall. He also learns to stop to one toot of a whistle, sit and face his handler, wait for direction then cast right, left or angle-back. Since these dogs may undergo a great deal of stress during any of this training, they must be able to keep a cool head and learn under pressure. Remember, marks win the trial, but blinds keep you in.
Courage is the quality that keeps a dog from worrying about getting hurt. Field bred dogs with courage run with abandon meeting new situations and tests with confidence. Dogs lacking drive and courage are easy targets to develop bank-running problems and cheat cover. These dogs are harder to train, as they are conservative in how they use themselves when they run a test.
Field trials have a minimum of four series of tests, which are set up to test different abilities of the retriever. This test includes both water and land tests. A retriever must be a fit athlete with plenty of endurance in order to have the stamina to hold up under this grueling pace. The retriever who possesses all of these abilities is a confident bright dog that learns quickly and always has presence of mind. This dog is not afraid of new things or new situations and he cannot be driven to panic easily.
Field dogs should love their work. A dog with a good attitude wants to do well and will strive to give you a good performance. A dog with a poor attitude will show lack of interest in the whole process of training. There isn't any proverbial "carrot" for these dogs.
Some of these abilities are demonstrated in day to day living and others must be tested for. Observe your dog at play. Does he quit retrieving after several throws; does he become distracted easily; does he have difficulty finding a ball when it is tossed into heavy grass; is he persistent when he hunts for it or does he lose interest and quit after a short while; does he avoid heavy brush and cover or does he barrel through it when he is chasing the ball; is he up to retrieve all the time or will he quit on you when the going gets tough; does he love to swim, so much so that you can't seem to get him out of the water; is he a know-it-all or does he listen to you and does he tire easily or is he a smooth-running machine? Just think about your dog and you can probably get a good idea if he has the attributes for a field dog by just answering these questions. The only areas you might have to formally test the dog for are birdyness and marking ability. It is hard to determine your dog's interest in birds, or it's marking ability without testing both. Once you determine that the dog has the natural ability to do the job you can go on and map out a training program for the dog, and embark on the long journey which will lead you to your much sought after destination - competition.
Dogs possessing these qualities have all the attributes one would want in a leader and they carry out the role of field dog with style. The field Golden is a dog of rare character.
Be sure to also read Part II of this article - Training the Dog For Success.
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