Giving the Dual-Purpose Dog Unambiguous Signals

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

A "back cast" can look a lot like the utility drop signal to the dog.

Often our seminars attract both obedience trainers and trainers of field retrievers. Typically, we'll cover the basics on using the electronic collar on a Saturday, and Sunday is spent addressing more advanced work for the different interest groups.

When we present the "handling" portion of the retriever seminar, we are invariably asked about the potential for confusion. Can some of the signals and other procedures used in training a "handling dog" confuse him if he's already trained for competition obedience?

What is a "handling dog?"

First of all, what is "handling?" It's directing a retriever at a distance from you to stop on a whistle, look at you, then move left, right, go farther away, or come toward you. Arm signals, body motion, and verbal commands are used in combination. These guides to the dog are called "casts."

Here's a little background for those not familiar with field training for retrievers (hunting tests, field trials, and working certificate programs). These field events all test the inborn qualities and trained skills that a hunter needs in a retriever, a dog that locates downed game in the field and brings it back.

The bird to be retrieved may be one the dog saw go down; this is called a "marked retrieve." Or it may be a one he didn't see fall; this is called a "blind retrieve." In a blind retrieve, the dog doesn't know where the bird is, but the trainer does. The trainer "handles" the dog to the correct spot in the field.

Blind retrieves aren't part of the working certificate tests, but they are included in the advanced levels of hunting tests and field trials. Blind retrieves place challenging training demands on both dog and handler. In hunting tests, the blind retrieve tests may be 100 yards; that's at least six times the length of a Utility ring, if anyone's counting. And in the field trials, the blinds may be 300 yards or more in lengthÉthat's one long go-out!

Casts a "handling dog" learns

At these distances, a dog needs to see very clear directional signals from the handler. The different casts must look different from each other, or the dog will go the wrong way. The signaling hand and arm should be as far away from the body as possible to give as much "picture" as you can to the dog.

The typical signal for sideways motion ("Over") is one arm held straight out from the side from the handler's body, hand at shoulder height. This signal looks like many trainers' directed jumping signal.

The typical signal to turn the dog to move farther away from the handler ("Back") is one arm held straight up, extended high above the handler's head. Either a left or right arm is extended, depending on which way the handler wants the dog to turn as he turns 180 degrees, and goes away from the handler. This signal looks like many trainers' Utility signal to drop.

When the dog that is trained for Utility starts learning his casts for handling, he can confuse either or both of these signals with Utility signals.

Is confusion a "real" problem?

It can be when the beginning field dog is learning the different handling casts in the "yard." (The "yard" is field trainers' lingo for the area used for training basic skills.) If you're an obedience trainer, your "yard" for your field work will most likely be the same lawns and parks you use for obedience practice, so the beginning dual purpose dog can become confused in the "yard."

Once the dog has learned his casts, and has begun handling in the field, confusion with Utility signals isn't typically a problem. The field looks so different to the dog, compared to the obedience training ground. The whole situation is different to him, including the motivating rewards.

But when you start teaching casting to the dog that is already trained through Utility, we can guarantee you that the first time you give your "Back" cast with whichever arm you use for your Utility drop, your dog will lie down. When you exhibit your obvious consternation at his mistake, your dog can start to think you don't want him to drop. This loss of confidence can undo good Utility training, especially in a sensitive dog.

What can you do?

Before we begin, here's one thing not to do. Don't plan on avoiding the issue by training only one "Back" (i.e., raising only the arm you don't use to signal the drop). Why won't this apparently logical approach solve the dilemma? Because you need both "Backs" in the field.

It can be critical to your ability to complete a blind retrieve to be able to turn the dog away from the tempting diversion, while at the same time driving him farther out into the field. Remember, you're trying to stay in control of a very eager retriever--who's at a distance from you and revelling in his natural element--as you pilot him past a series of hazards that will deflect him from his course.

You'll lack the flexibility you need to survive many blind retrieve challenges if you train your dog only to turn one way when he responds to "Back." You need to be able to turn him "away from the hazard," or he'll end up right on top of the temptation you need him to avoid.

So here are some ways to make sure that your field casts look different from your Utility signals.

Start your arm signals from two different places

You should be doing this anyway. A field cast should originate from the center of the handler's body. A Utility signal should originate from your side.

Why should a good, clear field cast not originate from your hip, where a signal would start from in the obedience ring? Because an arm signal that originates from your hip travels through many positions before finally stopping in the final position that the dog must interpret as meaning a particular direction. By the time your arm stops in the position you intend, your enthusiastic field dog is probably on his way somewhere else.

Yes, you can train a field dog to sit and wait for you to complete your arm motion. There are reasons why this approach is not the "success-oriented solution." This training teaches the dog that he may not go when he sees motion. Rather, he must sit and wait until the arm stops moving. Training this way tends to sacrifice your ability to use rapid body motion to help communicate direction. When a dog is out at 200 + yards, or when the background behind you is cluttered, he often needs to see rapid motion to help him grasp your intent. He can't see the arm position, alone.

So keep your field casts clear to the dog by holding your hands over your chest until you give the cast. Then you can "shoot" your hand straight out or straight up. One motion, one cast, one meaning.

This style of casting has the added benefit of making the field cast look different to the dog than the Utility signal. Particularly, the "Over" cast and the Directed Jumping signal are easy to distinguish from each other if your hand starts from two different positions.

Add "body English" to your "Overs," even in the yard

The "Over" cast for the field dog can be augmented by sideways body motion. Of course, you would never use such "body English" in Utility, where the signal must be limited to a "single motion of the hand and arm." But it's perfectly legal in the field, and helps the dog. So you can use it in your yard work, too. This helps your "Overs" look different than Directed Jumping signals.

Make the Back cast and the Utility drop signal look different

When teaching your dog to cast Back with the arm you use for your Utility drop, at first introduce this Back cast using what is called a "45 Back" (named for the 45-degree position of the arm). Your dog can easily learn that this means "straight back," even though the arm is pointing somewhat off to the side.

Also, giving the verbal command "Back" at the same time will help him distinguish this new cast from the more familiar drop signal. (A small step toward the side of your raised arm will help the dog learn to turn toward the side of your raised arm.)

Once your dog is comfortable with the "Back" cast and you've advanced him to applying his knowledge in the field, you won't need to worry about confusion with Utility. Then you can gradually refine your "45 Back" style of signal to a true, straight up (traditional "Back") arm position if you wish.

Or, you can devise a different Utility signal for the dual purpose dog

If your dog hasn't already learned the Utility drop signal, you have another option to make it easier for your dog to differentiate the two signals. You can alter the Utility signal.

For example, you can use the "windmill" style of signal for your Utility drop. First swing your signalling arm up and behind you, then rotate your extended hand and arm over your shoulder and down toward the dog for the completed signal motion. Or you can use the bent elbow style of drop signal, taking care to develop one that looks different from your recall signal.

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