Water Handling for the Versatile Dog

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

Our last article introduced some of the advanced training you'll need to compete in NAVHDA's championship event for finished versatile dogs, the "Invitational" that is held every other year. In this article we'll further develop the handling skills a versatile dog needs for this event.

The Trained Retrieve

In Part IX (May/June, '94), we covered the trained retrieve. In the trained retrieve, the dog learns that "Fetch" is an enforceable command, just like other trained commands. Now we will build on this understanding.

Put out four or five training dummies in a pile, just as you did when "Teaching a Quick Pick-Up and Prompt Return" in Part X of this series. Refresh your dog's recollection of retrieving from a pile of dummies by sending him to retrieve from the pile several times in succession. Use the command "Back."

After sending him a few times without using stimulation, start applying mild continuous stimulation just as you command, "Back." Release the button the moment the dog leaves your side. (If the dog tries to switch from one dummy to another when he gets to the pile, press the button and command "Here." Then move the pile and repeat the drill.)

When you see the dog trying to leave quickly to retrieve that is your signal that he understands that he is turning off the collar by leaving your side. Now it's time to go to water.

Let the dog watch as you toss a white dummy a few yards out into a pond. Send the dog to retrieve without using stimulation.

Now without the dog watching, throw the dummy back into the water. Get the dog and start him about five feet from the edge of the water. Send him into the water to retrieve. Press the button a moment before you send him, and release the button as soon as the dog enters the water.

Repeat this several times, each time replacing the dummy in the water without the dog watching it thrown. When you see the dog moving quickly toward the water, you can stop using stimulation with every command. Just use stimulation if you need to give a second "Back" command.

A few short sessions on this exercise will train the dog to understand that when he is sent into water to retrieve, he must go on command.

The Single "T" Pattern in Water

In our last article, we covered a handling drill on land called the Single "T." This pattern made the dog proficient at being sent from the handler's side, stopping on a whistle at a distance from the handler, and then taking a subsequent direction to go left, right, straight back, or come in toward the handler. Now it's time to introduce this pattern on water.

Place four piles of dummies at the edges of a small pond of about 15 - 30 yards diameter. See the illustration. Use a pond that is deep enough that the dog is required to swim. You want him to learn to stop and tread water when you blow the stop whistle.

Begin by sending the dog straight across the pond in each direction to retrieve from the pile on the far shore, as shown in the illustration. This step lets the dog know where the piles of dummies are.

Now teach the dog to tread water and look toward you for direction when he hears a stop whistle. Send the dog to the dummies on the far side of the pond, but when he is half way across, blow your stop whistle. Since treading water is new for the dog, use both voice commands and body language to guide him, rather than reinforcing a stop whistle with the collar.

If the dog starts to go back to the far shore, command "NO--Here. Sit." If the dog tries to swim toward an "over" pile after hearing the whistle, command "Here, Sit." and use body language to guide the dog in the opposite direction. The moment the dog hesitates in the water, cast him toward one of the side piles with your "over" command and signal.

Now repeat the drill, but stop the dog and cast him to the other side pile. In the next repetition, have the dog swim straight across and retrieve without being stopped.

Next, work your way around the pond, so that each pile can be used as both a "back" and an "over" pile. After stopping the dog, sometimes cast him "over," and sometimes "back."

Occasionally, toss a dummy in the water in front of you after sending the dog but before stopping him. Then use your come-in whistle to have him pick it up on his way in to you.

Don't stop the dog every time you send him, or he'll begin to anticipate and stop on his own. With every other repetition, let him continue uninterrupted to retrieve from the "back" pile that is straight across the pond.

If the dog does start to anticipate the whistle, and tries to stop on his own, immediately give him a firm "Back!" command to let him know he's only to stop when you tell him.

The double "T" Pattern on land and Water

Now it is time for the dog to "put it together" in a more complicated handling drill in the field. Find a location where you can stop the dog both on land and in water, and put out five piles of dummies as shown in the illustration.

You need to show the dog where the dummy piles are before you run the drill. Take him around the field and throw a dummy to each pile from a position a few yards away, and approximately on the line the dog will follow when he runs the drill. After each throw, send the dog to retrieve. Then throw the dummy back, take him to the next pile, and repeat.

Starting at the location with no dummies, send the dog to retrieve once from the "back" pile. Then send him again, stop him at the closer intersection and cast him to one of the side piles. In the next repetition, stop him at the farther intersection, and cast him "over" to the pile on the other side.

Send the dog straight through to the "back" pile often without stopping him at all. When you do stop him, sometimes give an "over" cast and sometimes a "back." Occasionally toss a dummy out in front of you as the dog is going away, then stop him and blow the come-in whistle to have him retrieve on his way back to you.

Drop the dummies the dog has retrieved behind you, until you have a pile of dummies there, also. Now move your starting point to just in front of one of the "over piles," and work the pattern from this position.

Work your way around the pattern, using each pile as a starting point. Don't expect to get all the way around in one day unless your dog is in very good condition!

If the dog goes the wrong way after you signal him (a "cast refusal"), immediately stop him with a second stop whistle. Mentally count to five before casting him again to break up his momentum. Then give him the same cast he refused.

If he tries to go the wrong way again, stop him with your stop whistle combined with mild stimulation. Now move up closer to the dog to increase your influence, and cast him again.

If the dog tries to stop without hearing a whistle, immediately give him a firm "Back!" command. If he ignores a stop whistle entirely, immediately press the transmitter button as you blow a second whistle. He will learn not to run through a whistle.

Set up this drill in different locations, gradually increasing its size until the dog is comfortable with taking your casts from 100 yards away.

Keep a "mental notebook" on your dog, identifying the casts that cause him trouble. For example, many dogs do not like to take "over" casts into the wind, and will challenge their handler's control in this situation. Practice these casts and situations often.

Backtrailing Water Blinds

Now you have the control you need for water blinds you might encounter at the NAVHDA Invitational. But to build the dog's confidence about retrieving something he didn't see fall, and to build his willingness to swim longer distances for a blind retrieve, we recommend another exercise--the "backtrailing blind."

Dogs have a natural tendency to retrace their paths, or "backtrail." You can make use of this tendency when you advance your dog to doing blind retrieves.

Begin by teaching the backtrailing concept to the dog. Leave him on one side of a small piece of water (about five yards across) with a bird 15 feet behind the dog. Let the dog see you put the bird down. Walk to the other side of the water and call him to you.

When he arrives, immediately turn him around and send him from your side back to retrieve the bird. (Saying "dead bird" as a cue just before you send him will help him understand that you're sending him to retrieve something he never saw fall.)

Repeat this in different locations until you see the dog lining up eagerly to be sent into the water, showing that he knows there is a bird where he just came from.

Now find larger and more challenging pieces of water for the dog to cross, first coming toward you, then immediately being sent "back" to the bird left behind. Increase the distance of the swims until you've achieved the 100-yard swimming blind called for in the Invitational.

If you follow this method to introduce water blinds, your dog will be confident and eager when doing water blinds.

Coming in Our Next Article
Our next article will cover diversions, and other typical problems you can encounter when training on blind retrieves in the field.

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