Teaching a Dog to Mark
By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard
The dog with the great mark knows exactly where the bird is. He may
or may not carry a straight line to it, but as he approaches the area
of the fall, he's like a bird setting his wings to land on a pond. His
head is up, his eyes are looking, his ears are forward; his whole demeanor
says, "It's right here!"
The ability to mark is not precisely the same thing as the ability to
complete complex multiple marking tests. In some training programs, much
time is spent on training skills which will help the dog average out well
in advanced marking tests; are these technical skills, handler cues, etc.,
truly "marking"? Whatever your opinion, there's no doubt that the confident
dog that knows where the bird went down independent of training cues will
have a head start on completing any marking test.
Can you train "pure marking"?
Is there anything to train on apart from the myriad technical skills
involved in performing advanced marking tests? This topic isn't written
about very often. A widely held view in the retriever game is that "great
markers are born, not made." And there's a frequently stated corollary:
"You really can't do anything to teach marking." While we certainly acknowledge
the role of genetics in producing great markers, we don't agree with the
corollary. You can definitely help a dog become the very best marker his
genetics will allow.
Training for the "Spot on the Ground"
From observing dogs' performances on marked retrieves, we're convinced
that strong markers understand their destination (bird or bumper) as a
"spot on the ground." We also think that weak marking can be the result
of the dog not having this "spot on the ground" understanding of the marking
Weak markers have a different understanding of marks. To these dogs,
the sight of the falling bird signifies that there is a zone of probability
out there. The dog believes that if he goes out and hunts in that area,
he can find a bird.
Frequently, the "zone hunter" drops his nose as he gets to the area of
the fall, and may even run within a yard of a bird lying on bare dirt
and never see it. This happens because the dog's head is down and he is
"thinking" through his nose alone. It doesn't occur to him to look
for birds lying on the ground.
As the nose-down marker hunts for his bird, he tends to lose track of
where to hunt. He often ends up well away from the "zone" as he first
identified it. He then needs special drills to learn to compensate, so
that he will confine his hunt to a particular cued area (based on proximity
to the thrower, etc.).
He will generally recover the bird, but his working style will not produce
the most efficient marking performance. He is more vulnerable to drifting
with the wind and working himself completely away from the bird than is
the dog who is thinking "spot," and using his eyes to stay oriented.
In addition, a hunt on each bird is often needed. The longer the dog
is out there hunting, the greater the chance that he will forget about
birds yet to be retrieved.
In dog training, how you introduce an activity will strongly affect the
dog's understanding of the task and his approach to performing it. Bad
habits are hard to eradicate. So our first piece of advice about marking
young dogs is a list of "don'ts."
Don't throw early marks into cover or other areas where the dog can't
see the retrieve object as he approaches. Don't throw things--like camouflage
or orange bumpers--that a dog can't easily see on the ground! Don't throw
marks that are so long that they exceed a youngster's natural navigational
skills. Such marks encourage the pup to run at the thrower, which is the
only thing he can relate to from such a distance. Don't throw marks that
frequently require thrower help to get the pup to the bird.
First things first: The joy of retrieving precedes "marking"
When you start a pup--or inexperienced adult for that matter--remember
that retrieve desire must precede "marking practice." You must
build a pup's enthusiasm for simple retrieving before trying for any loftier
goals involving marking.
Also, when you start marking a pup, respect his physical limitations.
Two or three marks per session should be the norm; not a lot of "walking
singles" like you'd do with an older dog. Be especially conservative about
setting up water retrieves, especially if the weather isn't warm. The
pup won't enjoy learning if retrieving makes his feet sore, his body exhausted,
or he sits in his crate shivering after making a cold water retrieve.
Finally, a youngster needs certain good habits to support marking practice.
There are some retrieving, returning, and delivery mechanics that have
to be in place before a youngster should do a lot of any kind of retrieving.
How much formal obedience is needed to support beginning marking practice
varies with each dog and handler team. Do not try to develop marking
in a dog that won't come back to you or mishandles his birds or bumpers.
You'll be developing bad habits that can be very difficult to reverse.
The elements of marking
Success on retrieving a single mark includes certain elements:
- "How to get out there."
This could be either the coveted straight line to the fall, or an efficient
journey to the fall without the dog becoming disoriented and lost.
- "When to stop." This means the dog has an accurate gauge on
depth--i.e. where to end his trip to the bird.
- "An effective hunt." This element consists of a successful
hunting pattern should the dog fail to pin the bird. Dogs that conceptualize
the "spot on the ground" have a leg up on accomplishing all three elements
listed above. (When retrieving multiple marks, one more element comes
into play: the dog's ability to remember the existence of the memory
Staying focused on "the spot on the ground"
To begin teaching the "spot on the ground" concept, you should start
by having the dog learn to keep his eyes glued on the fall as he runs
out to it.
This automatically accomplishes the first element--getting out there.
And with the simple beginner's mark, it also accomplishes the second element-when
to stop. Since the bird or bumper is always lying in the open, the dog
that never takes his eyes off the target will always know where to stop.
Later on, some other types of marks can help him conceptualize
that he must slow down and stop to get his bird even when he can't see
it on the ground. But first things first. Before progressing to
anything else, develop the young dog's habit of keeping his focus locked
on the fallen target while running out to get it.
Go to the trouble to set your beginning marking up correctly. You'll
be glad you did. Here are some tips:
The right field. To develop total focus on the "spot on the ground,"
you can't beat the formula of beginning marking practice on totally clean
ground, typically a field with short mowed grass such as a soccer field.
When you set up the marks, look the field over carefully. The beginner
should not be distracted from the target object by competing visible objects
such as food wrappers, sprinkler heads, cow flops, rocks, clumps of grass,
The right retrieve object. Use only prominent retrieve objects
that the pup can readily see from a distance as he approaches.
Clean white bumpers are preferred for the very first marks. The
youngster with some experience should graduate to large black bumpers
that stand well above the height of any ground cover. For longer
marks, where contrast with the background is very important so that the
dog can follow the arc, two-tone (half-black, half-white) bumpers are
In short, don't throw anything that the dog will have trouble seeing
in the air or on the ground.
The right wind. Early marks should be thrown down wind. You
want to make sure that the pup doesn't use his nose to guide him to the
Visual continuity. The pup must be able to see the bumper lying
on the ground for the entire time he runs out to it. Remember that
he's shorter than you are, so it's wise to kneel down and look at the
destination from his level when you set up the mark.
The training goal. If your youngster's visual focus on the bumper
is sort of off-again, on-again, and kind of wanders around as he runs
out to make the retrieve, we advise you to simplify the mark. The habit
of a wandering visual focus can come back to haunt you later. Establish
the dog's skill of keeping his eyes glued to where he's going (namely,
on a highly visible retrieve object). Later you do want him looking around
as he enters a fall area, but first develop the locked-on focus. That
style is what will get him to the fall area most reliably, whether
or not the target is still visible.
Some dogs--ones that have very sensitive tendencies or that lack retrieve
desire--will never learn to keep their eyes on what they are going to
retrieve, no matter how easy you make it for them. But most retrievers
learn this first step--unbroken visual lock--very easily.
Your thrower is important
After you send the pup to retrieve, it is impossible to know exactly
what his eyes are doing. However, your thrower can tell. An observant
thrower who knows what you are trying to achieve in your early marking
practice is essential.
It's also important that your thrower have a good throwing arm. There
are real advantages to a long throw that lands well away from where the
thrower stands, especially for beginning markers.
That newest generation of dog training gadgetry, the mechanical thrower,
can be very useful to produce the healthy-sized throws that are desirable
for beginning marking. But if you use one for marking young dogs,
have a person standing out there with the apparatus so that the dog can
be helped if need be.
And speaking of helping the dog, before you send your thrower
out to throw for the puppy, coach him on when and how to help if the pup
gets lost or tries to return without the bumper. Some of the subtle techniques
that throwers can use with older dogs to cue them where to look for the
mark will not work with puppies. Techniques for helping young pups include:
re-attracting the lost pup with sound and throwing a second bumper while
he's looking at the thrower; attracting the pup with sound and motion
so as to help direct him to find the one already thrown; or slipping in
another bird or bumper while the pup is not looking and placing
it in a location where the pup will easily find it.
Remember, if your marks are set up correctly the need for thrower help
will be rare or nonexistent at this early stage. If you find your puppy
is frequently needing thrower help, you need to simplify your marks.
Position the thrower to minimize his influence on the marking "picture"
For a young puppy's very first retrieves that are thrown by someone else
(not your own hand thrown retrieves), the distance from the dog to the
fall should be less than the distance from the fall to the thrower.
See Diagram No. 1. This geometry helps establish the puppy's habit of
looking at the fall and not the thrower after the bumper is on the ground.
It also helps the pup naturally return to you with the bumper, rather
than go visit the thrower.
you gradually lengthen the marks, you cannot maintain this geometry, of
course. So now, to keep the pup's focus on nothing but the fall as he
runs out to get it, try to position the thrower where, although he will
still be visible, he will be somewhat out of the picture as the pup runs
toward the mark. For example, place him on the other side of a path or
cover strip from where the fall lands. When this is not possible, use
square ("flat") throws, because they visually separate the thrower from
the fall better than angle back throws. See Diagram No. 2.
Be sure that the pup can see the thrower before the throw is made. Learning
to maintain focus on a thrower in the field until the throw commences
is an important part of what you want a hunt test or field trial prospect
In future columns, we'll cover the next steps for developing your pup's
mastery of the elements of marking.
The thrower/fall relationship for the advanced dog
In technical configurations involving multiple marks for all-aged field
trial stakes, the advanced dog may sometimes need to use the relationship
between a thrower and a particular fall to help him succeed.
In general, it's best that a dog learn any needed "fall/thrower relationship"
program as part of his more advanced training, not as part of his beginning
marking development. We think a retriever will be a better marker
if he first learns to truly mark a destination independently of the thrower
In short, get him to "believe in the spot" before
he starts relying on other cues.