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Smartwork Articles - FREE RETRIEVER TRAINING articles by Evan Graham

From published articles by Evan Graham

Cause and Effect
Trouble Shooting Training Problems
By Evan Graham

Stuff happens

You love to hunt, and you may very well love to run hunt tests, and/or field trials. It's all great fun, and a wonderful challenge to train your dog for all of the pursuits you enjoy. While actually doing the work, especially under judgment, it is natural for certain aspects of your dog's training to erode. He gets excited and, well, stuff happens!

The dog that remains by your side in training now creeps 10 yards on each bird while hunting, or at a test or trial. His typically very good hearing seems to fail him when you take him to one of these events. His casting only changes his course about half as well as it does in training. And the little stinker breaks on honors! He has begun to bolt for the line as soon as you take his leash off in the holding blind. Or you let him out of the vehicle when you're out hunting and off he goes into the darkness!

If none of this sounds familiar, you are clearly not hunting enough, nor are you running tests or trials! Or, you are running a dog that takes sedatives. Or, just maybe -- you are running them smart!

You may just be running a test/trial, and then staying home to train for a week or two before competing or testing again. You may be in the tiny percentage of trainers who are wise and self-controlled enough not to overdo it. Your dog spends far more time in a controlled environment (training) compared to the amount of time he spends in an uncontrolled environment (testing/trialing or hunting), so he doesn't tend to fall apart when he is there. He tests and hunts pretty much as he trains. He's a rare dog. You are a rare human.

Or not, in which case you stand in need of this message on how to keep a balance sufficient to maintain a fundamentally sound dog. That is the goal; to maintain a fundamentally sound dog -- a balanced dog.

Make It Count!

This article is as much devoted to understanding how humans work, as it is to knowing how dogs work. When you observe a dog with training problems, you are seeing symptoms that were almost certainly created directly, or indirectly, by a human. Any experienced pro can tell you this. We mean well, but we get caught up in how much fun the dogs are and how much fun we have hunting and testing them. We also have limitations, like available time or facilities.

When you're sick, your body sends you messages. You have pain. You feel lousy. You get weak. If you are wise, you learn to listen to your body. You take care of the problems your body says you need help with.

It's like that with your dog's training sometimes. His casting just doesn't alter his course like it used to. He creeps, or tries to switch, or he pops on marks. His skills are "sick." They are sending you messages. His once well-tuned abilities are weak. They look lousy, and are almost painful to watch! Stuff happened.


If you have a headache, and only take a pain reliever, you may very well get over it and continue in generally good health. But, if you have chronic headaches, pain relievers alone will only help temporarily, and may mask some developing health problem that you need a real cure for.

If your dog's skills have become "sick," and the problems you see are becoming chronic, you need to take measures that will cure the problem, not just mask it. But you must understand that the problems you are addressing may not be cured with some magic bullet; an easy cure-all. We are talking about behavior, and the need to modify it. How you go about it will make all the difference in its lasting effects.

Knowing how dogs acquire a habitual behavior will also help you to understand how to go about mending behavior that has become a problem. Habits, whether good or bad, don't just disappear. They are replaced with different ones. The dog that once stopped sharply to the whistle may now require fifteen or twenty steps to come to a stop. Further, he may now only crouch instead of sitting. Or, he may just stand there and look back at you. Worst of all, he may now do this chronically. That has become his habit, and it's probably driving you nuts!

You can take superficial steps in a training session that seems to have corrected a problem, and then notice that he's right back at it in no time. That is because you haven't changed his habit. You only did something one day that made it look better -- for a while. The habit remains.

Finding a Cure!

Sometimes you can work on more than one problem at a time, because a certain drill or exercise managed to provide a co-benefit or two as you addressed some specific problem. Generally, though, it's best to focus on one problem at a time. First things first.

You may have identified a problem to work on already. Take stock of the whole dog. Give him a check-up. Isn't all this medical talk invigorating? It's a very similar approach. Your doctor or nurse isn't treating your bad heart. They're treating you; the patient with a bad heart. Heart patients often have other problems that need addressing besides just their heart. Or they often have other health issues that have contributed to what has become a heart problem.

You aren't fixing a pop. You are training a dog that pops. Popping is a problem your dog has, so you want to fix it. But, have you really identified what's wrong with your dog? Is popping his only problem? If you have learned about other problems your dog has, is popping his most important one? If you don't assess all potential problems in your dog's training, how can you correctly prioritize? How do you know that what you have decided to work on first is what was most important for your dog?

If you periodically give your dog a training check-up, you may save both of you some trouble by treating the little problems before they become big ones. Some of you have heard this speech from you doctor, haven't you? It is a principle that works. It works for your health, and it works for the health of your dog's training. After all his behavior, much like ours, is driven by his emotional health status.

As a pro trainer, I had a truckload of dogs in my care, most of which were hunting dogs, as well as field trial competitors. I never had a field trial dog that didn't hunt. My job was to keep each one running at a level near his or her individual peak as much of the time as possible. Sure I had the usual health and hygiene issues that any dog owner/trainer deals with, but the lion's share of my time was spent in the field honing, or repairing their skills.

I came up with a troubleshooting check-up, which I gave my dogs monthly; the same way I was paid. That's how I knew where I was with each dog. That's how we stayed competitive running as many as twenty-six trials in a year. It involves keeping a journal of each dog's training. It tracks progress, as well as problems.

When I reported to the owners of the dogs I was training, it wasn't just a progress report. It was a health status record. I reported the state of the dog's progress, but also the state of his maintenance. That reflected more accurately what we were doing in training to advance him, and to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses. Some clients appreciated it more than others, but I required it of myself.

If your dog has been cheating exits on water blinds lately, is this a recurrent theme in his training? Has it always been so? Does it seem to you that it's new for him? Know your dog, so you can address things in the priority they deserve. Don't put a patch on a problem that has shown you that it will keep coming up through inadequate maintenance.

Hypothetical problem

"My dog is always looking for a way out of the water on water blinds, especially at a distance." There are a number of ways to look at this problem, especially when it is occurring during the running of a water blind. Of course you will want to work toward a solution at that time, as well you should. But, this problem keeps coming up, even though you feel you are dealing with it consistently. Let's see if your approach is actually dealing with a cure for the problem, or if your treatment of it is only addressing it superficially.

As your dog progresses toward the end of a water blind, the line to it takes him closer to a distant shoreline, and, as expected, he begins to gravitate toward the shore. You can really feel the influence growing because the closer he gets to the shoreline the less course correction he yields with each cast. He may even begin to be more sluggish about stopping to the whistle, even though you're certain he still hears it.

Your response to what is happening might typically be to give bigger casts away from shore; casts that are more straight "over" instead of casting the dog literally toward the fall. You may also wait a little longer to cast the dog after stopping him in order to heighten his focus. You may even stop the dog and call him toward you before re-stopping and casting him onward again. All of those things are good handling techniques that can improve the dog's relationship to the fall. They are all things a good handler does to help his or her dog to succeed at a blind.

Succeeding at blinds does not constitute a solution to shoreline suction, although upholding standards has beneficial effects. The problem you continue to see in your dog has a source. It is that source you need to address or the problem will keep continue to be a large and nagging one.

If chronic headaches are caused by a problem with a blood vessel, only repairing the blood vessel in some definitive way will solve the problem. Pain relievers will merely help you to live with the problem for a while, masking symptoms. All too soon the pain relievers won't be able to help anymore. You need a real cure.

This dog that wants out of the water at a distance will continue to want out sooner and sooner until the real problem is addressed. This dog has preconceived notions that tell him it's faster and easier to run on land, and that he still lacks any responsibility to follow a standard of performance that requires him to take direction as given, whether on land or in the water. A solution for this will be a program that replaces his current mindset with one that dictates a different standard, and promotes a changed inner desire in the dog toward compliance.


Break the work down into a simple focused form, and repeatedly expose the dog to the standard of behavior responsible for a more consistent desirable result. If you have ever wondered why the term "drill" comes up so much in dog training these days, you have just discovered an answer. Drills offer repeated exposure to focused concepts in training. As dogs repeat any specific concept in their work they develop and deepen habits of behavior. That also makes drill work a great way to cure bad habits by literally replacing them with good habits.

Start your drills with a simple, easy standard. Short distances help to keep control of the dog low key, and allow the dog to succeed easily at the focus of the drill. Gradually extend distance to deepen the new habit by extending and deepening skill levels, like holding a straight line in water in the presence of a tempting shoreline. This can be done by running many cheating single marks with diagonal shoreline exits, and/or Tune up drills that have numerous water blinds with varying degrees of diagonal exit, at slightly increasing distances. These exercises promote a solid standard of not falling for shoreline suction. By strengthening the core skills involved, your dog can soon return to full-scale fieldwork with his new sound habits intact, requiring far fewer corrections. Further, he will have experienced so much success that his attitudes toward the standards he once resisted will have softened considerably.

This same philosophical approach can be applied to myriad other training problems. Drill work is the very essence of attrition, and tends to produce outstanding results. Good training!

On your mark -- get set -- "fetch"

Having a solid foundation of obedience in your dog, and having taught "hold", it's time to embark on the actual force fetching process.

Once you have decided on a place to do your work, and have chosen a fetch object, begin by taking a little time to relax your dog. Don't throw retrieves for him. Just walk with him a little, and keep structure (commands) to a minimum.

Choose where you'll begin, and tell him to sit. Hopefully that will be the last obedience command you'll need. If it isn't, that's okay, but keep that as a goal. Using proper technique will help with this. Look at the picture above. Note that the dog is sitting (the product of solid prior obedience training), and that the trainer has three fingers looped through the collar. That grip will go a long way toward controlling his upper body.

You must expect that your dog will squirm or try to escape pressure for a while, even though you will start with very light pressure. Initially, you may have to go ahead and remind him to sit before moving on with this session, and that is fine. Try to use your grip for control, and stay away from other commands.

It looks like the trainer is pinching, but this depicts a firm hold on the earflap. The earflap is pressed against the tang of the collar, making the tang the pressure point. The remaining fingers are looped under the collar strap to control the dog's upper body.

In the first photo the trainer's last three fingers looped under the dog's collar, leaving the thumb and forefinger free. With the thumb and forefinger hold the flap of the dog's ear so that you can control the part of the outer flap that will contact the pressure point. The pressure point is the tang on the buckle of the collar. Nylon or leather collars work fine for this, and usually have a buckle with a prominent tang. As seen above, the flap of the ear is held in a manner that allows good control.

*Note: I recommend starting with the outer earflap making contact with the pressure point because you don't know what your dog's sensitivity level is yet. If you need to do more to illicit a proper response to pressure you can simply turn the earflap over to expose the inner surface to the pressure point, rather than simply getting heavy with the actual pressure.

The idea is to turn pressure on and off like a light switch, using only the amount of pressure needed at the time. Doing it this way gives you control of amount of pressure, and allows you to keep the ear in hand, rather than releasing it. That's important!

We'll get to why it's important to keep the ear in hand a bit later. First we need to clearly cover the process and the principles that drive it. Remember, this is a force-taught (or force-conditioned) command. The mechanism needs to operate by a consistent standard to be maximally effective.

Turning off pressure

When you obedience trained your dog you taught him how to do certain things first. You guided him into a sit position and praised him for doing it. This was very passive and teaching-oriented, as it should be. When you applied pressure to formalize that training your dog understood how to comply already, and you taught him to turn off pressure through compliance. Using pressure to formalize training consistently follows that path of logic.

When you force fetch your dog he doesn't know how to turn off the pressure because he doesn't know what you want yet. That's why we need to be as fair about this as possible when we begin. It calls upon us to use very little pressure, and to guide the desired behavior carefully; showing the dog how to turn off the pressure. The teaching and the forcing all happen together.

When you begin to place pressure on the dog's ear for the first time you can, again, expect some bugging. If you do it right there will be far less of it. Doing it "right" simply means starting with minimal pressure -- reading the dog by watching his eyes and paying attention to fine details of his body language.

When you begin with pressure you may likely notice a change in the dogs eye position and general character that tells you he is uncomfortable. That's all you need to get started. You know that he would like to get rid of this annoyance, and you can show him how to do it.

Place the object in his mouth, saying, "Fetch" as you do. When you have successfully placed it in his mouth release the pressure and say, "Hold". If he holds as directed, stroke his head with no verbal praise.

Allow me to be more specific regarding the mechanics:

  • For the introduction to this command, I pull up a chair and sit down next to the dog. As usual, the dog is wearing an e-collar -- either a dummy collar, or a deactivated real one. I don't actually pinch the ear between my thumb and forefinger, as many trainers do. I hold the ear between the thumb and forefinger and press the ear against the tang on the collar buckle as a contact effectively turning pressure "on and off" like a light switch. For control of the dog's upper torso, as well as convenience in holding the ear as mentioned, I loop the remaining three fingers under the collar. The "three-finger hold," and the ear hold between the thumb and forefinger are constant throughout the procedure. I don't let go of either one. All that changes is whether I'm putting pressure on the collar tang for fetch enforcement.

I am not interested in whether the dog vocalizes or not. I am not seeking such a response, although some dogs vocalize with very little pressure. I'm not worried about avoiding it, but I'm not seeking it as an indicator of sufficient pressure. What I am interested in is a clear indication that the dog is experiencing enough discomfort that he would like to turn it off. If he insists that more pressure be applied before he will yield, he will get more, until he does yield.

Be patient about turning up the heat too early in the process, though. Many dogs have a proclivity to "clam," or lock up as a fear response to pressure. This can exist in varying amounts, according to the individual dog. Most of the time you can work through it by just being patient, and showing the dog that this moderate amount of pressure can be gotten rid of by merely fetching. Resort to turning up the heat ONLY after many repetitions with more moderate pressure.

At first the bumper is placed in the dog's mouth. Begin by saying, "fetch" while applying just enough pressure to see signs of discomfort. You will likely need to place the roller or bumper in the dog's mouth at first, but when he receives it release the pressure instantly, and stroke him gently. Don't over do praise here. This may require many repetitions to condition the dog to see that having this object in his mouth is a relief, but stay with it, and do it the same way each time.

As he begins to reach for it, hold the bumper very close so he will easily meet with success. Gradually extend the distance from the dog's mouth so that he reaches for it. When he shows that he is willing to work to turn off the pressure, you know that you have gotten the ball rolling, so to speak.

*Note: Do not test the dog on this command during this process. He isn't trained yet. "Fetch" is not a standard, and it will become one much more slowly if you turn it into fight, filled with corrections for failures that resulted from a lack of education. Many people inquire of me whether they've done something wrong while force fetching, and then reveal that their dog did fine while they followed the procedure, but then they tried it without pressure, or without holding the collar, or some other critical component. Then it all fell apart! This takes time. It's conditioning.

Stay with having the dog fetch the roller/bumper from directly in front of him for numerous fetches to get him well conditioned. You should see clearly that he understands the relationship between having the roller in his mouth, and pressure being relieved. Don't move on any further with this until you see this clearly. The best indicator is when he begins to open his mouth, and not require you to place it in there on command. The next, and even clearer indicator of this is when he begins to reach for it. That is something of a milestone.

It starts with you reading your dog to see discomfort. If he is vocal, fine. If he isn't vocal, that's fine too. Just read him and condition him, and watch for these little transitions to occur that will demonstrate when he begins to "get it."

Look at this dog's expression.

This isn't a dog in agony. She's uncomfortable, and that means you have an opportunity to show her how to relieve that discomfort. You will associate that act with a verbal command (fetch), and that is what gets this entire process going. Soon your dog will be reaching out to grab the roller/bumper on command (combined with pressure). Gradually extend the distance you hold the roller from the dog to get her moving a little at a time. As you do this you will start the dog taking a few steps toward the roller.

Expand on the reaching response, again by reading your dog so you don't advance too fast. It's often a matter of baby steps in the beginning, as your dog deepens his understanding of the process of turning off pressure by fetching. They all learn at individual rates.

Excerpt from the upcoming new book, SmartFetch



A look inside the practice of two-sided heeling
By Evan Graham

As I tend to view modern retriever training, the issue of two-sided heeling is fairly small in significance, but tends to draw no small amount of attention. It must be noted that sometimes small things can make a big difference when it matters. It's unusual to watch in practice if you haven't had much exposure to it, and it isn't as easy to understand as it may appear on the surface.

There are techniques used by many people in the handling of retrievers in all of the work they do, and in competition you'll see even more of them employed. When you're trying to be the best at something -- to win against many worthy competitors -- in difficult circumstances it calls upon you to spare no effort. The practice of running a dog from either side is just one more way to attempt to provide a dog with an edge against failure. How does it do that? To understand that we first need to examine the influences that certain elements of tests tend to have on dogs.

Diversion Pressure

"Isn't a diversion just a mark that distracts a dog during another retrieve?" I think that describes a pretty widely accepted view of what a diversion is to retrievers. But, the term diversion has a much broader meaning than that.

Diversion: 1: from divert; to turn from a course or purpose, 2: element in a test or training exercise that provides the effect of diverting the otherwise direct route of the trained retrieve

The above is a definition I took from a dictionary and expanded its meaning as to directly apply to dog work. It implies that any influence (like a crossing wind), physical factor (like a log in the path of the retrieve route), or mechanical component (like a field trial or hunt test set up in with a mark placed in a strategically influential spot) that has the effect of turning a dog from his course (the route to the fall) or purpose (the completion of the retrieve) has diverted it. All of these things have come to be called "factors," a term becoming increasingly familiar to retriever trainers.

The "Cardinal Influences"

I maintain that there are three mechanisms by which dogs are diverted in the course of a retrieve. I refer to them as the Cardinal Influences:

  1. Flare
  2. Suction
  3. Drift

There are many factors that exert these influences on dogs; things like old falls, poison birds, cover, diagonal terrain features, shoreline suction, gun stations, crosswind, just to name a few. The effects that these factors exert upon dogs all fall under one or more of the above categories.

Retrievers that function at, or near their potential, do so having frequent maintenance on overcoming diversion pressure on both marked and blind retrieves. Training aside, what influence can a handler use to help a dog overcome, or at least decrease the effects of those influences?

Push vs. Pull

The terms push and pull describe the influence a handler exerts when moving "up" (forward) or "back" (backward) when the dog is at heel. A dog may also be "pulled" when the handler steps slightly away from the dog -- drawing the dog's upper torso nearer, effectively turning or influencing the dog in that direction. Here's a look at how it works.

Looking from behind the handler and dog we see a hip-pocket double mark arrangement. The shorter mark on the right will tend to have a "suction" influence; pulling the dog toward it when he is en route to the longer fall. This can occur even when that mark has already been retrieved. We train against this, but a handler can do things to promote success, as well.


When a handler recognizes that a test, or set of circumstances may have this type of influence on the dog, he may provide a helpful influence by using "push"; stepping up or forward as the dog remains sitting in the same spot. Clearly this requires high quality obedience. Just as clearly your dog's field of vision is effectively reduced to focus on the long mark, as in this illustration. That can help to keep the dog focused on it while the marks are falling, as well.

Stepping up (push) will tend to influence a dog left when he is heeled/positioned on the left side, and right when heeled on the right. This is a more direct (or active) application of influence than stepping back (pull).

When we consider doing things like stepping up or back to provide a push or pull influence, we must remember that these are only helps to the dog in the form of nuances. They do not replace training. They only augment it in practical ways.


One consideration for the application of the pull influence is in this type of marking set up when you have had your dog watch the long fall go down and now want to make certain he sees the short fall clearly. While this is normally not a problem, it is some insurance against the likelihood of the dog over focusing on the long fall to step back and open up his field of vision. Both falls matter, and the long one will be of little consequence if your dog misses the short one!

There are other examples of pull being useful, such as in different multiple marking configurations. Consider this one:

While this illustration does not show a typical positioning of a dog to run this set up, it does show that a handler in the neutral position shown leaves the dog with a full field of vision to see all guns and falls. Usually, in a set up configured like this one, the dog would be on the left because the left hand mark is thrown last and falls left of the gun. If, however, the handler reads that seeing that left hand fall is not likely to cause as much of a problem as the right hand mark, it may be preferable to position the dog on the right so the handler can step up to influence the dog to see that fall as it is thrown. Doing so would tend to reduce the dogs field of vision on the left.

All of the impact of push and pull apply to moving as birds fall during a set up or test, in that they can provide assistance to your dog to see critical falls and to reduce head swinging. Again, this is not to say that it replaces training for these functions, but rather helps to support that training when you are working for top performance.

There are other considerations regarding leveraging for lines to falls, especially on blind retrieves. So many factors and influences in each set of circumstances affect such a decision that writing about it, without going into exorbitant detail, is not practical.

How much help is it?

The actual impact of this tool is different for each dog in each situation. But, if you recognize the value of push and pull on one side, you should be able to easily calculate the extra edge it could give you to have the opportunity of doing it on either side. Time and practice will do more to provide you with your own sense of how to use this little tool best.

"It feels awkward to run a dog on my right side!"

If you have held off from acquiring this skill and using it with your dog because you have become so accustomed to running him or her from your left side, remember, there was a time when that was awkward, too. Everything is new at some point. That shouldn't keep you from adding something so potentially useful to your arsenal, should it?

Swim-by for Any Dog!
By Evan Graham

Suppose you found a way to gain a high degree of control of your dog in the water. Further, imagine this method allowing you to have a real tool of communication with your dog so that he ended up not only doing better water work, but also enjoying that higher standard. The name of the tool I speak of is known by many trainers, and talked about often, but perhaps not nearly as well understood as you might think.

With all my heart, I believe there is far more incorrect information circulated about Swim-by than anything close to being correct. That is likely the main reason that so many people, even those who understand that it can be important and valuable, don't really know how to go about teaching it.

This presentation will hopefully provide a window that will provide a clearer view of one of the most valuable tools a retriever trainer can employ. We will cover how to do it step-by-step. In addition, an overview will be provided describing what swim-by is and what its purposes are.

"What is Swim-by supposed to accomplish?"

In other words, what is swim-by for? What does it provide?


Yes, control -- and even more. Control in water is widely recognized as being more difficult to attain in many ways than control on land. Water obscures many boundaries that are more easily clarified and defined on land. That makes the rules less clear and success more illusive for the kind of work we require of retrievers in hunting, hunt tests, and especially in field trials.

On a fundamental level, how can you expect to be able to cast a dog off of land at 150 yards if you can't reliably cast him off of land at 50 yards -- or 50 feet? Yes, even casting a dog into water at 50 feet requires control, and it's a fundamental skill that translates into many practical applications. Training a dog to perform a reliable swim-by can go a long way in providing the necessary control for this type of water work. But there is much more to be gained by it.

I've spoken in terms so far that may sound familiar. I want to make it clear, however, that swim-bys are not handling in the classic sense. Even when they are executed in the way a standard handling function is conducted they provide a very valuable tool, but there is yet more to be gained. It would be beneficial to have someone give you a ride in his or her car half of the way to a destination to which you would otherwise have had to walk. But why stop and walk the other half of the trip when the driver would have taken you there by car? Likewise, why settle for only a portion of the benefits of swim-by when there is so much more to be gained?

The control required to cast off of land into water, whether coming or going, calls upon the same core mental processes. The ability to readily do it provides a vehicle to teach other important water concepts.

What your dog needs to be successful at Swim-by

Strong basics, including force fetch, force to pile, and a thorough course in land tee work should be considered the minimum preparation for starting a dog on Water Tee/Swim-by. These mechanics make it easy for your dog to understand his job of going, stopping, and casting as a standard requirement.

I would strongly discourage any trainer from attempting to put a dog through this course of instruction without the previously mentioned basic education. It isn't fair to the dog to expect even mediocre results otherwise.

Clear Messages

Handling a retriever is a vehicle of directing him to a specific destination; a fallen bird. Swim-by has an entirely different goal. When you cast a dog toward a fall you're telling the dog "it's right "over" there," or "it's right "back" there." It is a language between you that can communicate effectively a message the handler desires the dog to receive and follow.

Swim-by also conveys a message, but it's one that is markedly different than the one sent when handling to a fall. When a dog is cheating a return on a water retrieve, for example, he is sending a message of his own. In the words of the late Jim Kappes, the dog is saying, "less water." It's a very simple message, isn't it? So is the message of swim-by. When your cheating dog heads to land, instead of returning straight to you in the water, he has made his statement.

Your response is a swim-by. The message you clearly send is "no," "more water!" When you command a swim-by, the command is not "over." It is "no." "No" says to a dog that what he is doing at that moment is wrong. It should always have said that, and in swim-by, it must say that in order to make your message clearly understood. Less water is wrong, and more water is right. Send clear messages.

I concede that doing swim-bys is useful and constructive, even if they are not executed in the manner I have described. I'm only suggesting that you reap the benefits of the entire tool. Take the full journey.

Teaching Swim-by

A small pond with water deep enough to require the dog to swim will do, but the ideal swim-by pond is rectangular with fairly steep banks. That will require the dog to be swimming all the time he's in the water, and its shape clearly defines all the functions and rules of the swim-by.

When you begin to put all the functions of a Water T together you will both handle, and perform swim-bys. The rules are kept uniform for the purposes of clear teaching. The square areas depict where the piles will be placed for a fully functioning water T.

To begin teaching your dog the functions of casting from end-to-end of the forcing pond I recommend sitting the dog at one end and leaving him there, walking to the opposite end, and calling him to you enthusiastically. Meet the dog exactly where you desire him to exit. As he exits the water begin is first exposure to being permitted to leave it by telling him it's okay to do so. Logically, I use the cue "okay." I say, "okay" with enthusiasm as I throw him a very short fun bumper directly opposite the direction of the water. Repeat this 4 to 6 times in one direction and then do the same thing in the opposite direction.

You should then be able to sit your dog at one end of the pond and teach him to cast to the other end by tossing a bumper to the center of it, casting him toward it, and then walking the length of the pond to the opposite end, continuing to give a cast gesture as you do. This keeps it clear for the dog that this is how it's done here.

This kind of clear teaching should make it easy for your dog to perform this clear simple act without confusion. It's clear to the dog where the water is, and where the bumper is, as well as where you are when you reach the end of the pond. By repeating this swim from one end to the other repeatedly you make clear what is expected of the dog. You also make it fun for him by rewarding each journey with a fun bumper.

This is not a procedure in which there should be major battles. It's low key, and high success in its application. The rules and the functions are clearly defined for the dog.

Finish this swim-by cast by meeting your dog at the opposite end, much as you originally taught him to do, by exiting where the other "over" pile will be. Of course you will give him an enthusiastic "okay" as he leaves the water, and toss him a short fun bumper as before.

Repeat this several times in each direction to make the function clear for your dog. Avoid the common trap of testing as you train by "trying him out" on a swim-by before you have completed all the preparatory steps. Be fair to him by giving him full instruction.

Putting it together

As you begin to put the pieces of this process together for your dog you will follow a logical progression. You have taught your dog to cast from end-to-end; right to left, and left to right. Then you taught him to do the exact same function, only while carrying a bumper in his mouth. You also taught him the release cue that tells him that he has your permission to exit the water ("okay!"). Your dog is only doing a kind of parlor trick so far because you haven't shown him any practical context for these acts yet. That will be our next step.

Because your dog has already been casting both ways, from end-to-end, so many times it should be a very small easy transition to teach him to cast from the center of the pond. We'll do that in the simplest way possible.

Using a single white plastic bumper approach the pond from the "line" side -- or point of origin. That is the starting point for performing all the functions of a water tee and swim-by. From here you will teach the dog where the back pile will be by tossing a bumper there, and sending him to it. This bumper should land on the far shore just barely on land so calling him back by water will be a non-issue. When the dog fetches the bumper you should whistle him in about halfway and give him his first real swim-by.

As he approaches the midway point of his return you say "no" while giving the cast gesture in the direction you want him to swim-by, and begin walking to that end of the pond and continuing to gesture.

*NOTE: There is a common tendency in the overwhelming majority of dogs to swim at an angle toward the far shore as they perform their first swim-bys, or to angle toward the near shoreline. Expect this and cast your dog away from the near shore as needed, or trill the come-in whistle as much as needed while continuing your swim-by cast gesture. This will teach your dog to follow the path he was originally taught it. Meet him exactly where you want him to exit, giving the "okay" to exit, followed by the usual fun bumper.

Do this several times in each direction to make the functions clear. Be sure your dog is performing these simple little swim-bys flawlessly before moving on.

Concert time!

Now that everyone knows their part and how to play it, it's time to perform a full concert! All sections will now play in harmony and your dog will come to know the practical application of this goofy game the two of you have been playing. So far your dog probably hasn't thought any of this has much to do with retrieving. It was just kind of a game you two were playing together because it had little resemblance to what you've done in the field so far, other than land T's.

I recommend using white bumpers so your dog will have no problems finding a bumper during the exercise. Note that the piles are set with space between bumpers. You don't want to encourage side issues like shopping the pile to crop up and dilute your lesson. I also suggest mowing at least the area where the piles are to be planted for the same reasons.

Running the Water Tee with Swim-by is performed much like your land tee work in that you will alternate sending your dog to the back pile without a handle, and sending him, stopping, and casting on about a 2 or 3 to 1 ratio; lining 2 or 3 times to each trip with a handle. The obvious difference is that you will not allow the dog to return by land on any retrieve.

On each cast to an over pile your dog will be given a swim-by. To get this started you will send the dog toward the back pile after 2 or 3 free passes to it, and walk the cast with him. You will meet the dog as he fetches a bumper from the pile and command the swim-by, saying, "no" as you give the cast gesture toward the water. Walk this cast the full distance to the opposite end of the pond and give the "okay" as he exits (at the other pile), followed by a short fun bumper. Then return to the line and line the back pile at least once before repeating this.

Stay with your dog for a while on his swim-bys to keep other issues from interfering with the learning process that should be strictly focused on these functions. As your dog progresses in all of these functions while needing fewer correction for error (corrections that should be made with as little pressure as possible) you will begin to walk out these casts less and less until all functions can be executed with you remaining at the line. Remaining at the line to run a finished Swim-by involves simply remaining there, and, as the dog nears the shore where he will exit with bumper in mouth, give him permission to exit by saying , "okay"; meaning it's 'okay' to land. The dog should exit there and return by land to line the back pile, and the drill continues.

With most dogs it is a sound practice to stay with the Water Tee/Swim-by for several weeks, and to train as often as possible. During that time it would also be a good idea to adhere to a training regimen that provides marks each day, preferably before and after your water work.

Having completed the Swim-by, and keeping it maintained will give you a tool like no other. Maintenance and the teaching of advanced water work will become much easier for both you and your dog. The level of control needed for successful water blinds, as well as marks, will have risen dramatically. All that, and it's fun, too! Enjoy the swim.

Dr. Jeckyll or Mr. Hyde?
By: Evan Graham

It's another great day in the sun with your dog, and perhaps a friend (or group of friends), out training again. You have your first marks of the day set up and are ready to run. You have set up a holding blind because you're not only a hunter, but a hunt tester/field trialer with your dog, and you're smart enough to know not to send opposing messages to your dog about how he should behave in the field, whether training, trialing, or testing.

You take your dog out of his kennel and air him before running because that's what you consistently do, and because it's a good practice. You also walk him to the holding blind on a leash for the same reasons. When you're ready to go up and run the marks you take your dog off lead and heel him to the line. You let him get a good look at the field before calling for the marks to be thrown, cuing him to "mark" (or whatever cue he is used to), and the fun begins.

As I view dog training, in all its variety of styles and theories, it consistently amounts to engineering our dog's habits. We know they will form habits of some sort, whether we participate or not. By participating (via training) we guide the formation of the habits we hope our dogs will live and operate by. That, of course, requires the maintenance of those habits over our dog's working career.

What's a trainer to do?

What will you do if your dog becomes Jeckyll in one place, and Hyde in another? Mr. Hyde (the bad dog) may be appearing at the test (or in the duck blind) soon enough! Dr. Jeckyll (the good dog) is good in training because he expects the standards to be upheld there. If you are to make a change that will last and be reliable it will be necessary to change your dog's expectations.

  • First, if your dog becomes too out of control at testing time, stop testing -- completely. Re-habituate him to the standards of your training by making certain that he only works in a controlled environment for a while; several weeks or even months.
  • Second, you should take an honest look at how you train. Does your daily training resemble the testing environment, or are you sending your dog messages that set him up to recognize the difference? Do you use holding blinds? Do you spend a little time in the holding blind? How often do you use live flyers? Do you honor enough? Are you training around other people and dogs? Do you call numbers?
  • Third, do you over-use correction? The answer to this will require an honest look in the mirror. If you are using pressure too often it is not only poor training, it also sends the most distinct message of all that "today we are training. Tomorrow we may test, and you won't be corrected for anything." This is just one more very good reason not to let pressure replace thorough teaching, which is the hallmark of a good method and the appropriate application of it.

Working habits give dogs a uniform set of expectations. That's why commands and cues need to be of a consistent character. Let's use the above situation as an example.

  • The use of a holding blind in training sets a consistent standard because they will be using them at the hunt tests or field trials, also. When we fail to use them in training we send a signal that this environment is a different one with different standards. Your dog will quickly develop a different set of expectations in each situation. He will also arrive at the test or trial under-trained as to proper behavior in a holding blind.
  • Airing should be done consistently before putting your dog to work. That way your training is less likely to be interrupted by potty breaks during retrieves, and because it also sets up the expectation of going to work.
  • The use of a leash is something that you may or may not use at testing. But, if you do it there, you should also do it in training.
  • No matter where you are running your dog, he should expect to remain at heel while under that command, especially on the way to run. If this is done consistently in training, it should be his standard at testing or while hunting.
  • Taking an appropriate amount of time to look at the field, and using standard cues should also be done with consistency. Why?

Expectations. When you do things one way in one environment (training), and another way in another environment (testing), you send mixed messages, giving your dog reason to expect that all the stuff he has to do in training may not apply somewhere else. Dogs frequently become "trial-wise," or "test-wise" through over exposure to testing in proportion to training. They get that way even faster if you telegraph your punches, so to speak, by doing things so differently in training than in testing that you help to paint a picture for them that more clearly distinguishes the two places from each other. The same is true when we get too lax while hunting our dogs.

Here a training group is conducting a multiple honor; multiple dog/handler teams online together while taking turns retrieving a shot flyer to promote steadiness in the presence of other dogs.

It's commonplace for holding blinds to be used for contestants to wait their turn to run under judgment in field trials and in hunt tests.

If you want your dog to know how to behave in a holding blind it's only fair and reasonable to train with them on a regular basis. Also note the use of a leash as this trainer arrives at the blind with his dog.

You can, and should, support many of the same standards during hunting as in training. The problem in testing and trialing is that you really have no legal way to support your standards of training, other than to just pick your dog up and deny him the opportunity to make further mistakes. They learn very fast that the two places are very different. New sounds, sights, and mechanics; really, a different atmosphere is sensed by most dogs quite readily. Just watch a seasoned gundog on the morning of a hunt when you start loading up, and see his excitement!

What standard does your dog expect?

At this point we must look into the way we approach daily training. There are many reasons to train by a proven method, but one of the best is that it presents the work in a uniform manner. If you train by a given method you will tend to do things consistently, including discipline. Your dog should know what to expect in terms of a standard of performance and effort.

One school of thought drives training in such a way that the dogs are allowed to get into trouble, get corrected, called back, and re-run. If this is done without excessive pressure, and with clear information regarding what the right thing to do is, it can work very effectively.

Another school of thought simply communicates the right thing as the dog progresses in each exercise by being handled. Instead of allowing a switch on multiple marks to be completed, a dog in this system would simply be handled to the correct mark as an explanation of what is correct to do. The only correction is for failure to make a legitimate effort to go, stop, or come as commanded during the course of the training exercise. Such a dog is being conditioned to a standard that he will come to expect as his job; his responsibility. He has been shown how to do it in a clear and fair way, the standard being consistently upheld during re-exposure.

While I prefer the latter, it is more important that either approach be applied fairly, consistently, and with pressure applied only in amounts needed to attain compliance with known commands or standards. Each trainer must read that situation as it arises.

What standard do you expect?

When you have a pup with lots of go, and love for birds, it's easy to get over eager with him. The temptation to stretch him out too far too soon, or to "try doubles, just to see how he does," or to get too far ahead of his abilities can break down his confidence, and start bad habits needlessly.

As your dog develops you must remember what level of work he is ready to be exposed to. If he has no handling skills yet, there are things you just shouldn't be doing. If he isn't steady there is no reason to be upset when he breaks. If he hasn't had any shore breaking work you must expect him to cheat water, and so on.

Again, we see more reasons to follow a good sound method. In successfully proven methods you will see a logical progression of acquiring skills. These days the acquiring of fundamental skills is usually achieved through a program called "Basics." Basics are like a tool kit. They are the equipment your dog will need to negotiate the transition to being fully trained, and to maintain the training he is given over his career.

As your dog moves through transition he will develop deepened habits, sharpened skills, and something that will propel him into the most rapid growth in his training life; expectations. He will start to put things together in more complicated fieldwork because he now understands more than just how to comply with a spoken command, or how to turn off pressure. He will soon see enough practical application of his skills in retrieving that he will come to expect fun and rewarding things to happen through living within the standards of training you have carefully and patiently given him.

He will learn, through this process, that he has a partner in retrieving. His trainer is working toward the same goal of getting him into plenty of birds. A well-presented method provides the learning trainer with reasonable expectations of his dogs, and gives that trainer's dogs the best opportunities to become all that they are capable of. More enjoyment is just ahead for the two of you. Expect it!

Four-way/Push-pull Drill

This is merely a simplified starter version of the Wagon Wheel Lining drill, and is part of the standard Basics program. It's designed to initiate your pup to turning with you, and to acquaint him/her with the associated affects of what is called "push" and "pull."

I believe in training dogs to associate specific responses with direct commands that are clear and distinct from other commands whenever possible. I have formed, therefore, the habit of teaching my dogs to respond to "heel" by backing up, and to "here" by coming toward me (a natural response following obedience training). When I have a dog at my left side, and turn right, I command "here," which brings the dog to me -- effectively turning him right. (see diagrams)


Picture a handler at the dog's right (since the dog is heeled on the handler's left). The dog's rear end should remain on the ground, and the dog should pivot on it, bringing his upper torso toward the handler. That requires a distinct physical movement by the handler.

Pivot the dog as you move your body into a position that will result in the dog now being lined up for the next bumper in the drill. The effect of drawing the dog toward you, as each of you turns right, is called "pull," and is an indirect influence compared to "push."

Starting in the original position, with the dog still at the handler's left, you would command "heel," and move your body so that the dog can pivot from his front feet and shoulders -- bringing his rear end toward you (backing up) into the heel position -- resulting in a left turn.

*Note: Look closely at the dog's position in each diagram. Two things should be obvious:

  1. The dog's body, from the base of his tail to the tip of his nose, is lined up exactly online to the bumper.
  2. The dog has been positioned so that he is at heel with the intersecting lines even with his shoulders.

      Those two things will happen only if the handler is willing to move his/her body in a manner that assures it. When the dog has been turned left in this scenario, the handler has remained in close physical proximity to the dog and can affect a "push" to attain the movement when the dog may resist it. This isn't done by physically touching the dog, but rather occurs by simply being close enough to exert that effect when turning. Dogs have sense of personal space much like humans do, although they aren't usually as fussy about it!

      The drill proceeds with the handler rotating from bumper-to-bumper, having the dog retrieve each one he is positioned for, and alternating left and right turns. I suggest doing all left turns in one complete cycle, then all right turns -- each cycle having the dog retrieve a bumper with each turn, and tossing it back out to its spot.

      Soon you can alternate right and left turns to tune up that aspect of your dog's obedience. As the dog becomes sharper at turning and lining, the drill can evolve into a full eight-bumper Wagon Wheel lining drill. I won't go into that here.

      A dog that is well trained to move with his handler is more responsive to direction, and is able to better execute the many tasks of a working retriever in the marsh or field. Good training!