In the first two installments we covered obedience and physical conditioning. These are key elements to having a quality hunting dog by your side come fall. Now let’s examine fine tuning of two more highly important skills, steadiness to shot and marking. Since these go hand in hand they will be covered together.
Steady as she goes- Having a dog that is steady to shot and fall is invaluable and the mark of a skilled and finished animal. But it is never easy to accomplish and requires work to maintain. An assistant will make this phase easier since you need to incorporate gunfire into the drills. We have all seen plenty of dogs that are rock steady for marks in controlled environments. Bring in multiple guns, birds flying, birds falling and all of that goes out the window.
Of course you will need a training area where gunfire will not be an issue. Once that is established, have your assistant throw a short mark and fire a blank pistol or a shotgun with blank poppers. The close proximity of the mark will increase the desire to break along with the further enticement of noise. Have the dog on lead so the correction can be instantaneous. Throw some and allow the dog to retrieve the mark and pick some up. If the dog thinks it may not be sent he or she will be less on edge and less likely to go early. Now have your assistant throw the mark and you fire the gun next to the dog. It is surprising how much this will increase the tendency in the dog to go. Once you have done this on multiple occasions and the dog is steady, move on to longer marks. Remember that the dog will still be likely to break on opening morning and be prepared for correction.
See it, mark it, retrieve it –Once you have re-established steadiness it is time to sharpen marking skills. Walking singles in an open field with very short grass is a good way to start. Here is a scenario where help is great but not necessary. In fact, it is better to throw a mark on a remote sit and then walk back and send the dog. This will help memory. Gradually move into heavier cover and add marks to solidify the dog’s marking ability. Then move to water and repeat. Please be careful with the heat and if you see any signs of stress stop immediately and get the dog into a cool place.