Fortunately in Working Trials the retrieve is put to some practical use. In the CD Stakes we have an ‘Elementary Search’ when the dog must find one handler’s article placed by a steward and unseen by dog and handler. The area to be searched is twelve yards square and the time allowed two minutes.
In all other stakes the dog must find four strange articles handled and placed by some person other than the handler. The area is twenty five yards square and the time allowed is five minutes during which time two articles must be found.
Let us commence with what might be described as the natural method of teaching a dog to find four strange objects in a given area. Start as already mentioned in teaching the retrieve. Throw the dumb-bell into long grass or other cover and encourage the dog to hunt for it. Add a new command such as ‘find it’. Do not use the same command that you use for starting him on a track.
The first task is to make the dog understand that, when you halt at a given spot, point in front of you and say ‘find it — carry’ there is an object in front of you which he can and must find — even if you have to show him where it is. If he is a keen dog you can give him several objects right away.
Next you want him to pick up strange objects dropped by strange people. First see that he retrieves strange objects handled by yourself. Then try him on the same objects handled by someone he knows and gradually get him on to complete strangers’ objects. Dogs which have already been taught scent discrimination on the handler’s article only may prove difficult at first and a completely different command should be used.
We must now teach the dog to stay within the area of twenty-five yards square around which you are allowed to move. This is a practical exercise as, if you were really looking for an object, you would keep moving and would want the dog to keep working the ground just ahead of you. If a dog always finds the objects in a given area he will tend to stay within that area and, in time, is almost certain to develop a habit of not going out of it. If a young sheepdog is worked in a small area for any length of time it is very difficult to encourage him to go beyond that distance.
Although my wife and I always avoid routine in training, we did for many years have a dog act where the dogs worked to a routine. Several of our dogs went over jumps or through hoops to retrieve one dumb-bell after another, which were always placed about the same distance from the last jump. Sometimes for one reason or another I placed them a few yards further away. I have seen a dog jump the last jump, run to where he expected to find the dumb-bells, turn and come back without them. And that with dumb-bells brightly painted, lying a few yards in front of his nose. That shows just how much a dog can become a creature of habit and how accurately he can judge distance.
Another method of teaching a dog to search a given area is to teach him to move in various directions in response to commands and/or hand signals. This of course is nothing new and was the general practice amongst trainers of sheepdogs and gundogs before obedience training was heard of.
There are several ways of teaching a dog to move in different directions. It may surprise readers to learn that I know successful trainers of sheepdogs who start teaching a pup his ‘sides’ by tying him to the end of a long stick. The pup is given the command to move right or left and is made to move in that direction by the stick. This type of training I dislike and have never found it necessary. In anything I do or teach a dog to do I like a purpose.
Assuming that your dog is obedient and keen on retrieving the easiest method I have found to teach this exercise is as follows. Sit the dog and place a dumb-bell a few yards away on either side of him. Stand facing the dog, attract his attention, and with your left arm indicate to the dog the dumb-bell on his right, or vice versa. At the same time give him the command to carry. If he brings the correct dumb-bell take it and praise him well.
Now sit him in the same position and replace the dumb-bell which he has just retrieved. Indicate with the right hand that you want the dumb-bell on the dog’s left. The chances are he will go for the one he has just retrieved. Stop him — not by scolding. Order him to sit or down. Try to get him to move the other way by moving in that direction yourself. You may have to move right round until the dumb-bell is between you and the dog.
Eventually you should be able to make him understand that you only want the dumb-bell on the side to which you signal. In obstinate cases you can use a line to help control the dog, but, if so, be careful not to put him off retrieving.
You can now increase the distance you place the dumb-bells from the dog. With a very keen dog you will have to place them some distance away to start with. Otherwise if he decides to pick up the wrong one he will have grabbed it before you have time to stop him.
The next step is to place the dumb-bells in long grass before you bring the dog out. If you have no long grass use inconspicuous objects. Bring the dog out, sit him between the dumb-bells exactly as before, and signal him to go right or left to look for them. This can be varied by placing pieces of food and signalling the dog to find them. In his book Gundogs : Training and Field Trials, P. R. A. Moxon describes how to teach Spaniel pups to ‘quest’ in this way. And a Spaniel questing at a field trial will cover every inch of twenty-five yards square in less time than it takes the average Working Trials competitor to give his dog instructions.
Once the dog answers to right and left signals you can increase the practical value of this exercise by using three dumb-bells, one each side and one behind him. Teach him to pick up and eventually hunt for whichever dumb-bell you indicate. Be sure to make your signals quite clear. Do not signal the dog to your left with the right arm. Use both arms like a policeman on point duty. To send a dog further out a word of command is usually easier than a hand signal.
All we want now is to put this exercise into practice. Take the dog to an area where several inconspicuous objects are hidden. To begin with it will help if you know where they are but later on it will be better if you don’t. You will not then be tempted to help the dog or, as more often happens, to put him off by trying to help him. Take the dog to the area and take up your position somewhere on the upwind side. We are still training the dog and with the wind blowing the scent away from him he will have to work more carefully. In a trial I should start an the downwind side so that the wind would help him to find the articles more quickly.
Send the dog out with the command to find it. When he has gone a short distance call his name to attract his attention and, as he looks at you, signal him to right or left. As he is about to reach the edge of the allotted area call him again and signal him in the opposite direction. You are allowed to move around the area and, with a dog that will move right or left, come to you and go away, there should be no trouble in getting him to thoroughly quarter a twenty-five-yard square.
Compared to the first method of getting the dog into the habit of staying in a certain area this one has the advantage that, if the occasion arose, the dog could be sent much further than twenty-five yards in any direction. The great disadvantage is that, in the hands of what I call an obedience fanatic, a dog could be taught to move backwards and forwards in response to signals and commands until he stumbles across the objects. Such a dog would get full marks for finding the objects and some judges would give it full marks for control and style. But it would not have I)orked at all. To those who want a practical working dog I suggest a combination of the two methods.
It is surprising how few trial dogs are really good at this the. I believe this is because so many trainers try to teach it as an exercise instead of encouraging the dog to develop his own hunting instinct. A dog encouraged from his youth to hunt for and find hidden objects is far more likely to take to this exercise than one that has only been taught to retrieve visible objects.