HOW TO TRAIN A RETRIEVER TO BE A BETTER MARKER – The 80/20 Rule Some time ago I was conducting a seminar in which the subject was, ‘How to train a retriever to be a better marker’. It was to be a two day event – everybody had notebooks and the mindset on learning how to get their dog to nail 350 yard marks. I began by spending quite a lot of time on the importance of the ’sit’ command, and gave demonstrations on how to teach the command and then reinforce it with the remote training collar. This went well, and several people had questions, such as “Would the technique that I was demonstrating work with an older dog?” (who was in the habit of NOT sitting very well, ie: a creeper.) I explained that it took at least 30 repetitions to teach a new command to a dog and at least 90 repetitions to overcome a bad habit.

There were many questions asked and answered. I continued to explain all of the elements that, when linked together, made it possible to be a good marker. At one point I asked the class to remember the three main ingredients of marking – the three things that must be present to be a good mark – three things NEVER to be forgotten, because all training on marks include these three elements:

  1. Watch the bird
  2. Go for the bird sent for
  3. Don’t cheat

That’s it! The essence of marking. I continued to demonstrate different drills to achieve better focus, to be more honest in the water, to study each fall as though it would be the only fall they would ever get in their entire life. We also worked on other drills and situations that continued to make a dog a better marker.

At lunch break on the second day the President of the club pulled me aside and said that some of the participants loved the things they were learning but were wondering when we would get into the subject of marking. I told him, “Get everybody in the tent.” I began a new speech which explained marking in a different way. I said, “Who is the worst shot in the room?” There were a few blank faces and finally a nice lady from the back of the group put her hand up and volunteered that she had never shot before.

I said, “Perfect.” She came forward, and we put up a target the size of a garbage can cover. I had her stand 4 feet from the target with a BB gun. She couldn’t miss. I said, “When you get home, shoot 500 rounds at 4 feet, then 500 rounds at 5 feet, then 500 at 6 feet, then 7 feet, etc. You’ll never miss – even when you get back to 50 feet – it’s the way the Army teaches its sharpshooters to hit aspirin tablets when thrown in the air.

Then I looked at the group and said, “OK, who’s the best shot?” That was easy for everyone. A slightly stout man with a hat adorned with a number of shooting pins was cheered forward by everyone………. He looked like a great shot to me. I handed him the BB gun and said, “OK….go out in the middle of that field over there and try to hit this target.” Everyone gasped. “That’s impossible”, they cried.

And I said, “Well, that’s what a lot of you do with your puppies!” You barely get them retrieving and all of a sudden the bird boy is out throwing marks they can barely see….. The poor pups are out hunting aimlessly wondering what’s going on. You’re hollering at the bird boy (or your wife) to throw it better, “Higher arch!!” “Help him! Help him!” But none of that’s any good. You must throw the bird so that the pup can’t miss……. whatever that distance is….. 20-30 yards? If he misses the throw, it was too far or too hard.

It’s the 80 / 20 Rule. The pup must nail the mark 80% of the time. This will develop his confidence.

Eventually, it won’t matter where you throw the bird – he won’t miss because he has never missed. Develop confidence. Create a habit of pouncing on every bird – never missing – never failing. Once in a while – never more than 20% of the time – it is OK to throw a mark into heavy cover – a slightly more challenging situation to develop the pup’s ability to hunt and use his nose. But, there’s plenty of time for that.

Now you know the secret of how to make a great marker – the 80/20 Rule!

In summary:

  1. Watch the bird
  2. Get the bird you’re sent for
  3. Don’t cheat

Plus! STICK TO THE 80/20 RULE! Throw the birds where they can’t miss!