Workshop Marking

Flatastic Black Peace “Kaspar” ready to mark

The Dutch Working Flatcoated Groep “WFRG” held a marking workshop by Eric Verzijl in the beautiful place of Rijen.

A nice group of 11 gun dogs – 2 labradors, 1 golden and 8 flatcoated retrievers, most of them young dogs around 2-3 years of age.

Eric opened the day by inviting us to work our dogs exactly the same way as we do at home. He encouraged us to take action if needed not letting the dog finish without the retrieve being successful.

Eric explained the risks of signing the judges on a gundog trial that one is ready with a verbal command. Here I am using my right hand to cue that I am ready (leash had been removed on beforehand) while still keeping an eye on the dog.

On beforehand I was a bit nervous about the impact on my dogs when doing only marks a whole day. Marking I find is very exiting for the dogs and it can easily ruin the steadyness and push them into stress levels where handling is difficult.

Flatastic Red Strength “Lotte” having a great time picking up the cow skin dummy.

In cases like this I am happy that I have learned to recognize the levels of excitement and stress in my dogs and know how to deal with it and/or stop before I push them into over excitement. Luckily they are already well on their way to dealing allright with major stimuli.

During the workshop Eric presented the dogs with a variety of dummies. From cow skin in different colors to dummies with goose wings and launcher dummies. He even used a hand launcher that was build on to a shotgun. This I found unique as many gundog trainers mostly train for competitions and tend to forget preparing handlers for the real deal. Eric spend time explaining important aspect of practical hunting and why certain rules must be obeyed in order to ensure safety for all.

I find the risk of doing workshops in comparison to regular training is that one jumps from one training vision to another. Erik was clear on his views and opinions but I am glad he left space open to continue on our own route of training in order to remain predictable for our dogs.

One of the most discussed items in gundog training is the use of treats (a positive reinforcement tool). It is a topic that can call on strong emotions for some reason and this is intriguing I find, why we humans react so strongly to this when discussing gundogging.

My dogs are very motivated retrievers. Kaspar has a strong will to please and Lotte a strong independent and distance seeking drive. Therefore they bring different challenges into my handling. I use different tools to influence their emotions and behavior on a very conscious level. As they are young steadyness training is always on my top priority and because of all the mistakes I made in my basic training with their mother I spend more time focusing on walking towards the beginning point and the whole setting around me, than I do on the technical skills themselves as for example marking. At this point returning is a bit of a challenge as they have learned that after delivery the fun stops. I offer them good stuff to deal with the “sad” ending of the fun, but it will never have same reinforcement value as the retrieve itself of course. So I try to have all the right boxes ticked on beforehand – to prevent any messing around after picking up the retrieve. Everybody who owns a flatcoated retriever knows that if you desire a perfect steadyness/heelwork performance before building technical skills you will never get ahead. So knowing when to focus on what and being very alert to reinforcement is a must for successfully handling this wonderful breed.

Body language (during the return) is a great predictor on what behavior the dog will show. When the tail is up this high I know he is not in the mood for giving up his newly discovered cow dummy. This leaves me with information and options. I am alert to a last minute decision of turning away from me and I am prepared to give a higher reinforcement than the execution is actually worth. Why is that? Because it was a difficult emotional decision for him to make as he would have rather kept it. I communicated to him that I really appreciated and valued his decision to come in return with a perfect sit to hand. Kaspar’s highest reinforcer is a handful of sausage and a big verbal praise with hugs afterwards. Please invest time and effort in finding out what your dogs different levels of reinforcers are.
Here is a sit that on the first hand looks ok. I found it to be a bit too tense and the distance from my leg too far. Instead of becoming a pain in the neck by nagging him into a closer sit (and by that being irritating on beforehand) I decided to get a treat out and feed him a couple in exange for eye contact just to get a bit more attention to me in favor of the helper in the field. Note I did not lure him to eye contact. Then I asked a closer sit (successfully) which I then could reinforce with the throw of the high value cowskin dummy.
This is the return after the cast of the above mentioned dummy. Look at the difference on body language while coming in compared to the photo of the return above. This return predicted a perfect sit to hand and gave me a good reinforcement opportunity. Because Erik had this marking exercise build up 3in a row style – I could use the next retrieve prospect as reinforcer instead of treats or cuddles. I am a big fan of treats as reinforcers but not of making myself into a random slot machine of treats. Know exactly what you are reinforcing, when you do it, why and what you reinforce with. And remember- reinforcing only happens if the dog perceives it as such.
Lotte eagerly returning

It was a very enjoyable day in Rijen were both youngster were presented with many different marks, dummies and situations (dummies falling behind hills, in heavy water plants etc etc). When training on my own it is impossible to provide the dogs such variety and for that opportunity a big thanks to Erik for the chance to practice a bit of practical hunting skills too. Thank you WFRG and Huntingdogs gun dog school (Erik Verzijl).

All above photos are made by Erik Verzijl

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