Pups: Thinking Finished from the Very Beginning, Part 3

by Rich Carpenter

Exposing a pup to the idea of casting through play teaching is seen as a good idea by some and as pretty much a waste of time by others.  I guess you pay your money and take your pick.  I’m a believer in it, but then it fits into my general philosophy of giving a pup every opportunity to get exposed to useful things and figure that at times it may give them a leg up in training or help them out in an area that otherwise might be a tough learning area for that pup.  There are many good ways to train a retriever, what I do just happens to fit my personal preferences. 

The Tri-Tronics Retriever Training book by Jim and Phyllis Dobbs with Alice Woodyard gives a good presentation on puppy play casting on the table that will later be used for the Trained Retrieve (Hold and Fetch), also known at Force Fetch or Conditioned Retrieve.  Again, Jackie Merten’s Sound Beginnings puppy teaching/training video has a lot more early training focused ultimately toward more advanced work. 

If you are planning to use a table like this for FF, there is an added benefit of the pup spending fun time and getting treats at one of the uprights when “Hold” begins with the dog secured to the upright.  A few weeks before “Hold” will start, I’ll gradually introduce the pup to the secured collar, giving a treat as it gets the collar on.  First, it’s loose and later tighter as it will be to secure the dog so that “Hold” can be a calm and quiet activity.  Even though the “Hold” program is not terribly fun for the pup or the trainer, even during the part that involves insistence, ear pinch and later collar replacing the ear pinch, the pup is still very willing to walk right up to the post, get a munchie or two and get on with the un-fun stuff. 

Getting back to puppy casting, I like to give the pup a week to get used to me, the new home, etc.  and then start playing on the table.  The whole game revolves about the pup liking treats.  Dobbs use little pieces of hot dog.  My pups have been chow hounds and seemed just as happy with little kibbles of dog food.  So, I’ve just used the puppy food that came with them, since I change over to my preferred brand.  Works good and easy to keep a supply in a little jar right at the table and doesn’t spoil or be messy like hot dogs. 

In good blind retrieve work, most trainers will want their dog to sit and face them when the whistle is blown, then if cast back with the left arm vertical, want the dog to turn to the handlers left as they go back.  Vice versa with the right back arm cast.  I think everyone uses verbal “Back” with either.  The game for this cast is for the pup to sit or stand (pup’s choice) just to one side of the upright at the end of the table.  If the pup is to the handlers right of the upright, then a treat is placed behind the pup and the pup is held with the left hand and turned loose for the treat with a vertical right arm cast and a verbal back.  Pup hasn’t a clue what that means, but is going to get a treat, so all is good.  Over time, the pup will chain the stimulus and response.  It will also learn the game and gradually come to sit until “cast” to the treat.  Gradually the treat is placed further back on the table (2ft x 16 ft).  Until the pup is waiting on it’s own, I rig a little real light nylon cord through the upright loop that supports the wire over the table from one end to the other.  Then I can snap it to pup’s collar and gently restrain it as I feed cord through my fingers to go lay the treat on the table (“plant the blind”).  There is no resistance so I can leave it attached while I “cast” the pup before he finds a butterfly or something to grab his attention. 

The whole notion of puppy turning the correct direction is just managed placement.  If the pup is up against the pipe with his head on one side and the treat is behind and on his opposite side, there’s not much attraction for the pup to bang his head against the post go get the treat.  It’s far easier to just turn the other way.  Soon it’s a habit. 

Once the treats are out a little way, then they begin being placed closer to the center of the table, regardless of left or right-hand back.  Then the treat is placed, and trainer can decide which cast to give once the pup has learned the game.  There is never any correction or punishment in this play teaching.  You just repeat and work a little harder to set the conditions for the desired response.  Later on if platforms are used in CC and as part of steadying, extending the left and right back casts to dummies is easy as tossing a dummy behind and left or right of the pup on the platform and casting them appropriately.  When this and the previous actions have been well-tied to going back and turning the right way, usually you can just go set out a big white dummy where the toss has gone previously and cast the pup with no throw, and surprise, away they go. 

Left and right casting happens the same way, with the pup restrained with one hand and the treat placed with the other hand.  Then with right cast, pup is held with left hand and released as the horizontal arm right cast is given with the verbal command.  “Over” for either left or right over is still the accepted, standard cast.  I prefer to use a different command for right over and left over.  I use the muleskinner Gee and Haw.  Some use Left and Right.  Probably easier to remember than getting used to Gee and Haw.  But my first HRCH had to have an eye removed at 8 years old, and to successfully do multiple marks hunting and in Finished; he needed a little help and quickly learned “Mark Left” and “Mark Right”.  I figured my chances of remembering left and right with quick marks was better than Gee and Haw and held Left and Right for that unlikely use in another dog. 

I think the argument for “Over” for either cast is that you shouldn’t have your dog out of sight when you make a cast, so the dog can see the arm cast.  Hell of an idea in an ideal world, but I’m always amazed how quickly a dog can slip into the cattails or fade out of sight from terrain.  When a dog can’t see you and has gone one way to get into trouble, I’m here to tell you that seeing nothing and hearing only “Over” the dog’s going to continue deeper into the doo-doo, not come out to be cast again.  But that’s a personal choice; you do as you will. 

Left and right casting is same procedure basically as the left-hand and right-hand back cast play game, except for direction.  Before long pup doesn’t need restrained and you can put out treats on both ends and cast to your choice.  I always make my “choice” the direction that to cord won’t stop the pup on.  Then if he makes a mistake, it’s impossible to carry out and the correct cast is taken.  It’s amazing how quickly good habits form when you set the stage so they always do it correctly and never do it wrong. 

With both the “over” and L & R-hand back casts, by the end you are moving way back from the table.  Also, for the “over” casts, you are working with only arm cast as well as only verbal cast.  Since I’m a belt and suspenders kind of guy and also a real believer in generalization, I further proof verbal-only Gee and Haw by putting up a plywood shield or getting behind a vehicle so the dog a) can’t see me, and b) it guarantees I’m not thinking I’m doing verbal only casting when in fact the pup is reacting to nonverbal clues such as body leaning or eyes darting in way of desired cast.  OK, I admit, it sounds goofy, but some research I was doing at the time on possible basis of water witching and tangentially related matters surprised me.  It turns out that on some issues like animals counting, people guessing numbers others had chosen, or guessing step on a ladder they had placed a penny on, etc., it was real clear animals and humans could read some clues they were not aware of.  It was also clear that people were not aware of the non-verbal cues they were sending.  For example, the old 1800’s horse in Germany that did addition could no longer do it if the questioner was removed from sight.  But enough of why. 

Anyway, a pup that has played this left right over game for a couple months is pretty well in the habit of going one way or the other for a treat.  If platform casting used in CC or training, it comes very naturally to cast, and adding a dummy just fits right in.  If platforms are used, they can offer some opportunities to cast past suction, etc., as the casting to the platform command is generalized by doing in 5 different location.  By the end of that it’s pretty easy to set a platform where the pup passes a point of cattails on a “back” cast or goes across a narrow strip of water to a platform on an over cast. 

Certainly not necessary in developing a good blind running dog, but for me just provides an opportunity to get a jump on things and be doing some different things before serious training can begin. 

Next time I’ll try to cover a little about the Trained Retrieve (Force Fetch), as well as where we go from there.  If space permits, I’ll talk a little about some simple drills that require no space to begin to expose a very young dog to some concepts they won’t have to use until Finished.