Waiting for a command before setting off to fetch a retrieve, is all part and parcel of learning to be a well behaved gundog.
We looked at why steadiness is so important in the importance of steadiness to fall for retrievers
In this article, we will look at one way of introducing steadiness to fall.
This will take you several sessions over several days to complete.
With a very ‘hot’ dog it might take a week or two. Once you have started the process, all opportunities to run-in should be denied. It is best to stop all retrieving practice for the duration.
Why this method
This is a method which enables the dog to progress with very few, if any, corrections. It is not the only method, but it is now my preferred one.
Make sure your dog is ready to begin
There are some pre-requisites for this steadiness training
- A passionate retriever
- A solid sit/stay
- A basic delivery to hand
A passionate retriever
It is important that you don’t attempt to ‘steady’ a dog that is not yet passionate about retrieving.[wp_ad_camp_1]Serious steadiness training may interfere with a young dog’s enthusiasm for retrieving if introduced too early.
Let your puppy chase after retrieves for a while.
Build up some passion before asking him to be a ‘grown up’ and wait nicely for your cue.
A solid sit/stay
You will sometimes see people teach steadiness by ‘restraining’ the dog with an arm or a lead whilst they throw a dummy. I don’t teach steadiness like this. I teach it initially with the dog sitting facing me, and without touching the dog. This gives me more control over the ‘power’ of the dummy (see below).
For this reason you will need to teach the dog to sit and stay reliably whilst you move a short distance away, before you commence this training exercise.
You don’t want to be attempting this training with a dog that still plays ‘keep-away’ or drops the dummy, it will interfere with your ability to focus on the job in hand. If your dog doesn’t deliver to hand yet, check out this article Delivery problems: playing keep away
The power of distractions
The sight of a falling dummy is a ‘distraction’ for a keen retriever that has been asked to sit and stay. It is a strong temptation to move and disobey you.
As always in training, we can keep our handling methods more positive if we set the dog up to win by introducing distractions very gradually, from low power distractions to very powerful ones. And by increasing the power of any given distraction very slowly.
But how can we alter the ‘power’ of our falling dummy? How can we make it less distracting to the dog?
Altering the power of the dummy
The answer lies in a number of different factors.
- The speed at which the dummy is travelling
- The height at which the dummy is travelling
- The proximity of the dummy to the dog
- The proximity of the dog to the handler
- The position of the handler relative to the dog and the dummy
Speed of the dummy
To begin with we introduce the dummy by gently dropping it to the ground from our outstretched hand. The dummy has only a short distance to fall and is relatively unexciting to the dog.
Once we are confident that the dog can hold a sit/stay, through this process we can start the make the dummy move a little faster.
The height of the dummy
Some dogs find a dummy that falls from a considerable height, far more exciting than one that just skims the ground. Be aware that introducing a high thrown dummy can trigger a break from the stay. So do this gradually.
The proximity of the dummy to the dog
A dummy thrown to land at considerable distance from the dog, may be less exciting than one that lands just under his nose. Especially if the other factors of temptation are high.
The proximity of the dog to the handler
The dog is less likely to ‘break’ the stay if his handler is very close to him, than if his handler is far away
The position of the handler relative to the dog and the dummy
The dog is less likely to ‘break’ the stay if the handler is placed between the dog and the dummy, so that the dog would have to pass the handler in order to reach the dummy. This also enables the handler to pick up the dummy before the dog does, if things go wrong. Thus ensuring that the dog does not get a reward for breaking his stay.
Making a start
Using the information above, we can make a start at setting the dog up to win with steadiness to fall.
Begin with the dog sitting facing you and back away a few steps. Have a dummy ready in your hand. Bend over so that your hand is only a foot or two from the ground and drop the dummy very gently behind you.
Most dogs with a practiced stay, will not move when you do this. The dummy just is not tempting enough.
Watch the dog carefully the whole time. If he starts to get up give him a ‘no-reward’ marker (I just say AH-AH! quite sharply). Return to the dog, walk him on at heel a few paces then try again.
As soon as the dog remains seated whilst you drop the dummy on the ground, which may well be the very first time you do it, give a reward marker (I use ‘good’) pick the dummy up again, return to the dog and reward him. Walk the dog on at heel a few paces and repeat.
When you can do this successfully five times in a row, it’s time to increase the power of the dummy just a tiny bit.
A faster dummy
If you look at the list above, you can see that there are several ways to do this. Pick just one. I suggest you start by making the dummy a bit more lively. Throw the dummy to land a few feet behind you.
Imagine that you are standing in the middle of a clock. The dog is sitting facing you, with his back to 12 o’clock. Start throwing the dummy well behind you towards 6 o’clock. The dummy is moving a little faster now, but you are still between the dog and the dummy.
Get this right and then you can start throwing the dummy to 7 o’clock and to 5 o’clock. The dog has a clearer view of the dummy now. But your position is still quite a strong visual barrier. When he is successful with this you can start throwing the dummy to 8 o’clock and to 4 o’clock. This is more tempting for him now, so throw gently and shorten the distance a little.
Remember to reward the dog
This is where people often start forgetting to reward the dog. Don’t switch to intermittent rewards yet, you are increasing the level of difficulty and the dog needs a reward for every correct response. Go to the dog and feed him or give him some affection if that is what he likes. Walk him on a bit to relax him before trying again.
Close to the dog
When we increase one factor of difficulty, it is important to decrease the others for a while. As you begin throwing the dummy towards 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock (to either side of the dog) things are getting more tempting for him. Make sure that you are really close to him so that the two of you are in the middle of the clock together. Use your physical presence to focus his attention on to you. Use bigger rewards if he is struggling.
Moving away from the dog
Once the dog is able to sit calmly and watch the dummies fall to either side of him you can begin to move further away from him. Leave him in the middle of the clock, still throwing dummies to 3 and 9, whilst you back away towards 6 o’clock. Just a few feet at a time. Take it slowly.
Increasing the power
To increase the power of the dummy further, you will start throwing them so that they pass slightly beyond the dog (to 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock). Always move closer to the dog before you do this and back away slowly once he is steady. Keep progressing until you are able to leave the dog in the middle of the clock, back away to 6 o’clock, and throw the dummy directly over the dog’s head to land at 12 o’clock.
Once your dog has mastered this, you can begin to increase other factors of difficulty. Start introducing faster moving dummies, and high thrown dummies. It can be helpful to get a friend to throw for you at this stage, so that you can stand very close to the dog until you are sure he is coping. Then move away gradually.
Once the dog can sit very still whilst dummies soar over his head, or skim past his nose with you stood twenty yards away. You will have done a good job at basic steadiness to fall.
Now you can begin to re-introduce some retrieves. Only allow the dog to pick up one or two dummies for every dozen or so that you throw to begin with. Unless you have a regular ‘thrower’, you will need to do quite a bit of walking!
Build on basics
You now need to build on this with steadiness to fall at heel and for spaniels, steadiness to fall whilst hunting. We’ll look at that in another article.
You can find more information on developing the retrieve in a young retriever in the Gundog Club’s training guides.
Enjoy your training sessions
If you enjoy my articles, you might like my new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.
Firstly thanks for putting together such a great site. I apologise for this long message but wanted to ask your advice. I have a 21/2 yr old Labrador who is a family pet but also a shooting dog. She is very well socialised as we live by a common in London. This year has been her first full season and she has come with me on around 10 driven days where she sits on my peg and picks up after the drive. I trained her myself without using C&T methods but also without aversion / punishment, but just repetition and praise. Trying to be objective, I would say she is a clever dog and is extremely enthusiastic and she loves working. She has a very good recall to the whistle and will turn and come back in any circumstance that I have had her in. She has a good stop on the whistle at distance (although that may take a repeat whistle to get her to stop and look at me when she is in full hunt mode) and she will follow a directional signal to left or right. The issues that I really want to try to improve are:
1. Delivery of retrieve – she loves retrieving and does a fantastic job until she gets right back to me to deliver the bird when she has a habit of stopping short and dropping it or running past / round me – she will give it up to me but it’s not great. She’s the same on dummies
2. Walking to heel – she is pretty good out on walks etc, but when out shooting her enthusiasm gets the better of her and I have to constantly call her back to heel and remind her to heel when we are walking to pegs for example. She is also fine on lead (although sometimes gets a little in front) but I am aiming to be able to have her off the lead without constantly having to call her back. I should say that when we are out walking (not shooting) I do rather let her tear around hunting and having fun so I’m aware that this probably doesn’t help
3. Sitting on the peg – generally she is very steady on her sit and no issues throwing dummies past her nose etc. She has sat still while muntjac have run past her from cover etc. When we are shooting I have been trying to have her on the peg without a lead and pin. She will sit well but gets excited when the drive starts and if a bird falls reasonably close (esp if it is not fully dead) she can’t help herself but tear off to get it even if I shout at her to leave it. She will bring it straight back and doesn’t disappear into the cover or anything, but I would love to correct this as she is overall such a great dog.
I am really interested in the C&T methodology which makes lots of sense – I bought your total recall book even though that isn’t my issue as you address a lot of general questions as well. I see from your site that you have a very clear methodology to deal with issues 1. and 2. And I’m sure they would work with her (she is greedy!). What I am worried about is introducing C&T methods to her at this stage, never having used them before and whether it could potentially undo some of the good things that she does well. I know you cover it, but I am also fearful of introducing treats and then having to use them from now on when I haven’t used them at all to-date and don’t really want to be dishing out snacks to her on the shooting field. Even if I do introduce C&T training to correct 1. and 2. I’m not sure how it can help with 3. As she is so passionate at the time that she charges off to get a bird and I can’t tell her off when she gets back with a bird in her mouth. As I say, sorry for a really long message – she is a wonderful dog and I am very proud of how good she is overall but would love to correct these particular issues. (she also often doesn’t run out very straight when sent ‘back’ but I think I just have to work on that). Any guidance would be really appreciated particularly on 3. and also just generally on introducing C&T at this point
Thanks a lot
Not sure when I will have time to work through that lot Kenneth, so you’ll have to bear with me 🙂
Pippa, I have a query re the next steps in the steadiness training you have outlined above. I am training a 2yr GSP, and he is rock steady to hand thrown dummies in all directions and heights and speeds. It all falls apart when the dummy launcher or shotgun is introduced.
With limited success I have been firing short dummies (dummy only half way down the spigot), and the dog will sit but its clear to all hes just itching to run in. I have been making him sit while I walk out and pick up the dummy, this works about 70% of the time. Other times I let him pick up a hand thrown dummy after the launcher dummy has been fired.
Do you have any guidance on how progress from the above training to using the dummy launcher and the shotgun?
Hi Colum, launched dummies are incredibly exciting and it is difficult to ensure that the dog cannot reach the retrieve if he breaks. A better interim way of ensuring steadiness to shot is to get a helper to fire a shot and throw a dummy close to him so that he can pick it up if the dog breaks. The key with this method is making sure the dog never gets the dummy if he fails to remain steady.