This article is adapted from Passing Grade Three available from The Gundog Club
There are two potential starting points for the back command.
One is with the dog remote from you – the back ‘cast’.
The other is with the dog next to you.
In this article we are looking at send the dog ‘back’ from the heel position.
We are going to give the dog a set of specific ‘cues’ to associate with running back in a nice straight line.
We will build a picture in his mind of the way in which he should sit at your side in preparation for a retrieve
The way in which you position your own body and the signals you give him will all help you to set the dog up to succeed.
Your verbal command
Some of you may already be using the word ‘back’ to send your dog to a mark, some will be using ‘fetch’ or perhaps the dog’s name.
Many trainers now use the command back for both blind retrieves and marks, and this is becoming the convention. So in this article, we are going to introduce the dog to the word ‘back’ in association with a clear set of standards.
The route to the dummy
We begin by introducing the ‘back’ command when we send the dog for simple marked retrieves.[wp_ad_camp_1]This helps us to establish good habits and a nice straight outrun. The dog can see what he is going for, and how he is going to get there.
During this initial phase we are going to be very, very careful not to do anything which might make the dog waver from his straight line.
We want to build a good solid habit of going out like an arrow.
Keep it simple
For this reason the following is very important: there are many factors which make travelling straight harder for the dog and it is important to exclude these to begin with.
Keep the task simple.
Make sure he can see the dummy clearly and that there are no obstacles in his way. Even a small patch of rougher ground, or a few nettles, en route to the dummy can cause an inexperienced young dog to travel in a curve.
Avoid these carefully, and set the dog up to succeed.
The dog’s starting position
In addition to making sure that there is nothing in the dog’s path which might cause him to swerve or make a detour, we are also going help him to set off in the right direction every time by positioning him carefully.
The dog’s natural tendency is to run in the direction in which his body, and especially his head, is aligned.
You will be using this to your advantage, and will position him so that he is pointing like an arrow at the retrieve.
The dog must be looking in the right direction at your side when he is sent and you will need to observe your dog closely in the early stages in order to release him at the best moment.
The point of release
The right moment to release the dog is when he is mentally ‘locked on’ to the retrieve, staring hard at it, and not day dreaming or glancing about watching butterflies or thinking about his breakfast.
If you make sure that the dog is staring keenly at the retrieve at the exact moment you release him, he has the best possible chance of setting off in the right direction.
As always there is a balance required between different factors when picking the right moment.
If you send the dog on marks too quickly, too often, he may become unsteady. If you leave him too long so that he gets bored, you may have trouble getting his focus back. You will get better at picking your moment with practice.
As an extra and important clue to the dog, we are also going to build in some nice clear physical cues to help him understand very clearly what we want him to do. These physical cues lie in your own body posture and position.
Every handler has their own preferred position but it is helpful if you do not vary yours.
You will be using the line of your arm to indicate the direction in which the dog should travel. Some handlers like to stretch out their arm alongside the dog, others hold their hand centred just above the dog’s head in line with his muzzle.
Wherever you place your arm, it should be pointing directly at the dummy and held out in a nice clean line parallel with the line of the dog’s body.
Standing with one foot slightly in front of the other to line up your own body alongside the dog may feel more comfortable to you and help to show the dog the direction he is intended to take.
New cues in a familiar setting
On easy single marks this may all seem unnecessary when the dog clearly knows which way to go, but the idea is to establish this new set of cues in a familiar setting.
The purpose of the arm or hand is to indicate the direction in which you want the dog to travel.
Try to avoid moving your hand as you say ‘back’, keep it still. The dog should not move until you tell him to.
Over the next few sessions, you will be thoroughly associating the command ‘back’ and its accompanying cues (his neat position and your neat position) with successful short, straight, retrieves.
These should be easy ‘marks’ to begin with, on open ground.
The dog should be able to see the marks clearly and to go straight to them without crossing any obstacles or hazards. White dummies are useful at this point as they stand out better than the traditional green canvas ones. Do not throw them into long grass or other vegetation.
Keep it straight!
The purpose is for the dog to hold a very straight line between handler and dummy, and not be diverted in any way. You are not trying to advance his marking, memory or gamefinding skills at this point.
Avoid sending him for several marks ‘in a row’ as this may unsteady the young dog. Remember to collect some yourself.
Keep the retrieves very short at first and extend distances only when you are confident he will hold the straight line between you and the dummy.
As you progress you can alternate or mix marks in with simple ‘go-backs’ (drop a dummy whilst the dog is at heel, and heel the dog away, then turn him back to face the dummy before sending). For each retrieve you will establish a clear sequence of associated events as follows.
- Sit the dog facing the dummy at heel. Make sure he can see it clearly. Make sure the dog’s spine is in a straight line facing the dummy.
- Repeat the sit command if necessary as you slowly stretch out your arm to indicate the direction of the dummy. You want the dog to take-off along the line of your arm, but not yet! Watch the dog’s eyes. You are waiting for him to be focused on the dummy.
- Give the command ‘back’.
- If the dog remains seated immediately encourage the dog out with your usual retrieve command (fetch, or his name, for example). Step towards the dummy with him if necessary. Do whatever you need to do to get him moving.
Within a very short space of time the dog will be racing out every time as soon as you give the ‘back’ command.
Once he has understood the ‘back’ command, make sure he does not begin to anticipate your requirements and run out as you stretch out your arm. If this happens, you may need to re-introduce the firm ‘sit’ command as you line up your arm and body, for a while.
Your arm is to focus him on the direction in which he is to travel. He must wait for the word ‘back’ before moving.
Over the next few days you can now practice your new ‘back’ command in a number of different locations. This helps the dog to learn that this new command applies in lots of different places.
Passing Grade Three was written by Pippa Mattinson and can be purchased from The Gundog Club bookshop. All proceeds from Passing Grade Three go to The Gundog Trust.
If you enjoy her articles, you might like her new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.