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From the June 2002 American Kennel web page

Ken handling Checkers in Transition


Training a Retriever

Marking is the most important skill in retriever competition. Retrievers have natural marking abilities; however training enhances and refines skills. The dogs are taught to: remember multiple marks; not go back to where they picked up a prior mark; to only go when sent (the term non-slip retriever in the rules refers to this); to carry what they retrieve gently without damaging it, to hold it until the handler takes it rather than drop it; to do short, long, or medium length marks regardless of the order they fall; and other things that make marking on both water and land effective and efficient with disturbing a minimum of cover.

One of the key factors that make the preparation of retriever unique is the task of training them to take arm and voice signals at a distance from the handler. This skill, called "handling" is necessary to enable the handler to get the dog to an unknown destination. The reason for it is to guide a dog to a bird that the dog did not see fall. This ability preserves game and contributes to wildlife conservation. There are specialized sequences of training that prepare the dog for "handling".

Whether a retriever is being trained for hunting, hunt tests or field trials; the process for training marking as well as "handling" to unknown destinations is basically the same in the beginning. It is only when the dog gets to an advanced levels that dogs are trained to meet the relative demands of each.

Getting Started

The first challenge for the new owner is to figure out what pup to buy. Looking at the AKC statistics that appear in the Gazette each month, the sporting group has thousands of litters registered monthly. Deciding what pup to get out of ads in magazines, newspapers, word-of-mouth referrals, web sites and other sources is a mind boggling experience for even the experienced person.


Dennis Voigt with two 50 day old littermates: Banchee's Keltic Spirit (black) and Quik Traveling Windstorm (choc).

Advice to the new person would be to spend some time studying their breed of choice first. Go to AKC competitions, study the pedigrees of dogs that look good, talk to participants, ask about trainability, and get involved with retriever clubs and the work of putting on field events.

Decisions have to be made as to the goals for the new pup. The goals will make the difference for what pup to choose. Pups that are hopefully heading for a field trial career will likely have a pedigree filled with dogs that have field trial titles. Photo right: Banchee's Keltic Spirit (black) and Quik Traveling Windstorm (chocolate) will be in two different homes. Dennis is editor of the respected training magazine, Retrievers on Line, the Magazine of Field Trial and Hunting Retrievers.

Age to Start Training

The first training, usually called socialization, starts in the litter atmosphere. A good breeder will expose the pup to various experiences of sound and texture and objects, holds each pup daily to accustom the pup to the human touch, teaches it to run out to potty on papers or outside areas to keep it's sleeping area clean (a fairly natural response) and teaches the pup to come to " here puppy puppy" when food is brought during weaning. Pups learn early that humans are special companions.


Ten week old Travel making himself at home on the sofa

The training continues as the pup arrives at its new home somewhere between the 49th and 58th day. Leaving a pup with its littermates longer than that promotes bonding to the other pups rather than humans. Taking a pup earlier removes it from important learning about being a dog, bite inhibition, and other significant personality characteristics.

From the day the pup arrives a variety of socialization activities are important. What happens in that first year sets the stage for the pup "learning how to learn" and how to be a "good citizen". The foundation set will impact the future success of the dog. Bonding and becoming a part of a family are important parts of growing up

Pups enthusiastically retrieve from an early age. Good habits are started early with well placed praise and enthusiasm strengthening the responses. Years of selective breeding have made retrieving a highly rewarding natural response for most retrievers.


Sixteen week old Sommit's Teak Windstorm swims back with a bumper

Quik Traveling Windstorm at ten weeks retrieves a big dog bumper

Basic and Transition Training

Mike Lardy gives a positive pat to a retriever doing yard work.

At around five to seven months more formal training is begun. A flow chart shows the typical skills taught in a yard situation while marking is being developed in the field on the right hand side of the chart. The flow chart was taken from Mike Lardy's totalretriever.com site. It has two stages that lead to Advanced training --- Basics and Transition.

Basics teach the dog the foundation skills such as heeling, sitting to a whistle, responding to casting (arm movements) on land and in water. Bumpers are used in a flat featureless area with minimal distractions to teach these skills.

Transition is literally translating the skills learned in Basics to the field. Going to an unknown destination guided by the handler's whistles and casts, staying in the water to take a direct route rather than going on shore where they might get lost or disoriented, and going where the handler guides them rather than making up their own mind what to do are all taught.

Ken Dollevoet sending Checkers on a blind. Checkers was Open Wisconsin DU Winner in 2001 and is Ken's first field competition dog.

The angle of the handlers arm determines the direction the dog takes. The end of the blind is up at the tree near the corner of the farmyard.


Ken directs Checkers to his left side as she returns with the bumper from a successful blind. He has done all of the training on Checkers and owns Lorken Retrievers and Game Farm with his wife Lori.

The dog learns to leave at a designated time in a sequence of handler actions and to differ between angle casts. They learn to take a direct route rather than jump on the shore and run around. Taking a shore or land route disturbs more cover plus often disorients them as to where the mark has fallen and they might difficulty finding it. When the dog returns to the handler, an arm out to the side shows the dog where to sit. Many field dogs heel off both sides.

Advanced training comes at the end of the flow chart following Transition. They have learned that at times, as in marking, they will be following their own instincts, memory, and desire. In other situations, they will abandon their natural instincts and move only as a partner with the handler to find a hidden destination. The dog must know how to comfortably change between the two different ways of responding to their handler.

It is at this point that the dog will take one of, or maybe several directions ---being a great hunting dog, competing in hunt tests, or training for field trials. Up to Advanced the skills learned are the foundation for any of those goals.

Challenges in advanced Field Trial training and competition

What does a dog have to be trained to do for success in field trials? Each test design varies and the handler never knows until they get to the competition what will be involved in each series.

Length and speed are not the primary criteria, contrary to popular myth. Lengths vary from as close as 30 yards to up to 350-400 yards - and long and short might be in any test. The relationship of the marks to each other, the terrain used the design of shores and water entries, wind, and other features are the key factors in making a test difficult. Overall style and enthusiasm are much more important than speed. National competition requires a dog that has learned many complex skills by both the dog and the handler.

Dogs might be trained by a Professional trainer; or sometimes Amateurs do all the training themselves; and sometimes there is a combination between using Professional and Amateur training. All three ways of training can be equally successful.

More on Training

Field training takes quite a bit of equipment. The longer individuals stay in the sport, the more they accumulate.

Field Trial Judges are chosen from amateurs who have shown success in the sport. Amateurs have training groups that meet multiple times during a week to teach retrievers new skills and strengthen old.