Some young dogs can develop this quirk and, although it tends to disappear as time passes and they get experience of the real thing, it can be frustrating for the trainer.
Eye contact is something that, as gundog trainers, we work hard to develop in a dog and it is a positive thing, especially when you start to work the dog. However, if the dog is so focused on you above all else it can cause issues.
- A common cause of a dog not marking can be that during the steadying process the dog has run in and the handler has gone after it and disciplined it. If the dog is of a sensitive nature it could develop the behaviour where it would rather keep its eye on the handler in case something “bad” happens, instead of watching a thrown dummy.
- Another common issue is when you train on your own and you always throw the retrieve from the side of the dog, consequently the dog gets conditioned to seeing the dummy always going away from it and it doesn’t learn to watch out in front.
- Reward-based training (using treats) is becoming more popular in gundog training, but in some cases a young dog can become so focused on what the handler has in their pocket or hand that it can ignore what is going on elsewhere.
- Getting a young gundog to focus on not only the handler but also the exercise is key to successful training. In the early days, if there are too many distractions, such as other dogs running around, it can be very off putting for a young dog.
- Over-steadying a young dog in the early stages can result in a lack of confidence when retrieving and can lead to the dog losing a mark on the dummy, which can then develop into it relying on the handler to help it out rather than finding the retrieve itself.
As mentioned, a possible cause is because the steadying process has been started too early, and the dog has been chastised for running in.
Therefore, the dog would rather look at the handler in case something bad happens. If this can be identified as the cause then the solution is to go back a few steps and return to the training field. As soon as you throw a dummy, send the dog straight away – preferably while the dummy is still in the air.
Do not throw the dummy too high in the air to start with, a dog’s instincts are very tuned in to movement and if you keep throwing the dummy at a lower angle it will catch the dog’s eye. By sending the dog straight away you will be building up its confidence again.
If your dog is steady to thrown dummies and has a strong eye contact with you, there is another method you can try. Sit the dog and walk out in front of it, the dog will obviously watch you.
Throw the dummy in a direct line away from the dog. As he is already looking at you the retrieve is in his eye line and he will inevitably watch the fall. Walk back to the dog and send him, you can gradually extend the distance.
If your dog is reluctant to watch a dummy being thrown, noise can be a good attracter. To start with, find an area with one or two trees, the idea is that you sit the dog and throw the dummy into the tree (preferably the trunk).
The dog should look in the direction of the noise and then see the dummy fall and consequently get a mark.
Use a dummy with the throwing toggle cut off just in case it gets tangled up in the tree branches. The tree not only creates the noise, but it also gives the dog a point to aim for when making the retrieve, which helps to build the dog’s confidence.
In an ideal world the best way to get a dog to mark a dummy is to find someone else to throw the dummy for you.
It is important that when you start with this method that your helper does not stand too far away from you – make sure you build up the distance gradually. Get the handler to make the standard “Brrrr” noise to attract the dog and ask them to throw the dummy high in the air so the dog can see it.
I use the command “mark” just as the noise is made and use my hand to point in the direction I want the dog to look. The dog will soon begin to associate the command with looking out for something being thrown and eventually with something being shot and falling to the ground.