Retrieving Open Marks
Once a gun dog has adequate obedience training, retrieving open marks is often the first hunt training he will receive. Open marks are essentially retrieves in which the dog sees the retrieving bumper fall. The mark should be in open range where the dog can see the bumper from his release point. Good marking starts with a great desire to retrieve. Desire or drive is often genetic. But trainers can either hinder or boost desire. When starting a pup, don’t give him more than three or four retrieves at a time. Leave him wanting more. Starting in water is another big no-no. Too much can go wrong. You want early retrieves to be happy experiences for him.
Before starting with open marks, be sure to have a firm grasp on obedience training. Puppies are not usually 100% obedience trained, but don’t start a dog on open marks that won’t come when called or doesn’t hold his bumpers well.
Open marks are all about “seeing” the mark. In advanced training and in the field a dog typically won’t see the mark but will visualize a spot where the bird fell. To start, throw the bumper in a spot where he can see the bumper all the way to the retrieve. A mowed field is perfect. Pick up any trash or litter on the field. These things can confuse a young dog. Later in his training, you will use multiple marks but again keep it simple to start. One bumper and one mark at a time is all a young dog can handle.
Having a helper is vital to teaching a dog open marks. This person needs to throw the dummy for you. It is impossible to throw the dummy and keep control of the dog at the same time. Find someone that can throw a dummy a considerable distance. You want the throw to be far enough away and out of the line of sight so the dog doesn’t focus on the thrower when running to the mark. The dog should only be looking at the dummy, not the thrower. As the dog progresses a training pistol will add the element of the shot to training. In the early stages the pistol can disorient a youngster. Wait until the dog masters open marks before having your thrower fire a pistol.
Start open mark exercises from a short distance until the dog gains confidence. Sit the dog next to you and keep him on a lead. When the thrower releases the dummy, the dog will naturally attempt to go after it. Give him the sit command and make him wait until he settles. Professional dog trainer Bruce Kapanke advises trainers to watch a dog’s ears. “When they calm down… you can send him.”
At this point, give your retrieve command and let the lead go. Your thrower should be focusing on the dog’s eyes since you will not be able to see them as he runs to the dummy. If the dog isn’t totally focused on the dummy, shorten the retrieve. As the dog picks up the bumper and returns to you, be sure he is handling the dummy well and call him to you. Kapanke gives the heel command. “Give him a clear signal to come to your side.”
If your dog is competent with the dummy, make him hold it for five to ten seconds before taking it from him. This reinforces good bird handling. Repeat this process two or three times, making sure to quit before the dog gets disinterested in the drill. As the dog matures and gains confidence, the amount of marks and the difficulty can be increased.