Grady Istre – FIELD DOGS

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Male or female
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Work on your dog’s faults

The dirt clod drill
This article is for all of my neglected competition trial readers.

Before discussing this drill, there’s a warning needed: this drill can have dire consequences if used in the wrong circumstances. No drill should ever be used beyond the point where the joy of the quest is removed from the dog. It’s useful solely for dogs that are “hot” and can be damaging for dogs that are sensitive or insecure. Its purpose sounds simple: to teach high-energy dogs to quest for a mark in an organized manner.

But, the amount of pressure put on a lesser-energy dog can lead to: coming back to the handler without a bird, giving up usual hunting patterns and going off in bizarre directions, and, especially, popping on marks.

I recently used this drill for two of my dogs: Flint and Eli. They were built up from running hunt tests for two days and were careening around freely when being aired. The amount of excitement in their body language was cause for alarm. I knew the next test would include a water blind and water marks — both areas where obedience to the handler would be critical.

So, here’s one version (there are others) of the drill.

An experienced bird boy goes out into the field and throws a single mark (bumpers or birds). The handler throws a distraction mark well off to the side and sends the dog for that. While the dog is getting the distraction bird, the long mark is picked up by the bird boy and he returns to his original position. The handler receives the distraction bird, and sends the dog to the long mark in a normal manner.

While the dog quests for the missing bird, the bird boy studies the dog’s hunting pattern. Where the dog hunts, how he hunts (head up or down, for example), his energy and persistence, and, most important, how thoroughly he hunts. The hunt pattern should be organized, in that the dog shows a systematic way of covering the field. For example, large mindless circles show lack of attention to the task at hand. A good hunt pattern would cover the field in sections, energetically looking for the bird.

After a period of time, up to the discretion of the handler or bird boy — whichever is decided beforehand — a bird should be sneaked in. Its location should be close to where the original bird fell, but not exactly. Instead, its placement should reflect the dog’s hunt and be a location where the dog neglected to put in an organized look. For example, if the dog hunted too deep, the placement should be shallow; if he hunted too close to the thrower, it should be quite a bit away, if he avoided heavy cover, it should be thrown into that. The choice of bird placement will depend on the dog’s hunting pattern.

Of course, the placement cannot be very far away from the original fall. When the dog does find the bird, his reaction to finding the bird should be noted. Some dogs show surprise and this is desirable because that reaction leads to paying more attention to the throw.

The throw should then be repeated and the dog allowed to retrieve it normally. The goal is to wear down the too-high energy of the dog, but not to diminish his confidence in his own marking ability.

The result of the drill should be: the dog pays more attention to the throw, the dog hunts more systematically, the dog’s high energy is now more manageable.

We used to throw actual dirt clods instead of bumpers or birds when doing this drill, but I think some dogs can tell the difference as they view the clod in the air. And, you do need a thrower with an especially good arm to create a proper arc with a dirt clod! Another issue can be that the dirt clod stays intact after being thrown and some dogs could try to pick it up. Always, it’s critical that the handler makes sure the dog isn’t looking when the bird boy picks up the bird.

This drill is quite useful during a competition because it doesn’t require finding good training grounds (although a bit of cover is necessary). It does a good job of burning off excess energy, encourages attention to the throw, and helps build a systematic hunting pattern.

Variations of this drill can be: scenting the fall area and throwing the replacement bird into that area, and using the collar and handling if the dog hunts in a ridiculous manner. This particular variation Will help dogs with lesser marking talent, it teaches them to hunt in the scented area until they come up with the bird.

You can’t always predict dog behavior and, as always, drills should adapt to the circumstances that arise.

Have fun training!

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Grady's column appears in WON every other week and he can be reached at

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