If you watch one of the top grouse field trial dogs in the country run and pay close attention you should notice two things that they all share. First is they run to the front and secondly they check in with the handler on a fairly regular but not to frequent basis. That is not to say that they come all the way in and do a couple of loops through the gallery — what I expect from my dogs and expect to see when I’m judging is a dog that is in touch with the handler. It might be something that most people would even miss if they weren’t looking for it. The dog can cross at 50 yards or more in front of the handler, judges, and gallery and just turn its head slightly to make sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be and then go on without breaking stride. that’s all they need to do. Getting them to do that is something that seems natural to some dogs but almost always is the result of a conscious plan on the part of the trainer. Getting them to do this at regular intervals is also something that we work hard on in training. Tony calls it “putting a clock in their heads,” and the younger the dog the shorter the clock times need to be.
Developing the clock and the checking in are worked on at the same time. If the dog you’re working hasn’t come to look you up then you have to make it. If you’re yelling all the time the dog has no reason to look you up because it knows exactly where you are. So, first you have to be relatively quiet and only call on the dog when you need to direct it. Firstly, if at any time the dog gets behind you, it needs to be immediately corrected first with your voice and if it doesn’t break forward with the collar. In field trials the money’s always to the front. Then if the dog is to the front but is hanging out without checking back you need to reel it in and send it in another direction. If you are consistent with this you will soon have the dog running what can develop into a good grouse and woodcock trial pattern. Once the dog has that “clock in its head” and checks in periodically you can start letting it have more freedom. It’s when they run this type of pattern to the edge of bell range, check in from a distance, and hit the best spots of cover that you can expect to have a shot in a grouse and/or woodcock trial.
This morning’s run with LJ and Little Thuddy was a perfect example of what it takes to get dogs doing this consistently. Both dogs (LJ since he was born and Little Thuddy at least since the end of April that I can attest to) have learned that they need to look up the handler periodically and then go right back out once they’ve made contact. We do this in all types of cover and terrain but as we approach field trial season we try to do it in places that have a set trail that we are going to follow. Today we ran them along a snow machine trail then up a woods road to a four wheeler trail that cut back to the snow machine trail. It’s a loop that takes a little over an hour. During the hour both dogs handled well, jumped right in the woods on the opposite side whenever they popped out on the trail in front of us. Neither dog had a bird for most of the time until we were almost back to the truck when LJ had a find on a woodcock about 75 yards off the trail and then Thuddy had one just up from the trucks. Neither dog wanted to quit and they went across the road where LJ pointed a second woodcock with The Little Thudster coming in for a back. It was a perfect workout for these two young dogs as they had to maintain their focus and drive for a long period without finding any birds and then showed that the could still have quality birdwork even beyond the hour that they will have to run in trials as adults. All the fall derby stakes are 30 minutes. There has been plenty of times, this summer when we’ve intentionally put them in places with lots of birds as they still need to gain experience finding them, but workouts like today’s are also important in turning them in to competitive cover dogs.