Go back Fido!
Directional work can be taught quite early, but before starting, your dog should be sitting reliably to the whistle at feed time and on the move (running sit exercise), heeling off lead, and retrieving confidently to hand.
These basic preliminary exercises are the foundation for all that follows. The back cast should be taught first. You will need to do this training on a fence line, it helps the dog hold his line, but if you do not have access to your local farmers’ paddocks, then I suggest some door knocking; landholders are generally receptive to someone wanting to improve the behaviour of their gundog.
If you live in suburbia then it can be more of a challenge finding a suitable area to train. The boundary of an industrial estate or recreational reserve may suffice, but you need the structural straight line.
It is of course possible to teach directional work without the aid of the straight line but the results are not normally as good, especially when you start building distance into the exercise.
We start with the back cast because generally, it is accepted as the hardest for the dog to grasp. Driving the dog away from you when he is used to coming in is the challenge, but once the back cast is mastered, adding left and right is easy.
With your dog at heel, walk along the fence line and drop a dummy as you go, letting the dog see you do this (as he progresses this will become multiple dummies). Continue on 10 m, then sit your dog and walk another 10 m. Turn and face the dog and blow the stop whistle as you complete the turn, then slowly raise your hand directly overhead and give the back command.
If your dog is confused, move towards him repeating the command. Most grasp this pretty quickly but if your dog just doesn’t get it, return to his side, leave him at sit then walk out, pick up the dummy and drop it to the ground. This will remind him there is something to retrieve then return to your original position and repeat the command, this is normally enough to prompt the correct response.
When he is confidently taking the back cast, gradually increase the distance between the drop of the dummy and the distance you walk off until you are standing 50 to 80 m away and he is casting the same distance back for the retrieve. The next stage is to drop three or four dummies as you go, letting him see you do it, which allows you to increase the distances even further. This has the effect of developing the dog’s memory as the time between casts increases.
Next is the left and right command; it doesn’t matter which, but they must be taught separately until the dog is casting 50 to 80 m before moving to the next.
Sit the dog on the fence line and walk out 10 to 20 m to place the dummy, always making sure the dog sees it, then walk out 20 m at 90 degrees to the fence line and facing the dog, blow the whistle and cast the dog.
As he is now familiar with running the fence line, taking the cast will not be an issue for him.
It is very important to blow the stop whistle immediately before the cast; it not only gains the dog’s attention, but more importantly it is the connection between the whistle and the reward — the retrieve.
When he has mastered left and rights you can then place multiple dummies in each direction, keeping them 10 m apart; you can then alternate the direction you cast him, which reinforces each command.
To prevent pre-empting, occasionally cast him the same way a number of times.
The next exercise, teaching the dog to stop on the whistle at distance, is again done on the fence line. Walk him along the fence dropping a dummy as you go, the same as for the back cast then walk off another 20 m. Instead of casting him back, call him to you with the come in whistle (series of short blasts). When he has travelled 10 m hit the stop whistle (one long blast), raising your hand slowly overhead for the cast. Don’t forget to reward a positive response with “Good dog” then cast him back for the dummy. >>
Like all training drills, if he hasn’t grasped what you are teaching then simplify it.
In this case, shorten the distance you walk away from the dog, and when he has mastered this and sits smartly to the whistle expecting the reward of the retrieve, you can then extend the distances.
If he pre-empts and slows or even sits before you blow the whistle, then call him all the way to you a number of times and reward with a treat.
Reinforce this exercise by throwing a dummy at 90 degrees to you when he sits, this achieves a number of positives — it provides another reward for responding correctly to the whistle. That is, seeing another bird hit the ground and taking the back cast with distraction.
Next issue — blind retrieves.