It's All in a Name
by Mike Stewart

One frequently asked question we receive in response to our Drake series on DU tv and at our workshops is how do we get our dogs so steady that they constantly honor others making a retrieve. When hunting with more than one dog in the blind or as was the case in our Orlando workshop, where dogs are being prepared for their senior pass in competition, honoring becomes an important skill. With the excitement experienced in both situations: gunfire, birds, calls, and the anxiousness of handlers/hunters themselves, the temptation to run in is strong for any enthusiastic hunting dog even more tantalizing when another dog is sent and ours must remain quietly in the blind.

An essential element of steadiness is patience and this takes practice; building in lots of denials and delays with very few marks in early training. But we have another suggestion that has proven to be a key element to a dog's patience when honoring. Simply, release the dog with their name. Do not use the common release cue, "Back." "Back" is usually yelled at the top of the handler's vocal capacity, as a release command. Traditionally "back" is a casting command accompanied by a hand signal indicating to the dog to go further away from our position. Now, in the retriever world, back has been adopted as a common release command to go forth for a retrieve.

Here is the problem. You may have a duck blind cramped with hunters and three enthusiastic gundogs. Tensions are high. Birds are down on the water and all three dogs are trained to release/retrieve on "back." What are the chances to keep our little pack steady and quiet when the first dog is released with a loud "back" command? Likely all dogs will be down range at once.

One of our secrets to keeping our dogs steady at honor is to release the dog on his name, i.e. "Drake." A blind? "Dead bird" (spoken softly), as a cue to line for a blind, then "Drake." No yelling needed… he can hear just fine. Let's take a look at the steps to train for a name release which will facilitate staunch honor.

1. Begin early. Deke and his sister, Penny, now at 6 months old, have been working on this concept for months.

2. The concept? Every command begins with the dog's name. Deke, heel; Deke, sit; etc. Objective: The pup does not move unless he hears his name. Lots of neat exercises in everyday life are available for this tip. A dog is never too old to start as well.

3. Work in groups.
A. In a line - all dogs sit steady alone. Heel each away by name.
B. Call each dog forward by name.
C. Make short retrieves in groups with other handlers using name only for the release.

4. Practice in realistic conditions and add the flavor of excitement, gunfire, cold game, calls. Raise the level of anticipation. Then, only release each dog by name. By now, after much consistent repetition, most retrievers will understand the concept.

As time progresses, you may be able to sit multiple dogs in a line at remote sit with no handler. Send each by name for bumpers left in the field or water by trailing memories. Do not reward the impatient, noisy, unsteady dog with a retrieve despite the set up of the exercise. Retrieves must be earned by calm, controlled behavior or no reward.

This single training practice has developed our dogs to the point that several may be hunted together without worry of any running in with the release of one of the pack. Drake has understood it for years and Penny and Deke are well on their way by working together, in brace, about once a week. The result is worth the effort.