Confused in the Crop

by: Tom Smith

Photo by: Chip Laughton

Many handlers and their retrievers have experienced it… A dog goes for a downed pheasant in a standing cornfield, and then, at the edge of a row, he abruptly stops, as if he hits a wall. The dog may run up and down along this perceived wall, but he will not push through the cover to make the retrieve. Simply put, the dog has encountered a barrier. As Mike Stewart explains in Chapter 5 of The Wildrose Way, barriers can be either physical or psychological. A physical barrier is a structure that stops a dog’s forward movement, but is still negotiable, such as a mesh wire fence, a wall, or a deep ravine. Tall row crop could be considered a barrier as well. A psychological barrier can be anything from a tree line, a shadow, a crop line, a road, a ditch, or a four-strand wire fence, which the dog could easily go under. In our example, a dog has encountered a psychological barrier in cover and will not push deeper to make the retrieve.

Baffled, the handler asks, “Why did this happen?” There are a couple of possible reasons: (1) Perhaps the dog is in unfamiliar terrain because the handler did not acquaint the dog with similar conditions beforehand. It’s always advisable to follow the Wildrose adage, “The first time your dog is exposed to something new should never be on opening day.” (2) The dog has not had enough training or practical experience to have learned how to negotiate psychological or physical barriers such as this cornfield.

Photo by: Katie Behnke

It is our job as handlers and trainers to expose our dogs to every conceivable situation they will experience in the field. Of course, we can’t duplicate every situation, but we need to attempt to simulate the major obstacles our dogs may encounter afield. Exposing your dog during training to actual field conditions ranging from timber, grass fields, plowed fields and standing crop is something almost every one of us can make happen. To help your dog learn to deal with this you can first read the article “Man Up” in the previous Wildrose Journal (October 3, 2016) and second, train in different types of terrain. To help your dog overcome these various influences your training must involve all types of obstacles, barriers, and weather conditions.

To begin teaching your dog to navigate across crop rows, start with simple, short trailing memories when the crop is short. As with all training activities, progress slowly and move incrementally from single trailing to doubles and then circle memories. As you and your dog move through these steps together, the crop you are using for training will continue to grow and the retrieves will become more complex.  As skills are mastered, remember to invert the scenarios. Inversions are reversing a known drill setup, as discussed in detail in The Wildrose Journal. Because dogs are extremely place oriented, they get very comfortable running from the same direction every time, but they may experience difficulty when the drill is inverted.  Another approach is from an entirely different direction.

When your aspiring gundog has this mastered, start moving to lining your dog from different directions such as angle entries. During offseason training, keep working in the crop as it grows. Remember to work on hand signals as you progress and throw in some marks. (Not too many marks!!) And if at all possible, train in different areas. Move, move, move. As I said, dogs are place oriented, so the more areas you train in the more comfortable your dog will be wherever you hunt and boredom in training is avoided.

When you do face a difficulty in training, always back up two steps in the training model to ensure you have the foundation entrenched before moving forward to rectify the problem with your training activity. The same applies when you face adversity in the field. And always remember Wildrose Law #5: “Make haste slowly.” Ensure those default behaviors are truly solid before moving ahead in your training plan.

One last thought, when sending your dog for a retrieve in any type of cover, first consider all the factors (environmental, terrain, barriers, and suction) involved for a successful retrieve. What effect will they have on the dog?  You can familiarize yourself with these factors by turning to page 165 in The Wildrose Way. Always set your dog up for success

Photo by: Katie Behnke

during training to develop a bold, confident sporting companion.


So, to sum up,1) introduce your dog to every possible barrier, be it psychological or physical, before taking him in the field to hunt, 2) incorporate inversions in your training regimen, and 3) consider various external factors that may affect your retriever before sending the dog for a recovery. As you train with your dog year round, he will be prepared and confident to hit the field… and ready to tackle any situation he may encounter.

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