Field Training Articles

Tips to become a Better Handler While Training

by Dennis Voigt

Published November-December 2012 in the GR News

Working hard at becoming a better handler during training sessions has two major benefits. Firstly, you will get better performance from your dog and progress his training. Secondly, you will create good habits in your handling that eventually will become second nature. During field trials or hunt tests when distractions and disasters arise (and they will), your good habits will carry you through. Perhaps you have noticed that many of the really successful handlers seem to run dogs that line up, send and deliver so much better than most. It even seems like the handler is doing very little. Next time you see this, take note and watch more closely. You will likely see a practiced and conscious economy of motion as well as dog/handler teamwork that uses a great deal of finesse. This article will provide a short list of handling tips. It might be a good idea to work on only one or two at a time until the habit begins to form and then add in another. You can also make better progress if you’ve got a close training partner who will watch, remind or critique. Failing that, a video is a useful tool.

Visualize the perfect performance

Practice seeing in your mind the perfectly handled test every time you go to line. Do not just run a test just to see if you can do it. Run it to see if you can teach your dog something. Even with very simple marks you can work hard on perfect habits at the line. Be very conscious of getting a perfect sit, watch of the birds, send, return, realignment for the next delivery, and focus for the next retrieve.

Work on your line movements and those of your dog Your goal can be to have your dog learn how to line himself up perfectly when you are facing squarely to the next bird, with feet pointed in that direction. This won’t happen automatically and when you start to work on it you will have to give your dog more help primarily through commands and body English. Later you can progress to where you can run a triple without saying a word to your dog (except the send) and you barely move your feet except to align for the next bird when your dog is returning. You can teach a dog to sit straight and aligned the first time with minimal commands.

Develop consistent commands online

My primary commands on line are sit, here, heel, watch (or mark), dead, back, and my dog’s name. Sit means to sit, of course (and right now, please), but it also means to keep looking where you are. In this context it acts like “there” or “that’s it” which I will also add. “Here” to a dog at your side means to move his front legs towards you. For example, if a dog is sitting on your left side and looking too far left, “here” would be used to pull the dog to the right. If the dog is on your right side, “here” would also pull him towards you, thus looking more to the left. “Here” is assisted with a tap-tap on your thigh closest to the dog. “Heel” to a dog at your side means the opposite of “here.” It moves the hindquarters closer so that the dog is effectively pushed away from you in front. “Heel” is assisted with a snap of the fingers with your dog-side hand while over his rump. “Here” and “heel,” when consistently used in this way, are powerful tools. They allow both very fine and subtle adjustments as well as major ones. A snap of the fingers may get you that perfect alignment and a quiet “here” may get the dog looking just right at one of the two tight gunner stations.

The biggest mistake that I see handlers in training make while trying to get their dog lined up is moving themselves instead of requiring the dog to move. Often this is a dance of sorts as the two bounce around with the dog having little idea where he should be. Granted you must use body English with a youngster and help him get lined up on the return, but it is amazing how well you can get a young dog to accomplish perfect return sits if you work on it and put the responsibility on them. Study which subtle movements get the desired responses and get rid of all the others. Since some of these movements may be nervous or habitual but extraneous moves, ask your helper or video yourself. That is always sobering.

Watch your dog not the bird

This one sure seems hard to master for most people. It seems that we just love to watch those birds being thrown. The trouble is that if we are watching the birds we have no idea whether the dog has seen them, has swung off, was distracted, is creeping forward, has lifted his rump or whatever. To be a good handler, it is critical to learn to watch your dog from before you signal until the bird is down. Even in a trial or test, the only birds that you really must watch are the flyer and that only where it lands. This takes a lot of practice. When you have it perfected, but not before, then you can learn how to steal glances to see if it is a good bird or not. I rank “watching your dog not the bird” very highly in order to nip creeps in the butt and know where your dog is focused.

Work hard on your marking routines and sends

Another tip borne of a need for consistent good habits. Most good handlers have specific rules for how they prepare for marks and how they send their dog. These will go a long way to enhance teamwork with your dog on marks. Here are some examples of “rules.” Incidentally, they are compatible with the Handjem Retriever rules and thus follow the most successful group of dogs in history.

My Marking Routine Rules

Put your hand down on the last bird down, that is, the first bird sent for (this is for steadiness). Your dog can learn how to do this without being distracted. When you put your hand down, be sure that it is in front and directly above his eyes. I estimate that dogs do not see the hand in over 80 percent of cases it is used on marks because of the way it is put down by most handlers. Dogs are sent on their name for marks with a louder voice for longer marks and a quieter voice for shorter. Difficult short birds, especially when retired, are shown the station before signaling and cued with a quiet “easy, easy.” When the dog is later sent for this bird, the dog is again cued with “easy” and sent very quietly with their name and no hand down. Long punch birds, especially if retired, are sent with a loud voice and hand down. The word “no” is used with great caution since the dog may steal a glance at the right place just when you use it! When preparing for multiple marks, allow or help the dog to find all stations and then focus on the key and first birds and cue with “mark” or “watch” before signaling. Be sure they are looking at the first thrown bird when signaling and then watch to be sure he stays focused there. While running multiples, don’t cue with “mark” before sending when there are two birds so close together that you can’t tell which the dog is looking at. This is also true when going for a retired gun when you have a visible gunner nearby. When a bird is being delivered, line the dog up and allow him to focus on the next bird before taking the bird. Then refocus and send appropriately. Dogs are lined up straight at the bird before being sent. “Heel” and “here” are used to adjust the dog’s body and or head. “Sit,” “there,” thigh pats, finger snaps and outside leg movement is used to focus the dog at the correct destination.

Become a more accurate caster

Again, this can only happen with daily practice and perhaps the occasional “mirror” session. You will need to study how to cast at the right time, with the right cast, the right way. Without writing a whole article on that, the first step is to think more about when you decide to cast, think about which cast you give and then think about how you execute it. Study your dog’s reaction and you will learn faster than by reading about it. You can learn much also from watching others – both good and bad. Some questions to ask: Was the cast silent or vocal, how much angle, was the hand also used, was there a step to the side first, how much movement sideways occurred? Did the dog overcast or undercast, did he hold the cast direction; did it look like the dog clearly saw?

Handling with Force vs. Attrition to Teach Him a Lesson

Actually, I hate the phrase “Teach him a Lesson.” That usually means, “Lessen the Teach.” You should always have in your mind whether force (and how much) is the best way. One of the best questions that you can ask is, “What will be memorable here, the pressure or the lesson?” Too often force begins when knowledge ends. When I intervene, the response I like to see is one of “Eureka – I get it!” from the dog. In other words you should be trying to get the light bulb turned on, not just the e-collar. If you see a great response then or next time – congratulations. Repeated failures suggest that you are over your dog’s head on the handling or, with a more experienced dog, it is a signal that force may be needed for lack of effort. Put five stars in your book when you command, use force and get a super response. However, if you always use force or that is your first choice, then beware. I’m convinced that most e-collar trainers have no idea how little force is used with some of the best dogs in the country when run by some of the best trainers. Attrition and clean setups remain very powerful tools to the savvy handler.

Dennis Voigt is the editor of Retrievers ONLINE – which in my opinion offers the most comprehensive coverage of retrievers with regard to field work. I have been a subscriber for probably over 20 years now, and have files filled with articles that I have read and reread over the years. To subscribe to Retrievers ONLINE the mailing address is 1457 Heights Rd., Lindsay, ON, Canada K9V 4R3;   You can check it out at or e-mail – Glenda Brown

Originally published in the November-December 2011 Golden Retriever News.