Elsewhere there is an interesting poll and discussion on Distance whichI don't want to sabotage. Here are excerpts from an article I wrote for the current issue of Retrieveres ONLINE on distance which was delayed mailing so I'm making up for it a bit! Sorry, it might destroy all rules of RTF length etiquette (just like long marks and blinds might for weekend etiquette!)
What does Distance do to our Dogs?
There are two effects to talk about. Firstly, will factors on the way cause them to deviate so much that they loose their bearing. Secondly, will they even get to the area of the fall on a very long mark, or conversely, will they over run the area of the fall on shorter marks? In other words, can they judge the distance accurately?
Factors include wind, terrain, cover, water and even distractions. One of the most powerful factors affecting our dogs is wind. Dogs tend to fall downwind, that is be pushed by the wind. For example, in a strong left to right cross-wind they will be pushed to the right. At hunt tests distances of around 100 yards, wind has a relatively minor ďpushingĒ impact. Sure, the dog may fade a little but that can help them get a nose full as they get to the area of the fall. In fact, some of the best bird finders head straight for a bird and then as they approach it slide down wind to scent it. However at longer distance, this tendency to let the wind push them accumulates to the extent that they can end up a long way away from the bird. An inexperienced young dog will be pushed at even 200 yards by the wind but I have found many trained all-age dogs can readily hold the line in a wind for 250 yards. This assumes that there arenít other factors in concert pushing them. It takes a well-trained dog and a good focused marker to regularly handle strong cross-wind out to 300-400 yards. In field trial competition these are the winners. They are often the dogs that have the best combination of natural and trained abilities, because such marks require both to an extreme. Now if you have other factors in the field such as water, cover, terrain and diversions, you can often get the same effect at much shorter distance such as 200-250 yards as Don recommends.
If you field trial you have to train on long marks with cross-winds a great deal because you will have to do them in a trial, rightly or wrongly. Training on long marks with a strong wind and no other factors is the best way to start to teach dogs how to handle cross-winds. I regularly do such retrieves, blinds or marks, as a 3-peat. That is, 3 cross-wind retrieves to separate locations with each being progressively more into the wind. Both 3-peat marks and 3-peat blinds can be done. With practice you will see the dogs learn to shoulder into the wind contrary to their natural tendency to fade. For dogs, scenting is a most powerful skill and they rely on it heavily. It is natural to drift downwind but the problem is this Ďdriftí can get so pronounced the dog completely loses track of where the bird is. Well-designed set-ups have their factors in concert. In concert means that the factors push the same way. For example, with a blind along a shore and an onshore wind, both the shoreline and wind are in concert as factors to push the dog onto shore. As factors are added in concert, the role of distance escalates. This is the reason why long marks (and long blinds) are so much more difficult. There are invariably more factors present and the effect of those factors is operating for a longer distance. Yesterdayísí best dogs may have been superb markers but they were not trained to handle todayís tests. Today, a lot of qualifying dogs could do many of the National tests of the 50ís. The same tests today would have many winners at the end of the day. Although many would say that todayís dogs are better thatís hard to prove. What is different is better training to a higher standard and often with methods that allow the sensitive dogs to succeed. With todayís advanced dogs that have been taught long distance skills, very long marks are here to stay. Personally, Iíd rather see visible long marks than deceptive or trickier short and tight marks that are hard to distinguish.
When you see dog after dog do long marks accurately, it is hard to conclude that such marks are inappropriate. The week before writing this in mid-February, we worked on a quad with different length marks. The longest was an optionally retired gun angling across a ditch, though a cove patch, past a flyer and thrown into a stiff cross-wind. The dogs struggled but mostly because they gave into the early factors at about 200 yards. Once past the ditch the wind kicked in and really had an impact. When finished we concluded this was a good but tough mark with a lot of factors. Imagine our surprise when one of us pulled out the rangefinder and measured over 400 yards! In the open pasture it simply did not look that far. This was clearly a mark that I would expect to see in a weekend Open. Was it a good mark? Was it extreme? It was a well-designed mark that would be very difficult done as a memory bird. A lot of trained dogs would have trouble with it. Perhaps some dogs would not ever be capable of being trained for it. The real question is was it ridiculous and do such marks have any merit? My answer is that if I didnít do all-age field trials I would put effort into other things. On the other hand, since I hunt my dogs all fall and do encounter extreme retrieves, it is very rewarding to have dogs that can do such retrieves. I hardly need my dogs to make the routine 30-40 yards duck in the decoys fetch in an ordinary dayís hunt but I sure do need them for those special retrieves in an extraordinary dayís hunt.
I believe there is merit in having long marks but a problem arises when the dog can neither see the bird nor hear the whistle. There is absolutely no question in my mind that dogs can readily see 300-400 yard marks given reasonable lighting and background and birds with some motion and contrast. I have seen a few situations where it was obvious that experienced dogs where seeing gunners and birds at 500- 600 yards. This is always tricky to evaluate since dogs will perk up at the sound of a shot-gun even though they may not have seen a thing. Sometimes they can see the white coat gunner but not the bird. I do find that in training I often have to add white streamers to birds to ensure that they are visible for each dog. You simply canít rely on getting enough wind flash even from drake mallards. Of course, throw a rooster or hen mallard against dark trees and your dog wonít see much at all. They canít mark what they canít see. Therein lies the problem of long distance birds at field trials. Too often they are simply not visible enough-neither the gunner nor the thrown bird. Judges have learned that a majority of dogs will fail and they will get their answers. Sure some always do almost any mark but is it luck, talent, training, lining, or a blind? If you canít tell, then itís likely a bad mark to help the judge find the best dog in the field.
Final thoughts and ideas for distance on marks and blinds
My conclusion is that a restriction to 250 yards is not universally necessary but common-sense when using longer marks is. On many weekends retrieves of over 250 yards can be wisely incorporated in a fair and demanding way to help find the best dogs. In training, I will continue to teach long mark because of their merits in refining a dogís natural abilities and developing their trained ability. I also believe that stylish dogs can readily be handled at distance over 350 yards and in the face of distractions and other marks. While we do see some variance in judging emphasis on blinds versus marks, for the most part the best overall dogs usually surface.
Long marks on land and water have merit to test for perseverance, drive, fitness, and memory.
Long blinds on land and water have merit to test for control and response to correction at a distance only when the dog cans see and hear you and you can see the dog.
The value of long marks is not in distance alone but in the evaluating if a dog can deal with factors that make a retrieve difficult. Distance can help pile on factors and prolong their effect. Very long marks are valid if the gunner can be easily seen and the bird is clear against a good background. The issue with long marks is that we regularly encounter out-of-order long marks that are hard to see and gunners are hard to find. Distance is not the culprit there.
In training, this is a building process of gradually developing distance. Iíd also recommend that when the blinds are really hard to get to that you make the ending easier to avoid muddying the lesson. Itís not a bad idea when you are developing a dog to make the bird easy to find when it is hard to get to and hard to find when it is easy to get to. When you master that consistently, go for the whole enchilada!
When the dog has mastered that, then you can begin to mix in ďsomeĒ hard to find gunners and hard to see birds to develop the skills that you will need for the most advanced work. Always use common sense when doing this kind of work. Balance it with much more visible birds and be judicious about corrections when you arenít even sure if your dog saw the bird or the gunner!