For a retriever, chasing a seen bird is instinctual. Going out after an unseen object requires following the handler’s instruction. Following instructions is not something that comes naturally to Cooper, and Russ is not a particularly bossy person. Fortunately, the “force to the pile” drill will help Cooper and Russ learn to work together, giving and following instructions.
In this drill, the dog goes out to a pile of bumpers that have already been set out beforehand, and brings one back. The point seems to be to bore the dog with going out and returning with bumpers that were not thrown (and are thus not exciting), over and over again.
Why bore the dog? Once the dog is bored, the hope is that instead of going to the pile, he will goof off, wander away, get distracted by some suddenly enticing scent — something, anything for which the handler can correct the dog.
The point of this is to teach to the dog to go out upon command, even when he hasn’t seen a bird fall. To trust the handler that there is something out there that needs retrieving. To obey the handler, no matter what.
Eventually, there will be “blind” retrieves: times when there’s a bird out there that the dog hasn’t seen fall. In a hunting situation, this might be a wounded bird that must be found and dispatched quickly. In a hunt trial, blind retrieves are set up on purpose to test the dog’s ability and willingness. This situation is what the “force to the pile” drill is preparing for.
In the early stages of this training, before the dog knows the hand signals that tell him to go left or right, something visible is used to mark the pile of bumpers. In this case, we’re using two while fence posts, stuck in the ground at angles to form an “X”. The bumpers are spread around the “X” instead of being lumped in a pile, to make it easier for the dog to just pick a bumper and bring it back. (If the bumpers are in a pile, many dogs will “shop,” rooting through the pile in order to pick the “perfect” one.)
This “force to the pile” drill is harder than it looks. The dog starts by sitting in heel position next to the handler. Only when the dog’s body and head is pointed at the pile can the handler send him out. This way, it’s more likely that the dog will go out straight. If the dog’s head or body is turned, he’ll go out to one side or another. And if he gets in the habit of going out to the side, he will be much more likely to miss a distant mark in the future.
To make sure the dog is sitting straight, the handler has to notice the position of the dog’s body. That sounds easy, but think about it. When the handler looks down and to the left, he sees (or should see) the dog’s head at the handler’s knee, pointing at the mark. But, if the handler’s body is also pointed straight at the mark (as it should be), it’s not all that easy to see if the dog’s body is also straight. You have to twist your head and maybe shoulders around to see it, and that movement can easily prompt the dog to move out of position.
And, at the same time, a novice handler is also having to think about what to do if the dog “breaks” (leaves position before the command), refuses to go out, changes position, wanders off, lies down, stands up, looks around, etc. And in the park where we usually practice, you also have to notice other dogs (some friendly and some not), people (some oblivious and some not), and flying chuck-it balls, frisbees, and etc.
It’s a lot to notice. Think about how it felt when you were first learning to drive, and you’ll get a sense of what learning to hunt-train a dog feels like.
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