THOUGHTS ON BIRD PLACEMENT WHEN JUDGING
Discussion with Theodore Shih, Denver, Colorado and Dennis R. Voigt
Our series discussing the judging of retrievers has covered many topics ranging from how to evaluate dogs, determine callbacks and the winner, interpreting the Rule book, surveys of judges, time management, to scoring blinds versus marks. We have emphasized numerous times how important it is to design fair and equitable tests that are matched to the level of the field. We’ve talked some about the factors involved in test design for both blinds and marks. In general, we believe that if you have a very well-designed test with good placement, that the evaluation of the dogs is relatively simple. With good time management, well-designed tests and smooth mechanics, judging can be a pleasurable and rewarding experience. Leave out any one of those and you may wish you had stayed home or the contestants may wish that you had!
It all starts with set up. In this issue we will discuss our thoughts on bird placement for marks. We find it quite fascinating that the Rule book is remarkably quiet on this topic. The book states that it has been formulated to give judges considerable latitude in how they conduct the trial. While it discusses the traits that we should test for and how to evaluate or fault them it says virtually nothing about how to place birds. It does mention some considerations for mechanics in designing tests. It says less about factors and bird placement for marks than it does for factors and placing blinds!!! This may be one of the reasons that we see so much variation in bird placement from good to poor. On the other hand, bird placement is acknowledged as an elusive topic and one that is hard to explain. Most everybody agrees it is learned best through experience in understanding how dogs will react to a set of marks but many believe there is also an “art” to this good bird placement.
Ted: Dennis, I am amazed that we elected to deal with this comprehensive subject in one article. The task is so broad that I find myself a bit overwhelmed and wondering where to start. I think that before discussing the actual details of bird placement that it is important to go over some general principles for setting up marks for any stake in a field trial. To me, those general principles are:
1. Follow the four fundamentals of a good field trial test;
2. Tailor your marks to local conditions and the field of dogs that day.
3. Make every mark a good mark.
Those general principles should then guide your analysis of the specific elements of bird placement: which include things like wind, bird type, distance, hazards, angles, configuration, order, and surprises.
We have both agreed in the past that there are fundamental tenets of a sound field trial test and that bird placement must be viewed in light of those tenets:
1. The tests should be safe for the dogs;
2. The dogs should be able to see the guns and the birds;
3. The dogs should be able to see and hear their handlers. (Thus, you must be able to see your dog!);
4. The trains should run on time.
It doesn’t matter how good your bird placement is if these four fundamental criteria are not met.
Dennis: These four fundamentals have arisen from our series of articles, discussions with others and our survey. In hindsight, as I consider trials in which contestants or the judges were critical, failure to follow these fundamentals was usually the cause of a problem. I think these tenets should almost become a creed to be sworn to and followed like various religious creeds or the Marines creed. Think how that could change judging!!
Ted: I believe that one of the responsibilities (and great pleasures) of being a good judge is being adaptable and creative, and developing an individualized test that suits where you are that particular weekend. Consequently, I believe that a test cannot be established before the judges have viewed the terrain in which their stake will be held, considered local weather conditions (wind, lighting, heat, humidity), and the size and quality of the entries. However, over the years, I have attended more than my share of field trials where the senior judge arrives Thursday evening and sets up his “trademark” test Friday morning – regardless of the specific conditions presented that weekend. Needless to say, I disagree vehemently with this approach.
Dennis: It is remarkable how some judges always gravitate to the same configuration. You’ll see it in the first and the last series and even at Nationals. You’ll see it during setup and then fine-tuning after a test dog. I’ve seen the trademark judge and co-judge set up a test the day before but then after a test dog, what appears? – the trademark configuration. It indicates that judges are often not focusing on the elements of bird placement such as wind, terrain, hazards and angles that you mentioned above.
Ted: I believe that every mark in a test should be a good one on its own. Over the years, I have found that the tests that I enjoyed the most were the ones in which there was no “gimme” bird. And when I further dissected those tests, I found one common element – every bird in that test was difficult in its own right. Consequently, I do not believe in having birds whose only purpose is to set up another bird. Similarly, I do not believe that the only purpose of a flyer is to give other stations a chance to retire. I want every bird in my test to be a good mark.
Dennis: I agree since this is one of the ways we make marking of primary importance. By having every bird be of value, we have more opportunities to evaluate marking. I dislike the one bird test since the whole basis for call backs becomes one bird or worse determine a winner. I acknowledge that sometimes a bird or two does not produce the variability that the judges had anticipated. But on the other hand how often do we show up to see a test where two birds are absolutely dead straight forward. They produce no variation whatsoever.
Ted: When I run a dog in a field trial, I want to be challenged. I want to come to the line knowing that good dogs are having difficulty and that my dog and I are going to have an opportunity to shine. I absolutely abhor tests that are so easy that everyone is doing well and all you can do it hurt your chances by not being perfect. Accordingly, when I judge I want to set up challenging, entertaining tests of the sort that I would like to run.
Dennis: I don’t think a good test is just a case of finding the most difficult birds. Rather, I feel I need to know just as well how easy a bird is to get as well as how hard. I have always said that it is easiest to set up an impossibly difficult test or an overly simple one. The challenge is setting the right level. I go back to the variation idea I presented above. If a bird produces variable results from excellent to poor by the field of dogs I think it is good. I love a challenging test also but I don’t think a test that is way over the top is the ideal either. When only 10-15 per cent of the field do the first series without a handle, I don’t think it is a good test. Usually it means tenet number 2 above was not followed. Tests that are too easy suggest judges did not work on making every mark a good one. Tests that are much too difficult suggest that the judges also did not consider the big picture of their test.
I recognize how difficult it can be predicting the results of your test. My thoughts on bird placement have come primarily from my training of my own dogs over the years. Of course, I learn something every time I judge and also whenever I see other judges’ tests work or back-fire. To that end, I often predict what other judge’s tests will do the minute I see them. That is also a good learning experience. I think the area that I find the most challenging is in predicting how the test will change as more and more dogs run and as conditions change. When you train your dogs alone or in an Amateur group you usually only see the results or 1-10 dogs and not 40-80 so the difficulty of predicting how tests will change is understandable.
How to Determine Bird Placement
Dennis: In training and likewise in judging, I believe that there are always 3 major considerations when placing a bird: How easy is the bird to get to?; How easy is it to find? and; How do the birds interact? Sometimes three very widely spaced birds will have little interaction and other times interactions will be strong especially when coupled with retired gunners or not. We have already discussed our dislike of coming to a trial with a preconceived configuration in mind.
The Route to the Bird:
The key here is understanding factors which include wind, water, terrain, cover and distractions or diversions. Some factors are important at very short distances such as a patch of thick cover. One of the things I often do is approximately design a test and then study the foreground for small changes that could be incorporated to make a route more easy or hard. This sometimes involves just moving forward or back a few yards. Placing a shallow ditch or small valley so that dogs go out of sight of the gunners for a few feet at the onset makes marks more difficult. It’s surprising how much a few bushes can divert a dog early in the retrieve when those same bushes at 200 yards are insignificant.
Wind is in my experience one of the most powerful factors there is, certainly rivaling if not surpassing water. A retriever’s nose is one of his greatest assets and the one we understand the least. Wind is very important in influencing not only how dogs get to the fall but how they hunt and whether they find the bird with their nose. As I’ve said before, while dogs use their eyes to get to a fall and stay there, the vast majority of birds are found using their noses. A cross wind or angle on the wind will push the dog downwind. It takes distance for this effect to become magnified. Drift or wind fade on 100 yards birds is often insignificant but go 300 and the target can be easily lost by untrained or unsure dogs. If I want to simplify a test, I’ll make it crosswind at moderate distance. Day in and day out I will chose downwind if lighting allows and if there is a chance of wind shifts. But, I have absolutely no fear in throwing a key long retired gunner bird into the wind. I do it almost every day in training! Without drive, determination and experience, many dogs will not even get into position where they can smell the bird and get a so-called “wind-save.” A long cross winder can be a killer.
Ted: Wind is my first consideration in placing a bird. Like Dennis, I believe that dogs use their eyes to get to the area of the fall, and once there, use their noses to locate the bird. Consequently, if I want to make my marks harder (as I would in an Open, but might not in a Derby), then I want to make it harder for the dog to scent the bird. By and large, I want my marks downwind. If they cannot be downwind, then they must be wind protected.
I know that Dennis is a strong proponent of cross wind marks. I am much less so. I think cross wind marks work when you add distance – so that when a dog fades with the wind, it is out of the scent cone. But, many grounds do not accommodate long marks. Moreover, heat and humidity may make long marks impracticable. Cross wind marks also work where you have terrain features that funnel a dog that fades with the wind into another terrain corridor where the dog cannot scent the cross wind bird. However, such terrain is not often available.
In addition, with the quality of today’s dogs and handlers – particularly in the Open – I think that it is possible to line a dog – that has no idea where the bird is – into a position where the dog can wind the bird. So I subscribe to the old adage, marks downwind, blinds cross wind. Consequently, my first goal in setting up birds is to make them downwind.
Dennis: We agree about the role of wind. I might rebut your comment that I am a strong proponent of cross winds marks. I guess I’d rather say that I am not afraid to use them unlike many judges. I believe I can use them to make a test easier or harder. If I am very selective about how I use a stiff crosswind I hope I can a mark very hard to get to. That requires distance usually and distance seems to be a major tool of most judges. Rather than just use distance per se as a factor, I like to use it to combine factors to get them in concert:
Ted: Distance is one of my main considerations in placing a bird. As a general rule, marks get harder, as they get longer. It is harder to see the gun. It is harder to see the bird. It is harder to keep a straight line. So, one way to make a mark harder is to make the mark longer.
However, compared to hazards/angles, distance is a rather crude device to make birds harder. But, because almost everyone understands that distance makes birds harder, and fewer people understand the interaction of hazards/angles, too many judges use distance as a crutch. For example, there have been internet discussions over the merit of 500 yard marks with many people arguing that only with birds at such distances can we evaluate marking. I am dismayed by such talk. In my opinion, marks of such distance almost always violate one or more of our four fundamental tenets of a sound field trial test. But, there is no denying that marks tend to get harder as distance increases.
Dennis: I think how we combine factors becomes very important in determining the difficulty of the route to the bird.
I think it is poor bird placement if you throw a bird with factors and the dog that gives into the factors gets rewarded with the bird. We are looking for drive, perseverance, courage and no reluctance to enter tough goings. So, if you set a bird out that a dog finds by giving into factors you can be selecting for the opposite of what we seek.
Water entries, water exits, re-entries, points, islands are all factors that cause a dog to deviate. In some cases it’s because the dog wants to get there faster and in other cases it’s because the dog doesn’t want to get wet or cold or deal with tough going. I probably don’t have to describe to most Retrievers ONLINE readers how water affects route. You all know that dogs will usually cling to a shore, beach early, fail to re-enter and would rather hunt on land than in the water. Because your field of dogs will always have some dogs that are out of balance, some being watery, some being cheaty you will often encounter more answers on water than you expected.
The simple “rule” is to put angles in the route to increase the variability and use straight entries, exits for more predictable and consistent results. This same rule applies to angles on land. Angles can be critically important when dogs encounter ditches, valleys, hills, strips and patches of cover, changes of cover, fences and roads. Dogs tend to fall down hills or climb them straighter as opposed to toe-nail and side-hill them.
Often it’s difficult to decide how strong a factor affecting the route may be. I do two things to increase their effect. First, is to put factors in concert. By that, I mean you make sure all the factors are pushing the same way. For example, a wind blowing towards an attractive shoreline has two factors in concert but a wind blowing off the shore would have canceling factors.
The 2nd thing that I do is walk the line of the main route and look for what I call ”break-points.” These are places where a dog has to make a decision based on what is in front of him, where he will go. These are the same spots that you will see dogs make decision to deviate in training and I study them there all the time (plus my dogs teach me what such break points are like every time they deviate). It helps sometimes to get down at the dogs level for this. I especially pay attention as I am nearing the area of the fall. When you find a break point you can make the potential for deviation greater or less by modifying the line to the bird.
Incidentally, another HUGE benefit of this is that you walk the grounds and check for hazards and dangerous features. I think too few judges spend enough time in the field. Some assume that all dogs will only run a narrow line and they don’t check the entire field. That always amazes because dogs can and usually do end up anywhere within your test
Ted: To me, combining factors is the most challenging facet (and thus, entertaining) of setting up tests – creating a mark where hazards and angles work together to make reaching the bird tough.
For some reason, people can visualize bird placement on a blind easier than they can visualize bird placement on a mark. However, other than wind (where cross winds are strongly preferable), the elements of each are the same. A difficult blind is one in which it is difficult for the dog to negotiate a straight line between the mat and bird. A difficult mark is much the same.
So consider the characteristics of the difficult blind. A difficult blind has a tough beginning, middle and end. All along the way from point A to point B, there are obstacles that divert a dog from running a straight line, and which concurrently break down its momentum. All along the way, the dogs are given choices: one path is easier and more attractive; the other is more difficult and requires greater discipline in training. The easier path leads to failure, the more difficult path leads to success. Even when the dog gets to the end of the blind, if it is it not in perfect position, it cannot scent the bird.
What are the general principles of blind construction that we can carry over to mark construction? I think that there are basically two: (a) the line from point A to point B is difficult to navigate; and (b) from beginning to end, the factors along the way from point A to point B all work together to draw the dog right or left of the mark.
We make the path from point A to point B difficult to negotiate by making dogs do what they do not like to do: For example, dogs do not like to:
• Run along a hillside instead of up or down the hill;
• Enter hazards (water, cover) where there are easier alternatives available (a road, trail, or meadow);
• Negotiate hazards (log, ditch, stream) at an angle.
We also make the path from point A to point B difficult to negotiate by leaving attractions that tend to divert a dog from its path. For example, dogs are diverted by:
• Visible guns
• Old falls
• Old scent
• Wide open spaces where they can run
(This highlights the importance of good flyer placement – which we have discussed in a previous article. In addition to being a good mark on its own, a good flyer creates excitement which tends to erase memories of previous throws and over time, the scent build-up from divergent falls, dog hunts for those calls, and feather drift work together to create wide areas of scent which distract dogs.)
The other feature of the difficult blind that we can apply to bird placement on marks is as mentioned above: that all of the factors on a good blind work to push the dog in one direction – either right or left of the line. How many times have you heard a handler coming off the line after a very difficult blind say: “Man, my left arm got a workout today!” That is because all of the features on that blind worked in concert to push the dogs to the right. A difficult mark is much the same, the factors all work together to push the dog either to the right or the left of the area of the fall.
So, one way to visualize good bird placement for a mark is to walk around a field and identify good blinds
Finding the Bird:
Dennis: So now the dog has reached the area of the fall though a combination of natural and trained abilities. Again, I may want the bird relatively easy to find at this point or conversely one that has to be really hunted and dug out. In all cases, I like to see the dog pick up the bird and I like to see the entire hunt that is in the area of the fall. Sometimes it is unavoidable but I don’t like birds up against a wall of cattails or a forest edge. When the dog disappears for a considerable time is he hunting a few yards away or 200 yards away? I’m sure many of you have seen situations where a dog hunting 100 yards away was visible to the gallery but invisible to the judges. That’s a bad scene.
In training, a general guideline is that if a bird is very hard to get to, I might make it easy to find and if easy to get to, harder to find. It’s not a bad idea while judging either, unless you need to pull out all the stops to get variation with a huge entry. You may only have a very small field of moderate dogs which you can’t all fail. When I see a final series with 15 dogs and only 1-2 dogs do the test, it usually means the judges went overboard with both route and difficulty to find.
It’s hard to make rules about what makes a bird harder to find but it is usually important for you to go to the area of the fall to make this decision. A lone tree might make a target but a group of trees could add distraction. A patch of cover will take away the chance of sighting and may cause a last minute diversion. Similarly, throwing a bird behind a log or some tree branches will increase difficulty. I don’t like birds thrown in holes and thus in ditches. Most birds thrown down a hill are visually deceptive so I avoid that also. For the most part, I like to throw my birds long and square to maximize visibility to the dog. Those really steep back or in-thrown birds are hard to watch and in my mind not a good way to make a bird harder to find. However, with a good thrower, those long crosswind birds angled back can be effective, just make sure the dog has a good look at them.
I have found that if you give dogs room to hunt, they will. So I almost always like to have open room behind the gunner. Of course, anytime you throw a bird across a gap it’s easy for a dog to take the gap. An island bird is a gap bird on water and always effective. Boat birds especially when there is water all around the boat and the shore is 30-50 yards distant behind the boat are amazingly tough for dogs. They are not used enough for these water dogs in my view. If you are lucky enough to have cover in the water such as water hyacinth or lily pads it also requires water hunting. Beware that birds can flip under pads and that pads and other aquatic vegetation can stink up and track up so conditions may change. Use caution here.
If you get one of those dead calm days please try to avoid throwing birds in heavy cover where a dog might mark it and even persevere but still not find. Later dogs will have scent and wind and drag-back and return routes to help them. In other words you clearly would be designing a test that favoured later dogs!! This can be true of many marks but you can often do things to equalize tests a bit more if you try. I have no problem with pheasants thrown into cover, including hen pheasants notwithstanding my comment above about early dogs. I think pheasants with their lesser scent can be powerful in finding the dogs that truly knew where the bird was and persevered. It’s somewhat like using a trained ability with their natural ability. It is what makes US Nationals difficult among other things.
Ted: Actually, bird type is probably the second thing I consider after the wind. The type of bird you use can have a huge impact on the type of marks you can set. I believe that it is difficult to have a short retired bird hold up over the course of a 60+ dog Open. Too much bird and dog scent build up over time. However, when hen pheasants are used, the bird scent is dramatically decreased. So, I might consider a short retired bird with a hen pheasant that I would automatically reject with a duck.
In contrast, ducks tend to show up against the skyline better than pheasants. So in placing my flyer, I would be much more concerned about background with a pheasant than a duck. The point is this: when placing your bird, always keep in mind the type of bird that you are using.
Dennis: Related to the type of bird is introducing “garbage” scent into your test. That means be careful about retired gunner trails away from the fall, re-birding and making more ATV and people tracks, putting birds down in the wrong place during re-birding and so on. All of these contaminate your area of fall or route. Remember the dog thinks the nose knows but often it doesn’t.
Beware: Some bad ways to make birds hard to find: throwing a sinking duck, throwing a drifter, throwing in a hole or erratically into a pocket, throwing in extremely thick cover, throwing into brambles, briers or thorns, throwing into a ground squirrel colony, throwing near a barbed fence, throwing into or near rock piles, throwing into a stump or beaver stub area, throwing near an area where cattle have sunk deeply into the mud. (Remember Fundamental Tenet No. 1 – the test must be safe for the dogs!)
Configuration and Interactions with Other Birds
Ted: I must confess that I almost never consider configuration in setting my marks. That is, I don’t say “converging marks would work well here” or “I think a hip pocket mark would be good here.” Instead, I look for good places to place birds – particularly, the flyer (which I think gets short shrift).
Moreover, unlike most judges these days, I do not like tight marks. I believe that for today’s dogs and handlers, wide open marks are more difficult to negotiate – because as you mentioned earlier there is much more room for the dogs to run around and get lost. So, I don’t give much thought to configuration. But, I thought that I should mention it because for many judges, configuration is an important, if not a paramount consideration.
Dennis: There is room in our game for all sorts of configurations. Clearly some require more training than others. I could spend the next year talking about various configurations and their pros and cons. In fact, we do in almost every issue of ONLINE. You can also read a great deal about this topic in the Retriever Field Trial Judging – A Manual available from www.theretrievernews.com.
However, as I said at the outset, I do not like coming to the grounds with a preconceived pet configuration. I would rather use the grounds to determine best routes and best bird locations. I feel I can better seek the natural abilities in that way and even take more luck out the equation. Sometimes those nitty-gritty check down birds in front of a stand up gun are more a case of lucky line or lucky whiff than marking, but, I am not opposed to a short retired gun after a longer retrieve. It’s an important skill.
I train on tight birds often but I am dismayed that so many judges resort to tightness to get their answers. When the areas of falls overlap it leaves little room for separate hunts and encourages switches on wind shifts. It throws too much luck into the equation. After 40 years of training, I continue to be amazed how tight two birds are together when I go out into the field. Those same two birds looked reasonably apart from the line but put yourself in the dog’s shoes. Try going out into the field to one fall and walk around with your head down looking at the ground for a few minutes then squat down and look around. You will be amazed how close everything looks.
Rather than seek tightness, let it happen by choosing your best locations. Don’t engineer tightness just to get separation – it will happen enough. Personally, I prefer to make every bird of value and so I don’t like to throw two “gimme” birds and one killer. I like to see variation on all birds when possible and that is often easier to achieve with a more open test. You can study various configurations elsewhere such as inlines, indents, hip-pockets, inverse hip-pockets, two down the shore, over-unders, converges, momma-poppas. And more. All have their place and all may be encountered fairly but all can be made impossible too.
Ted: The order in which a bird is shot often determines how difficult that bird will be. Generally speaking, in a triple, the most difficult bird to remember is the second one. A handler aligns the dog for the first bird shot, so there is plenty of time to focus the dog’s attention on that bird. The last bird down is typically the flyer, upon which most dogs’ attentions is automatically focused. Consequently, it is the second bird shot that frequently gets lost in the wash. So, if you want to make a bird in a triple or quad harder, shoot it second or third.
Dennis: Agreed, but don’t feel that you always have to use the toughest order. Have faith in your test. Use three birds instead of four if you can. There are lots of other considerations. For example, use quicker tests than longer test if you can but sometimes a piece of water in the first series is wonderful. Think about heat and fatigue. Where is it best to honour? Breaker birds are a part of the game but always ask what are you hoping for when you have one.
Ted: Agreed. It is important to reiterate that we are talking about the presence of factors that make a mark more difficult and whose absence makes the mark easier. It is up to the judge to create just the right recipe of factors for the specific circumstances of the weekend.
I have yet to shoot what I consider to be a breaking bird – a bird 75 yards or less from the line – whose purpose is to (a) distract the dog from other birds in the field; and (b) cause the dog to break. I am averse to breaking birds for several reasons:
1. I want every bird to be a good mark in its own right;
2. I want the dogs to get a good look at every mark in the field (Fundamental Tenet No. 2), and;
3. I want dogs to be eliminated based on what happens in the field and not what happens on the mat.
You can also make a bird more difficult by making it more unusual, unsettling. Mostly, this applies to the flyer. You can shoot the flyer out of order. You can have the guns walk out of a holding blind and then shoot the flyer. The surprise element of such birds often disrupts a dog’s memory and performance.
Dennis: It’s clear that bird placement involves balancing a great many considerations. There is no formula but there are a lot of equations and some of them require a lot of thinking and effort to solve.
Ted: I should say in summation, that I try to consider all of the things that we have discussed here but that in practice tend to follow a sequence that might be different than we discussed. When placing birds, I consider the following and probably in this order:
2. Bird type
4. Hazards and angles
Conceptually, I think you can also consider
However, I would have to say – for me – both are an afterthought.
Dennis: I’m not sure if I can recommend an order or a process for placement of marks. I try really hard to look at things in concert and then fine-tune. So, I think I first look at a field for what jumps out. It might be a great place to locate a bird or it might be a route that is really challenging. Like you, I will have wind constantly in my mind. After a first bird I’ll look for a second and third in similar ways and not until then will I even consider how they might interact. It’s after this stage that I will start to fine-tune and analyze making sure factors are in concert, checking for break points, walking the line and investigating the area of fall. Of course, pervading all of this is safety for the dogs, mechanics and an open discussion with my co-judge. Personally, one of the most pleasurable parts for me of judging is setup day and the challenge of designing a good test. It almost always takes a lot of work and careful thought even on the best grounds.
Ted: During the course of this discussion, one thing that comes to my mind is the importance of a good flyer. In looking back at the trials that I have run over the years or judged, I cannot recall a test that I really enjoyed that did not have a good flyer mark. I think it is a subject that probably deserves more consideration.
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