The Bill Bailey Training System

By Peter Betteridge

An insiders view of the retriever training philosophy of one of the great trainers of the 1970's

I was lucky enough to spend about 2 years in the early 1990”s training with Bill. Within that time I think I was able to gain an insight into the system that made Bill such a successful competitor in his time. He was instrumental in forming the basic training that I applied to Rt CH Lindenlake Nikki or “gabby” As a trialler his record of 7 championships in a row may never be equaled. Whether Bill would have been successful today is problematic, but he was certainly dominant in his time and hence I set out his philosophy.

Style drive and speed are crucial
Training is a 24 hour a day job
Dogs think literally
Dogs are incredibly sensitive to body language
You and your dog must become a mutual admiration society
Straightness is all important
marking must be predominant

Style drive and Speed

Bill is best remembered for his success in the 1970's with his dog RT CH Derbyshire Ace of Hearts or “Cass” Bill's dog was a very high desire hard running dog known for his phenomenal marking ability. He believed that speed was of the essence. Bid ability came next in line but speed, style and drive remained pre-eminent. Bill believed that given the limited time most amateur trainers have, he needed a dog that he could take out on the weekend and do 50 runs in a day. He often emptied a packet of primers in an afternoon training with Peter Halford. Bill was an intuitive trainer and all his runs and exercises fitted into his overall philosophy without being necessary totally progressive. One of Bill's favorite sayings was “never let your dog discover that it can do it at ½ pace”. I always got a workout training with Bill, on every return Bill would have me take to my heels. This habit was taken to the point where one of my dogs with a low level of retrieving drive developed a lifetime habit of coming back considerably faster than he went out .Bill was however very dismissive of that type of slower dog even though I was eventually able to win at all age level and place in the national with a dog who could only handle. Bill spent literally all our training time with my high desire dog. Style became a copy able commodity to my young 12 months pup, Gabby would sit there looking bemused as Bill would quarter into a piece of available cover looking for a pre planted bird or dummy after a minute or so he would call Gabby in to join him in the hunt and a frantic young dog would join in the quest until Gabby would somehow magically find the bird. Bill believed in teamwork. This drill not only produced a dog that would hunt like a maniac but also a dog who hunted with great intelligence and economy no matter how ridiculous the methodology may have looked to the outsider.

Training is a 24 hour a day job

Bill believed in the one man one dog philosophy. His methods were often labour intensive and unsuited to training a large string of dogs such as a professional would do. His first maxim was get a good dog His oft repeated analogy was that given the choice of training a kangaroo or a wombat for a high jump competition his choice for training was obvious even though being able to train a wombat to jump even a few inches may be a significant training achievement

The meat and potatoes of Bill's training philosophy can be summed up as “get it right the first time” and “put your dog in a position where he is likely to succeed all the time” Bill believed that there is great skill in setting up a test for a dog and the bottom line is something Bill continually emphasized ‘the dog must get it right for the right reasons” Tests that a dog can fluke or get lucky are poorly designed and teach nothing. Bill believed that a run must be only be put on for a purpose. That purpose must be to enhance an already learned skill or to develop a new on. He oftened looked on in horror as I designed and executed a run which he believed had little validity.Consequently Bill was not a fan of the happy bumper to relieve pressure that is so prevalent today. Many of Bills runs were exceptionally short. He believed that the distance was relatively minor and irrelevant to conceptual teaching. Consistency was at the forefront of Bills philosophy. A dog must never be allowed to acquire training and a non-training mode. Even around the house or in his kennel a dog must never discover a sanctuary from training For example sitting straight at meal time must always maintain the same standard as when in the field or between the pegs Most trainers at that time trained with what he considered to be a double standard. Never allow your dog the opportunity to become confused was another Bill Bailey core belief. Part of never allowing your dog to become confused revolved around giving your dog the minimal commands necessary to complete the task at hand. Bill prided himself on giving no commands between the pegs with the subtleties of lining being controlled by merely shifting his weight. I remember being flabbergasted one day to be told by Bill that I had given 27 commands on a run I thought gabby and I had performed almost flawlessly. Retrieving well is all about creating a perception, and by the time Bill had counted up all my heel, heel, fetch, give, fetch, give, heel, heel etc I was staggered to learn how often I opened my mouth unnecessarily

Dogs think literally

Bill believed that dogs have a very limited ability to think conceptually. However they are very quick to chain various actions in order to get a result. Dogs also anticipate well. Bill's journey with his dog from literal to conceptual thinking must have been reasonably laborious For example a right over on Sunday at midday in the heat must now be able to conceptualize to a right over on any day of the week, from any distance, in any terrain and at any temperature or time. To achieve this Bill would have me directing right overs thru football games, into water, at varying distances, across water, and thru a variety of hazards. Bill believed that Gabby must be able to perform that task at all times and at all places regardless of the variables. Distraction training became a major part of our training regime as Gabby progressed Dogs have a photographic memory I began enhancing that skill with Gabby as a pup by looking for trees with interesting shapes that would appear different from different angles. The first stage in the process was to place a number of dummies under the tree and heel gabby around to a different angle and then send. I repeated the process from varying positions until the “photograph” perceptively changed. Bill's process would always move on to new and interesting landmarks and of course the extra variables

Bill's philosophy was applied equally across the board whether we were working on marking line running or handling I can illustrate Bill's meticulous methodology using the example of his approach to handling. We began by putting Gabby in the Blind I would always walk back and heel her out to the pegs. She would be put in cover, near marks that she had already retrieved and out of site. She was always on a rope. Gabby never broke from a blind either in training or in a trial. Recalls followed a similar pattern and the stop whistle was introduced on the way in. The reward for stopping was always a prompt cast to a known bird. Bill was a great believer in literal casting, he did not approve of my use of angle backs as is so common today. Bill taught gabby to stop because she wonted to please and because it was her habit The system was taught in a mini run format as opposed to a repetitive drill. Gabby was never allowed to get it wrong and many days she would go home without a correction. Bill maintained that being a human being carried with it the responsibility of being smarter than your dog although with most trainers that he competed against that didn't always appear true. If your dog fails your test it is in fact a testament to your own lack of ability to correctly access where your dog is at this point in time .If in doubt simplify. Good habits win retrieving trials. Good habits come from getting it right the first time and every time Correction requires change. . Change is the opposite of habit Correction means you got it wrong in the first place you are an idiot!! Thoroughness in controlling the variables prevents such situations from occurring in the first place. This all sounds fine if you have an ultra sensitive and very biddable young dog with a high retrieving drive, but what if your dog doesn't happen to fall in that category? Well Bill's answer is that he is only interested in training one dog and that he is looking for a method that works for that particular animal. The fact that m y dog was temperamentally very similar to his probably meant that his methods worked for me.

The use of body language

Body language, the most effective communication tool of dogs according to Bill Bailey. Dogs are great students of how we act and behave, consequently it behooves us to develop a premium set of body language tools to help our dogs achieve maximum performance at something that often they have far more expertise at than we do. Gabby's skills were honed in part by her reaction to me pretending to be stalking lions in Africa. She would literally shake with excitement prior to each training run. A habit that was to become lifelong. I only had to stiffen my body up or raise my tension level to see a very visible reaction from my dog. Every leg of every training run thus became of major importance Bill himself used to tie $20 notes onto his dummy's on days when he began to get bored with multiple marked retrieves. Great concentration developed because of this heightened form of urgency and communication as well as the ability to perform at trials at the same standard as in training. Most people's body language varies when under pressure at a trial Bill believed that it was important not to give your dog mixed signals. He also extended this belief to the more mundane everyday interaction of dog and owner. The dog needs to like you in order to work well for you under pressure. How you greet your dog in the morning thru to the signals that you give off when going for a walk or going training all matter. Calm and low key in all matters except training was the goal. Bills dog reportedly would fall asleep in the hide and only be woken up by Bill minutes before it was his turn to run. How you view your dog has a big bearing on your dog's performance. Bill believed that “you and your dog must become a mutual admiration society” It is paramount to his philosophy. This can become difficult if your realistic and are aware of your dogs faults or if you've had a good dog in the past and try and compare your current dogs performance with the rose coloured glasses performances of the past. Nevertheless casting realism to the side, history shows that those who harbour delusions of grandeur are often in the winners circle. Dogs get part of their confidence from their handlers and body language is seldom a good liar.

Straightness is all-important.

Straightness was the cornerstone of Bill's approach to marking and linerunning. The first drill Bill ever attempted with gabby was a recall through a bush.(from a very short distance) Eventually this became a game that gabby and I played almost everyday. We would look for new and interesting situations to recall gabby over. From children's play equipment through to blackberry bushes, gabby would come over every conceivable object that we could utilize. Bill believed that the return may be up to 80% of the run in terms of training value. Cutting the edge across dams can only be safely attempted when your dog is reliable on land. Technical marks can be built up piecemeal by concentrating on sections of the return. To achieve this many hours needed to be spent in the backyard jumping over strategically placed chairs. Gabby would be conditioned to go out and return the same way. The distance and difficulty factors in the chair jumping game were extended to the point where the habit was ingrained enough to be gradually introduced in the field. As with all Bill's training methods straightness became a lifestyle demand.

Bill taught straightness on blinds as a logical next step. He did not believe in pattern blinds. Every blind was a cold one and every blind was meticulously set up so the dog would have absolutely no idea where the dummy was. This may seem self-evident but Bill maintained that most dogs managed to get some clue as to where their trainers had placed the blinds prior to running. Competing in retrieving trials is the art of running on other people's tests. Your dog will get used to the way you do things some repetition in your methods is inevitable. The early blinds were very short. A line would be established with a dummy placed every 20 metres or so As long as the dog stayed on the line it would magically run into another dummy. Hazards were gradually introduced. Cover demanded another command to commence hunting. Bill would use the cue “easy” to let the dog know that she was in the area and down wind of the bird if possible. Easy had been introduced much earlier but on marks in our quartering and team hunting sessions. It was relatively simple to transfer this command to now mean break off the line and commence to hunt but come back straight and sit straight to deliver.

Marking must be predominant

It is as a teacher of marking that Bill Bailey will be best remembered. His dog “Cass” was one of the great markers in the history of the sport. He reasoned that marks out numbered blinds by 2 to 1 and the potential to lose points by handling was far greater on marks. The methodology in descending order of importance was

Line
Landmark
Scent
The line was worked on from puppyhood by recall and habit as discussed earlier. Straightness was a way of life The landmark presented a new set of challenges. Bill believed that dogs have a photographic memory. The ability to lock in that photograph became crucial to Gabby's future marking ability. Whilst my training partners threw doubles and simple triples for their pups Gabby only retrieved singles until the age of 13 months. Locking in on marks became second nature. The level of technicality was constantly pushed right up to her proficiency level and occasionally beyond. Displacement marks began at about 10 months. This refined the photographic image that the dog had and taught her to interpret and think. Recognizing scent areas, scent funnels, and finding birds took up a lot of our training. Bill had a team mark concept where we would put reasonably complex marks over the crests of hills or into thick cover. I would leave the dog and run out and pretend to attempt to retrieve the bird myself. When nearing the fall area I would yell back to gabby to fetch. We would inevitably arrive at the fall area at about the same time but carefully downwind of the bird. We would then hunt the area together until she found it.This exercise developed solid methodology in the hunting pattern coupled with great enthusiasm.

Sagacity was a quality that Bill liked to foster in a dog. Much of this was done by monitoring the ratio of marks that the dog had to hunt out without the possibility of assistance .Out of sight marks are not lucky dips and a dog needs to be able to apply perseverance, and ingenuity to the task. . Bill would often have marks fall in the heaviest cover available. He was known to draw diagrams of the dogs hunt pattern and file it for future reference This made the facing of hazards in the future less of a hit and miss affair.

Memory building became high on the agenda. Bill devised a drill that eventually blurred the edges between marks and blinds. Gabby was taught to almost always pick birds up in the order that they were thrown. Initially they were always retrieved in this sequence. With this method gabby learned to count. Bill would ask gabby ''where is it?” whilst she was facing him. She would turn her head in the direction of the first mark thrown and lock in. When Bill was satisfied that she had locked in correctly, he would confirm and send. She would sit in they middle of a multi featured park and watch up to 20 marks thrown from anything from 10 up to 100 meter's in length. Gabby would then proceed to pick them up in order .To remember 20 casted birds taxes the memory of even the greatest markers. Occasionally she would forget one and would need to be lined. This almost always produced a hard running stylish blind leg. Gabby came to believe that a blind was only a mark that she had forgotten. This helped both her determination to watch more accurately next time, and her confidence in the belief that there is definitely something out there. Just stay on that line and it will magically appear

Bill's training techniques were a product of his time. He was a pioneer in his methods and was largely self taught. His dog was not reacquired to run 300-meter blinds and the degree of technicality in the runs overall was more forgiving. He was a great motivator of retrievers and he had a great capacity for detail .I'm sure that Bill would have adjusted to the modern era .He still takes a keen interest in modern trialling and just maybe we will see him back in some capacity one day.