Sometimes the simpler a tool, the harder it is to understand. The human mind seems to like making simple things more complicated; perhaps simple is more complicated in the long run because it is harder to see the fundamental nature of things. Take the check-cord: There are very few pieces of training equipment as simple as this one, yet this short piece of rope—the single most important tool you will own—is vastly misunderstood.
Unlike walking a dog on a leash, where the animal walks next to you, a dog should hunt in front of you while walking on the check-cord. With the Bill West method, the length of a proper check-cord is about twelve feet, with a snap at one end. If the check-cord is any shorter than that, the dog won’t have room to move; any longer, and you’ll have problems handling the rope. If you are right-handed, you hold the check-cord in your right hand, and vice versa. Timing is everything, so it’s important to use your stronger hand.
The rest of the check-cord drags behind you on the ground; you don’t carry the extra length in your other hand. It takes practice to get the feel of the rope. Let it slide through your hand to slowly feed more rope to your dog, or place one hand over the other to choke up on the rope and get closer to the snap. The single most important purpose of the check-cord is to control your dog.
A few years ago a fellow came by with a young pup that had never been worked on pigeons and asked if his pup could chase some of them. I loaded up a couple of launchers and placed them around the training field. He got his check-cord, hooked it to his pup’s collar, led him to the field, and then dropped the check-cord. Before I could react, the pup had run over the first launcher and was heading to the second one. I asked him why he’d dropped the check-cord, and he said he’d wanted his pup to run free. Running free is great when birds are loose and can get up, but as soon as you set limits—such as controlling the area a dog can hunt, or restraining the bird’s ability to fly—you need to have control of your dog.
When working a young pup on launchers, it’s best to use the check-cord to bring him into the area so his approach is cross-wind to the launcher. Then, drop the check-cord once the bird is in the air. While he is free to chase the bird, you control the approach.
Once your dog is ready for formal training, you can use the pinch-collar and check-cord to teach him the here command and stand command, continuing to hold the check-cord to stay in control. Your dog should pull as he works in front of you, but not too hard. It’s a fine line: You want a happy dog that pulls with excitement, not a disrespectful dog that drags you around. A disrespectful dog needs to learn to be respectful, and you do this with the check-cord by asking him to go with you and come to you. As your dog becomes more steady, you begin to drop the check-cord.
While it may not seem like a big step to you, dropping the check-cord can be a big step for your dog. Often he will chase once he’s realized you are not at the other end. Sometimes a dog that has advanced to dragging the check-cord starts making mistakes. You can help set him straight by taking a step backwards in training, picking up the check-cord and holding it for a few sessions.
Recently Maurice Lindley and I were talking about the check-cord and how often new trainers misunderstand it. Maurice explained how much trouble he goes to in setting up different training situations: “I look at the check-cord as the tool that guides the dog into the different training setups. I take the time to set up training situations with birds so the dog can learn from the bird. Without the check-cord training, it would be really hit-or-miss—very inconsistent. A good example is bringing a dog into the bird setup cross-wind at a certain distance,” Maurice continued. “Too far away, and you cause creeping; too close, and you might have the dog right on top of the bird, so he catches it. The check-cord is the early guide, and critical to this method.”
As you become more comfortable with the check-cord and understand how to use it to properly control your dog, hopefully you’ll see how helpful this simple tool really is, and why no trainer should be without one.