Feb 23, 2023

Canine Corner: Blind retrieves, part 1 - Building the foundation

By Charlie Jurney

Presented by SportDOG® Brand 

(Originally published in Spring 2023 issue of California Waterfowl)

The core concept of a blind retrieve is that a dog runs in the direction you send it. That’s it.

A retriever that marks downed birds and reliably picks them up is a nice asset to have in the duck blind, but what about the birds your dog doesn’t see fall? For those, you need a dog that can run blind retrieves.

Some hunters are satisfied with a dog that retrieves only the birds it sees tumble from the sky. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, I’d make the case that a dog that will take a line out to a hidden bird as it follows your directions is the difference between a good retriever and a great one.

It’s been my experience that some hunters are intimidated by the details of how to train for blind retrieves. Or maybe they’re just not sure where to start. There’s nothing mysterious about it. Like everything else in retriever training, you need to start with proper obedience training and a good foundation, and then build from there. I’m going to cover the basics of this process in a four-part series this year. For this issue, let’s start with the all-important foundation.


The core concept of a blind retrieve is that a dog runs in the direction you send it. That’s it. You know where the bird fell, but your dog doesn’t. Whether your dog is sitting next to you or 75 yards away in the field or in the water, it has to believe that your hand signal, also known as a cast, is going to help it get to the bird. If you want your dog to go in a direction other than where it’s headed, the expectation is that it will stop on your whistle command and then follow another cast, whether that’s left, right or straight back, or even at some other angle.

Believe it or not, this concept of having a dog follow your cast can begin as early as seven weeks, but you can start this training anytime, ideally while you are working on obedience commands during your dog’s first year.

As soon as your puppy learns to take a piece of kibble (or other small treat) out of your hand, you’ve already started the process. When you give a dog a treat, it learns to watch your hand, because that’s where the reward is. I make this connection by spending the first several days of treat training working on the Come command. Pup comes to you; it gets a reward. Simple.

Once your pup understands that relationship, the next step is to teach it you want it to go to a particular spot when you make a gesture in that direction. This is the Place command. I use a slightly raised platform, which can be almost anything that your pup will identify as the spot to go to. From just a couple feet away, use your treat hand to guide the pup to the platform, using the word “Place.” It won’t take long for it to start running to the platform in anticipation of the reward as soon as you start to move your hand in that direction. As long as your pup stays on the spot, it gets the reward. Work on this from left to right and right to left.

In addition to already learning to follow the direction of your hand, your pup is also figuring out that the faster it gets to the place and stays there, the quicker it will get its reward. Once you get through this stage, congratulations on a successful start on building the foundation!


The Back command is vitally important to building a dog that takes hand signals. Back means you want to send the dog directly away from you. It’s also the command you’ll use when your dog is sitting at heel and you’re lining it up for a blind retrieve. Yes, casting right and left are important, but if you can’t drive a dog farther away from you, you’ll never be able to get it to pick up the challenging birds like a wing-tipped mallard that sails down 100 yards beyond your decoys.

Teaching Back is similar to what you’ve already accomplished with your right and left Place commands. But now you’re sending your pup to a Place platform directly behind it. You should start this with the platform only a couple feet behind your pup. With the pup facing you, simply raise your treat hand up and over its head, and command “Place.”

It shouldn’t take more than a few reps of this before your pup is scampering back to quickly get on the platform and wait for its reward.


With your foundation built, you can start progressing to putting longer distances between your pup and the Place platforms. You can do this in the garage or basement or anywhere else that has enough room to extend distances by a few more feet and work with no distractions. Do not start trying to stretch to long distances at this point. But do be mindful that your pup goes in the correct direction every time, and only give the treat reward when it stays on the platform.

At some point in the coming weeks or months you’ll be doing the Back exercise outside and at longer distances. At that stage, you’ll want to train your dog to turn right or left to go back depending on which hand you raise for the Back command. But for now, getting your retriever to go away from you is every bit as important as training it to come when called. The last thing you want is a retriever that is hesitant to get out and hunt.


There are many intricate parts building up to flawless retriever handling. Field trialers have made handling on blinds its own artform to the point where their dogs may be tasked with running blinds that stretch beyond 300 or 400 yards. If that’s your end game, get with a group of like-minded trainers and work on it. All I’m going to try to do with this series of articles is show you that building a hardworking hunting dog capable of running blinds at hunting distances is within your grasp if you work at it, starting with the proper foundation.

In the summer issue, I’ll go into the next steps for casting to the platforms at longer distances and how to start “lining” drills that ensure your retriever will run hard when you send it for a blind retrieve