May 24, 2023

Canine Corner: Blind retrieves, part 2 - Casting basics

By Tom Dokken, SportDOG® Brand Sr. ProStaff

Presented by SportDOG® Brand 

(Originally published in Summer 2023 issue of California Waterfowl)

Obedience is the foundation for everything. Photo by Lee Thomas Kjos of Kjos Outdoors

In the Spring issue, I explained how to start building the foundation with a puppy or young dog if you want to build a retriever that will run blinds, meaning it will run straight to a bird that it didn’t see fall, and also will take a cast (your hand signal) toward the bird if it gets off-course. Now we’re going to build on that.

The next steps can be done outside in a relatively small space. Your backyard might work just fine for much of this, although it can be beneficial to do these drills in different areas so your dog gets used to working in different environments. Once again, you’ll want to utilize any sort of platform that your dog easily recognizes as the spot you want it to go to via the Place command.

Left and right casts

To cement the concept of taking a hand signal to either side, start out with two platforms just a few yards apart. Just as you did in the early stages, give the Place command and gesture toward one of the platforms. This is normally when you would give your dog its treat reward. But now you’re going to change things up.

Don’t reward the dog when it gets on the first platform. Instead, with the dog sitting on the platform and you standing directly in front of it, gesture toward the other platform and say, “Place.” When your dog runs to the other one and gets on it, that’s when you deliver the treat. You can then work back and forth between the two boards for short sessions. It shouldn’t take your dog long to understand the drill.

You’ll be tempted to start spacing the platforms farther apart. You can open them up a little, but don’t get carried away. Your dog either understands it should go to the platform you’re gesturing to or it doesn’t. This isn’t supposed to be a challenge; the purpose is to lock in the concept that following your hand signal is what results in the reward.

Introducing angles

There are times when you might need to direct your retriever to a fallen bird that isn’t left or right or straight back from where the dog is sitting, but somewhere in between. These are known as “angle backs,” and if you’ve done all the steps that got you to this point, teaching angle backs shouldn’t be difficult.

Once your dog is reliably going left and right, take the left platform and move it back a couple of steps. With your dog sitting on the right platform, gesture to the left one. Your dog will have to move at a slight angle, obviously, to get to the platform. Run this drill in reverse as well, starting on the left and angling back toward the right platform.

The first time you run this drill, it shouldn’t be much different than when you were doing straight lefts and rights. The next time out, move the left board back a little farther so the angle to it is sharper and your dog can’t see the board out of its peripheral vision. When you give your cast, point at the platform. Your dog will learn to key on the direction of your hand signal and eventually will pick up on the difference between a slight angle and a sharp angle.

The all-important Back command

As you work on your angle back casts and the angles become sharper, eventually you’ll have moved one board until it’s directly behind the other. At this point, you’re going to teach the all-important “Back.”

Getting a dog to reliably run farther back, or “deeper” as many trainers would say, is the most important factor in getting a retriever all the way out to pick up a challenging, faraway bird. In a perfect world, when you send a dog “back,” it would run straight until it found a bird or ran out of sight. Few things in retriever training are perfect, but it’s something we can all try for, right?

So, when you’ve got the lefts, rights and angle backs all going smoothly, add in the Back command by placing one platform directly behind the other. I’d suggest starting out with them only five yards apart. With your dog on the front platform and you standing several feet away facing it, raise your hand aggressively up over your head and give a firm “Back” command. If all goes well, your dog should run straight back to the platform just as reliably as it has been during the earlier sessions.

At this stage you can still give a treat once the dog is sitting on the far platform, but always remember to lay on lots of verbal praise as well, because very soon you’re going to transition away from treats, and praise will be the reward for a job well done.

What’s next?

In the next issue we’re going to talk about “lining,” which means sending your dog from your side for a bumper or bird that it can’t see. “Back” is the command you will use to send the dog on a line.

But before you can get to that, there are related things to work on. (I’m moving ahead a bit here so we can stay focused on blind retrieves, but let me explain where I think you should be at before you begin serious work on lining.)

First, your dog should be solid on basic obedience commands and should be accomplishing at least simple single retrieves. Depending on your training skills, regimen and expectations, your dog might be force-fetched as well, but that’s a topic for another day. For the purposes of this series of articles, let’s just say that your dog must have the desire to pick up whatever object you direct it to pick up. Otherwise, your lining drills are probably not going to go well.

For the obedience portion of your dog’s advancement, by the time your platform and Place work has progressed to sending your dog to the back platform, you should be just about finished with treat training. You’re going to trade in the motivation of treats for control with a lead (which can be both a 6-foot lead and a longer, 20-foot check cord) and plenty of verbal praise when your dog does well. (After all, you don’t want to carry treats around for the rest of your dog’s life, do you?)

Use your lead or check cord during training for commands such as Heel, Sit, Down and Come, and of course, to reinforce Place. Keep that lead attached to your dog’s flat collar at all times so you can make corrections quickly and efficiently.

Obedience is the foundation for everything in the same way that platforms and Place training are the foundation for future success with blind retrieves.