Nov 30, 2023
Canine Corner: Blind Retrieves, Part 4 - Putting it all together
By Tom Dokken
Photos by Rose Lake Media
Presented by SportDOG® Brand
(Originally published in Winter 2023 issue of California Waterfowl)
For the first three issues of California Waterfowl in 2023, I’ve been explaining the basics of introducing the concept of blind retrieves followed by the step-by-step processes for teaching hand signals and lining. I’m going to finish up here with some final steps to help your dog advance even further.
The ultimate goal with all of this training is to get to the point where you can successfully run your dog on a “cold blind,” which means that your dog will take your directions to run to and find a bumper or bird that’s hidden. Everything I’ve described so far has had a visual component. The use of white bumpers on a mowed field is building your dog’s confidence. Your retriever is learning that if it will take your directions, it will be rewarded with the chance to retrieve.
Also, every drill up until now has started with the dog in a stationary position. As your dog advances in its training, you’ll need to be sure you can stop your dog whether it’s 5 yards or 100 yards or any other distance away from you. So, let’s address that first.
Stopping on the whistle
One blast on a whistle means: Stop what you’re doing and sit, NOW. This is really just an extension of obedience training. If you’ve done even rudimentary obedience training, your dog should sit when you tell it. This is taught with a leash and then, when you’re walking your dog at heel and stop and command it to sit. That’s an easy concept, right? Now you’ll want to be sure you can stop your dog when it’s out in front of you so you can then cast it right, left, back or angled-back to the left or right.
Start out by walking your dog at heel, and each time you stop, give one whistle blast and pull up on the leash, keeping the pressure on until the dog sits. Do this repeatedly until your dog quickly sits every time you give a whistle blast.
Next, put your dog on a 20- to 25-foot check cord and let it roam back and forth in front of you. Then deliver the whistle blast. If the dog tries to come toward you, use the check cord to control it, guiding it to the spot where it was when you gave the whistle-sit command, and make it sit. This drill should start and continue in the backyard until you’re getting perfect compliance.
Don’t try to move on to stopping on the whistle out in the field until you’ve achieved the perfect, instant whistle-sit every time in the yard. You can’t expect to be able to give your dog a hand signal that it will comply with if it’s not sitting and focused on you.
When you’re getting consistent compliance, take your whistle-sit drill to different locations and repeat. Again, and I can’t emphasize this enough, get the whistle-sit nailed down perfectly before trying to move on to the next step. In the build-up to this point covered in Parts 1, 2 and 3, your dog has been looking at you, anticipating where you’re going to send it. It was totally focused. You need to make sure your retriever has that same focus when it’s running at full speed and you need to stop it and cast it in a different direction.
Back to the baseball field
In Part 3 (fall issue), I started referencing a baseball field to help you visualize how to set up lining drills. Using baseball field setups is certainly not something I invented. Trainers have been using the analogy probably for as long as there’s been such a thing as formal retriever training.
I’m going to use it again here to explain how to cast your dog in different directions. I’ll give you some examples of drills you can do on the baseball field, but there’s almost an infinite number of ways you can work on lining and casting challenges, assuming first that:
- Your retriever is whistle-stop compliant every time.
- It understands that the key to being successful is to follow your hand directions.
- You’ve built a solid foundation so your dog is confident that when you send it in a specific direction, it’s going to be rewarded with finding a bird or bumper.
For the initial baseball field drill, drop three or four bumpers at first, second and third base. It may be beneficial to also mark the bases with a white flag. That way, if your bumpers aren’t all white or if they’re partially hidden because the grass is taller than you’d like, the dog has something to run toward. You were using white bumpers in the early stages, so running to something white should be natural.
Start with your dog sitting at heel at home plate, facing second base. Put your hand down, use a verbal cue such as “dead bird,” and then send your dog with a “back” just like you did in the earlier stages of lining. Hopefully this will be a simple line out to pick up the bumper and come back. With that confidence retrieve completed, line up and do it again. But this time, when the dog nears the pitcher’s mound, hit the whistle. With the dog sitting and facing you, you can now cast it to first or third base.
You’ll want to repeat this type of drill over and over. As I alluded to earlier, the variations of casting on a baseball field pattern are endless. Be sure to mix up the pattern so your dog can’t anticipate where you’re going to send it next. As your dog progresses, you can add bumper piles at shortstop and between first and second base, so you can start mixing in angle-backs.
At some point you’re going to want to remove the white visuals and try a cold blind where the bumper is hidden (no need for heavy cover, just enough that your dog can’t see the object). As with all things in retriever training, start out at very short distances and set up drills that are as close to a sure thing as possible. The goal is not to build difficult challenges; rather, you want to create success, which leads to building your retriever’s confidence.
A few more tips
When considering which direction to send your dog during baseball drills, a good rule of thumb is to always do twice as many “backs” to second base as you do for right, left or angle-back casts. Why? Because one of the biggest challenges for most retriever trainers is getting a dog to go deep enough in its search. You really want to drive home the importance of taking a strong, long line back.
Also, don’t be afraid to put some exaggeration into your hand signals. When you cast a dog to first base, for example, take a few steps to your right as you signal with your right arm. This is a continuation of what we’ve been working on all this time, which is that your dog takes its cues from you. This isn’t a random search.
Lastly, don’t get frustrated when you start with cold blinds if your dog isn’t immediately successful. You might have to do extremely short sends to help it understand that it can trust that you’re sending it to an object, even if it can’t see something white to run toward.
There is much more to blind retrieves and casting that I can’t cover here in California Waterfowl due to space constraints. I really encourage you to seek out more information. Look for advice from veteran members of your hunting club, consider joining a retriever club, and then scour books and the Internet for training details that mesh with what you’ve already learned.
Good luck with your training and hunting!