I’ve been very fortunate to hunt with some amazing dogs. Some of my fondest memories were hunting with my uncle, Sid Lacoste. He had jam up dogs and started me on my retriever training journey. He helped me train my first dog some 25+ years ago and hunted with her often, so we both shared in her success. Hopefully you’re on your way with yours and are progressing toward the finish line with a well-trained partner for seasons to come.
One of the metrics of a great dog is the “blind retrieve.” There will be times when a dog won’t see a bird fall. Could be its view was obstructed, fell in heavy cover, or “sailed” after being shot, hence the term “blind retrieve.” You want the blind retrieve in your arsenal. Not only will it put more birds in the bag, but it’s a very impressive sight. It’ll make your buddies jealous, too. All part of the fun!
How to train for it? Like all training, it takes lots of repetition. One plus is that it is something you can teach solo.
At heel, position the dog with an imaginary line from the bird passing through the dog’s nose, spine and tail. The command used is “Back” differing from when the dog is sent on a mark by its name. To teach that it’s a blind, “dead bird” is given before “back.” The dog learns that a bird is out there it can’t see, but that you’ll get it there. To get the dog lined up, use “heel” to pull the dog to you and “here” to have it move away slightly to get the straight line mentioned above.
With a pile of bumpers a short distance away, line the dog up, and say “dead bird.” The dog should lock onto the bumpers. Once locked, give the “back” command. The dog might be confused at first having not heard it, but after some repetition, it’ll get it. As you progress, increase the distance and cover to where the bumpers are out of sight. At this point, introduce a white pole for the dog to focus on and learn to run a straight line. When the dog has this down, switch to a black pole. The dog won’t see it from a distance, but will as it gets closer. This is a confidence as well as trust builder. The bird is the reward and the dog learns you’ll get them to it.
Factors such as cover, distance and terrain affect the dog’s line to the bird.
Hand and whistle signals get them back on it. The dog should know whistle signals, covered in an earlier column. One blast is blown, and the dog sits, squared up facing you. If not squared up, blow the “come in” whistle which is several blasts (beep, beep, beep) so the dog comes in a little ways and squares up on another “sit” whistle. The dog will take the hand signals from there.
Thinking of a clock, there are six hand signals needed. Left and right back are 12 o’clock with your right or left hand straight up. Right over is 3 o’clock;, left over is 9 o’clock. Right angle back is 1:30; left angle back is 10:30.
Start with the left and right backs (12 o’clock) with the dog out in front of you. Give the command sending it to a bumper pile. You want the dog turning in the direction of the signal you give, so stop it if it turns the other way. When you think you’ve done this enough, do it more! Then move to the other clock positions. Keep in mind that it’s a lot easier to keep the dog as close to that initial line as possible, so stop them quickly if they get off it.
Now that the dog has learned lining and signals, combine both on land and water. My dogs take signals better when swimming since they are treading water. Yours may be the same. Once adept, the dog won’t need a pole as a reference, will take a good line and take hand and whistle signals. Work on it often and increase the distance.
This is a lot to cover in one column on critical aspect of having a great dog. These methods work for me, but there are other paths to get to the same destination. Plenty of videos are available online to give you a better visual aspect. Seeking help from a pro or accomplished trainer is never a bad idea. I utilize both all the time.
I hope by now you have all the tools to build that great dog. We’ll cover the first hunts in the next column. Best of luck!