Jump to section
A successful hunting retriever is trained to locate, pick up, and return downed birds, back to his handlers. But what if the dog doesn't see where the bird fell? This happens frequently when hunting, especially when there are multiple hunters taking shots and several birds can be downed at one time, when your dog is behind a camouflaged barrier or blind and cannot see where birds land, or when distractions from the sights and sounds of the hunt, which can be unpredictable, take your dog's attention away for a moment. Now you have a downed bird that may be injured, that needs to be retrieved as soon as possible. Often the bird is in water or on terrain where hunters cannot easily reach the animal. Hunters rely on their dogs to go get the bird and bring it back.
The ability to direct a retriever with hand signals to locate the fallen bird and bring it back “to hand” is called a blind retrieve, and is a mark of a well-trained retriever. A dog that is trained to faithfully venture out into the field or lake with faith that his handler is directing him to target quarry and follow directions given, makes a retriever a very useful tool for his handler.
Blind retrieves can happen in actual hunting situation or as part of field trials. A dog is required to follow his handler's signals to locate and retrieve prey. Blind retrieves are generally taught at the end of a mature retriever's training, as it is more complex behavior, and requires the confidence and trust of the dog. Some hunters, however, prefer to train marked and blind retrieves at the same time so the dog does not rely on their own sense of direction so heavily. Hunters train their dogs to blind retrieve on dry land, often in familiar environments like a training yard, or a rural property where the dog is familiar, before expecting the dog to perform blind retrieves in water, which is more difficult. Bumpers, target items that act as retrieval items, or training dummies are planted and retriever dogs are taught to retrieve these items by following verbal, whistle, and hand signals directing them to go to the target location and retrieve the training object. Signals used for gun dogs usually include “over” to direct the dog to the left or right and “back” to proceed in a straight line to retrieve items. Often a stop whistle is used to signal a dog that he is in the vicinity of quarry and should start looking for it. Hand signals can be used over the dog's head to indicate direction, and verbal signals can encourage distance, signaling the dog to continue further to locate the bird.
A safe training area, usually on dry land, is used to conduct blind retrieve training before graduating to training in water. You will need bumpers or training dummies to plant for your dog to blind retrieve. Many hunters use a whistle to signal the dog when there are in the area with the item to be retrieved, so the dog knows to stop and start searching. A fence or long barrier to help guide dogs while learning lining retrieves is helpful. Most retrievers will retrieve for the sheer joy of it, but during training, treats and praise can be used to further motivate and reward successful blind retrieving behaviors.
The Lining With a Fence Method
Show dog bumpers on fenceline
Plant bumpers along a fenceline and show your retriever where they are located. Take you retriever several yards back down the fence line.
Release for marked retrieve
Release your retriever, give the command to retrieve and a hand signal indicating the direction your dog should go, toward the marked location along the fence line, to encourage a straight run.
Pair blind retrieve signals during marked retrieve
While your dog is moving toward the goal, provide verbal encouragement like “further back” or “go on” to indicate to your dog to continue moving, which the dog already knows as he is aware of the location of the bumpers. When your dog reaches the bumper area, blow a whistle to indicate to your dog he has reached his target location and to stop and locate the bumpers. You are familiarizing your with signals that will be used for the blind retrieve, and he is associating them with marked retrieving behaviors.
Set up blind retrieve
Now hide bumpers to create a blind retrieve, where your dog does not know the location, somewhere along the fence line. Release your retriever and use your verbal, hand, and whistle signals to guide him along the fence to the bumper location for retrieval.
Remove fence guide
Start creating blind retrieves in open areas without the fence, and practice your directions. Gradually make more complicated adding distance, rougher terrain, distractions, and eventually water.
The Over There Method
Plant bumpers for marked retrieve
In an open area, plant bumpers, while taking you retriever with you on a leash, so he sees where you are planting them.
Retreat to side
Walk off several yards at an angle, then turn your retriever around, to the right or left of the bumper location.
Pair hand signals to direct marked retrieve
Give the signal to retrieve, and make a hand signal over your dog's head in the direction of the bumpers while commanding “over there”.
Direct dog to known bumper location
Have an assistant guide your dog over to the bumpers, if necessary. Practice subsequent right and left directions to retrieve, without an assistant guiding. Encourage your dog on further with verbal signals, and use a whistle when your dog is at the bumper location to signal him to stop and look for bumpers. This pairs blind retrieve signals with marked retrieve behaviors.
Initiate blind retrieves
Once your dog is responding well and has associated hand signals, verbal encouragement to move on, and whistle to stop and look for the target, start hiding bumpers so your dog has to follow your directions to make the blind retrieve to the left or right. Make blind retrieves more difficult with rougher terrain, distractions, and eventually water.
The Tennis Ball Method
Whistle to fetch ball
Let your retriever roam loose several yards from you, blow on a whistle, and then toss a tennis ball out a few feet for your dog to retrieve. Repeat. This teaches your dog to look for a retrieval items when he hears the whistle.
Toss a tennis ball in a straight line in front of your dog with your retriever on-leash. Give a hand signal to your dog pointing toward the tennis ball, and then release him to retrieve.
DIrect to side
Throw a tennis ball off to the left while your dog is sitting next to you, give a hand signal to the left and then release your dog. Repeat this for the right side, practice often until your dog learns to follow the direction of your hand to go straight, right, or left to get a tennis ball.
Encourage your dog as he runs, to fetch with verbal signals to indicate he should continue on to fetch the ball. Add the whistle signal when he gets to the ball to signal him to stop and get the ball.
Introduce other retrieval items
Once your dog has learned to associate commands with direction, distance and stopping, hide a tennis ball and provide the commands to direct your dog to the ball. Replace a ball with bumpers or dummies. Practice using direction commands on actual hunts.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 05/18/2018, edited: 01/08/2021