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.