When seven pheasants flushed in a cluster in front of the Labrador, he sat, leaning forward, focused to mark a fall. Three roosters went down, though one took 100 yards to collapse, and all three fell at widely separate points, two of them behind the dog and unmarked by him. Nonetheless, under guidance from his owner, the Lab retrieved the roosters to hand without the hunters taking a step to pick up the birds. The process is called a “blind retrieve,” and it’s a far better option than walking a dog to where you think a bird fell—which you can’t do in a duck marsh—or letting your dog run all over creation hoping it’ll stumble on the downed bird.
During a blind retrieve a handler guides his dog with voice, whistle and arm signals to find, pick up and deliver a downed bird it didn’t see fall. Blind retrieves are based on trust and training—a dog must be a confident retriever and believe that it will find a bird by taking instructions from a handler who directs it to the approximate location of an unseen fall.
Whatever the caliber of your dog, I guarantee it will not mark, or even see, every bird shot around it. There are legitimate reasons for missing marks, especially in situations with multiple birds and shooters—for example, in a duck blind, on a pheasant drive or when any birds flush as a group.
Blind retrieve training isn’t restricted to the retrieving breeds. Quite a few spaniels, primarily springers, are taught to blind retrieve. A few “versatile” breeds, such as German shorthairs, also receive this training, at least to some level. Mainly, though, when we think of blind retrieves, it’s retrievers that come to mind. That said, in this type of training, one breed doesn’t have an advantage over another. Even if dogs have inherent tendencies to pick up game, such as retrievers and spaniels, none has instincts for this type of work. The blind retrieve must be completely trained.
A GOOD LINE
Although handlers might disagree on the details of blind-retrieve components and their names, the process has three basic elements: lining, stopping and casting. (Taken together in retriever lingo they’re called “handling.”) Lining refers to sending a dog from your side to run in a straight line to where you know a bird fell. Lining is considered fundamental to a blind retrieve— if a dog is given a poor line and runs off-target, the retrieve is already botched and the dog must be handled back in the right direction or recalled.
This means that, as a handler, one of your most important tasks is to give your dog a good line. A common way of doing this is to heel the dog for a few steps directly toward the bird and into position at your side with its head and body aimed in the right direction—a retriever with sound basic training will usually run where its head is pointed and its eyes are “locked in.” Once in position, many handlers give their dog a trained-in que— “Dead bird” is often used but any word or phrase will do—to focus it for a blind retrieve and to not look for a mark.
To send your dog, put your open hand about eight or 10 inches above and slightly in front of its head and aimed at the bird, then command “Back” to release it. Note that dogs rarely keep their initial line all the way to a distant bird. Most often, they’ll encounter an obstacle, or “hazard”—rough cover, thick mud, icy water, the list is long—that causes them to veer off-line.
When your dog loses its line and heads in the wrong direction, you have no choice but to give it new instructions. But first you must stop the dog so it can focus on you. Stopping on a command—typically a sharp whistle blast—also means that the dog turns and faces you squarely, sits and watches for redirection. (Although most trainers prefer a dog to sit, standing is acceptable.) “Sit-to-whistle” training to stop a dog at a distance is another key building block of a blind retrieve— the next step can’t work without it— and it starts as basic obedience. Control distance is gradually extended by various training drills using “place” boards, baseball diamonds or mowed “corridors” in a field.
CAST AND RETRIEVE
Once a dog is stopped and focused on you, you can “cast” (guide) it toward the fallen bird with arm signals, often exaggerated and sometimes in conjunction with verbal commands. There are three basic casts: “Back,” with your arm straight up, tells your dog to run out and away from you; “Over,” with your arm straight out in the appropriate direction, signals it to run right or left. “Come in,” using the recall command, is occasionally considered a fourth cast. Those three casts will cover most situations a hunter will face in guiding his dog to downed game. That said, handlers might add their own variations or subtleties to the basic casts. The final element, the culmination of handling that some trainers consider part of casting, is finding fallen game. If you’ve done your job and guided your dog to the area of the fall, it will then use its nose to hunt dead and ultimately locate the bird.
Teaching your dog to competently perform blind retrieves is not a quick and easy job. The process requires time, commitment to the goal, and the ability to keep your dog’s confidence and enthusiasm high. Blind retrieve training has numerous steps, none of which can be rushed. Indeed, an all-too-common error is expecting too much too soon, which can result in a dog, especially a youngster, breaking down from stress and losing confidence. As I said earlier, dogs don’t have a natural inclination to run lines, stop on command or take casts—let alone carry them out in a sequenced performance—therefore each skill must be drilled in and mastered individually, then in combination.
Sportsmen who have the patience for teaching the blind retrieve typically consider it one of the most rewarding facets of gun dog work. It’s a rare hunter who doesn’t experience great satisfaction and pride each time he successfully handles his dog to downed upland game or waterfowl a football field away.