The Great Illusion (Blind Retrieves)|
by John and Amy Dahl
First Published by Tri-Tronics as Mark and Handle, 1999.
If you hunt with your dog inside a blind, or if you are ambitious about training your retriever, you will want to teach him to do blind retrieves. For him to be successful picking up birds he has not seen fall, however, you need to understand that there is much more to a blind retrieve than simply giving your dog directions. You need to get past the illusion of perfect handling, and understand the problems your dog faces as he tries to follow your instructions.
What is the illusion involved in a blind retrieve? Consider a blind retrieve in the advanced stake of a field trial (Open or Amateur). The dogs with passing jobs all take a near-perfect initial line, keep going indefinitely in that direction (until stopped by their handlers’ whistles), run straight without swerving or dodging any obstacles, answer every whistle instantly, and take each cast given by their handler. One or two dogs, sometimes more, will usually "line the blind." These dogs get a good initial line and run straight and true, with seeming disregard for the layout of terrain, cover, and water, all the way to the bird—which is likely to be 300 yards or more away. The dogs who fail go out of control in a variety of ways. They may refuse to stop for whistles, or go in some direction other that that of their handlers' casts. They may put their noses down to hunt the cover, or they may slip behind some obstacle out of sight.
The naive spectator might assume that the passing dogs are better trained. They know the meanings of the casts right, left, and back, and will follow them obediently no matter how far they get from the handler. The failing dogs, on the other hand, appear to lack discipline. They get out in the field at some distance from the handler, and simply run amok. While some dogs certainly have a much higher success rate on blind retrieves than others, there is a lot more going on here.
While we have trained and handled some mighty nice blind dogs, such as FC Banjo XXXVI and FC-AFC LaThunder Rue, we think it’s safe to say no retriever will take every cast given, in all circumstances. A field-trial performance is just that: a performance. Dog and handler work together to create the illusion of a perfect handling job. The key to a good performance is the handler’s understanding, both of the dog’s capabilities and limitations, and of the demands of the test to be performed.
Some clues to what is involved in a good performance may be seen by carefully watching the dogs and handlers. Many of the dogs that went out of control will have done so at approximately the same place. The handlers of the passing dogs will, in most cases, have stopped their dogs with a whistle just short of this spot and given a cast away from it. The handler of the dog who lined the blind was undoubtedly ready, whistle in mouth, as the dog approached that point. If you watched, you would have seen him or her take a breath and raise cupped hands to project the sound of the whistle, should it be needed.
That area where some of the dogs went out of control and others were successfully handled through is called a "hazard," and there is little doubt that the judges designed the blind purposely to test the handlers’ ability to keep their dogs under control through that area. In fact, a few dogs probably failed the test even though they appeared to be under control and responding well to their handlers’ casts and whistles the whole way. A look at the judges’ sheets will show that these dogs invariably ran or swam well clear of the area where others had trouble. They failed to "challenge the hazard," and therefore did not demonstrate their ability to negotiate it and remain under control. (This is a rhetorical comment; we do not recommend that you ask a judge to show you his or her drawings unless he or she is a close personal friend.)
Hazards take many forms. Physical unpleasantness is one variety. Dogs may be reluctant to cast into heavy mud, rough cover, or cold water, especially if they are already cold and wet. They also have a natural dislike of running into the wind. The farther the dog is from the handler, the less authority the handler is likely to have in such a situation. Angled boundaries, such as shorelines, roads, or other changes of cover, also present a problem. Inexperienced dogs will either "cheat," or run along the boundary, or "square" across at a right angle to it. Either way the dog loses its direction. Casts in the vicinity of a boundary are usually taken in either of these two directions. Hillsides are similar. It is easiest to run around a hill, or to run straight up it. Angling along the sidehill is awkward. Some situations are conceptually difficult for most dogs, and must be taught stepbystep. Crossing a point of land to continue in the water is one. Most dogs readily comprehend getting into the water to retrieve a bird, and have little trouble with crossing the water to get a bird on the far shore. Cast them out of the water onto a point, and they naturally conclude that the bird must be on the land. Having crossed a piece of water and gotten out, they do not expect to get back into the same water, and getting them back in can be difficult. Finally, there are areas where dogs naturally tend to "break down" and hunt, such as swales full of cover or scented areas.
What does all of this mean for the duck hunter, or the person training his or her own retriever for hunting tests? Just as in a field trial, getting a crisp, clean performance on a blind retrieve requires understanding the hazards and knowing how your dog is likely to respond to them. One aspect of this, of course, is to avoid trying to handle him through a difficult hazard when you are hunting and are eager for him to return with the duck so you can get on with your shooting. There are no judges in the hunting blind, so take the practical approach and handle your dog around, rather than through, a hazard for which he has not been prepared. Like the handlers in a field trial, if you try to avoid giving your dog a cast he will not take, he is more likely to take all of the casts you do give him.
You must also devote some time training your dog to negotiate hazards, however, if he is to be effective in the field. Between wind, cover, terrain, and shoreline configurations, there are so many potential hazards, most retrieves will involve some unavoidable challenge. A dog who has had only a few handling drills in mowed grass on level terrain will be extremely limited. Extensive and complicated drilling under such conditions will do nothing to help your dog understand how to take, for example, a straight "back" cast when he sees only the route square into the water to the right, and the route down the shore to the left.
We recommend getting a young retriever out "into the field" doing cold blinds as soon as he is able to smoothly execute a simple casting drill such as a single t. Practice on level terrain in short cover until the dog makes the breakthrough of recognizing that following your directions will get him to the bird. Then you can begin teaching him how to negotiate each kind of hazard he is likely to encounter. One way to start is with a man-made hazard, such as a hay bale. Start close up and insist that your dog go over it, on a line or on a cast. This will introduce the idea that you care not only about his destination, but also about his route. Other easy-to-set up obstacles are a log, or two chairs he must run between. Make sure these hazards are big enough that your dog can get the idea readily—use a 10’ log as opposed to a 2’ log.
To teach a retriever how to handle correctly through a hazard, begin by setting up a blind where your dog must go through the hazard fairly close to the starting point, and the rest of the blind is straightforward. You will have maximum leverage if you are as close to your dog as possible when he is in the problem area. Keeping the remainder of the blind simple accomplishes two things: it helps make the lesson as clear as possible, and it rewards the dog for staying with you through the hazard, by giving him a familiar task at which he can be successful.
When beginning work on a new hazard, your goals should be to get your dog into the hazard, get him out of the hazard, and get him to the blind (planted dummy). Don’t worry about _how_ he negotiates the hazard. If you are new to this aspect of training, you will probably be surprised at the number of "cast refusals" you will get, usually when you attempt to cast out of the hazard. We strongly recommend that you not correct (punish) these errors. Simply whistle your dog back to the point of refusal and repeat the cast. He will understand there is a problem when you continue insistently to repeat the cast. Eventually you will get him out of the hazard and, if all goes well, the ease with which he finishes the blind will underscore the correctness of the cast he finally took.
Once you begin work on a particular hazard, continue to practice the concept every day, preferably in a variety of locations which all feature the essential problem. When your retriever can negotiate a hazard smoothly, with a single cast in and a single cast out, close to the sending line, start practicing the same kind of hazard from farther away. Continue to keep the remainder of the blind as simple as possible. When your retriever will cast in and out of the hazard smoothly at a distance, you can begin teaching another hazard. You will need to maintain your dog’s proficiency on hazards already taught with periodic review, but work on only one new thing at a time, concentrating on it until your dog is competent.
Visibility is an important issue in training on blind retrieves. Because the hunting test programs do not allow the wearing of high-visibility white, owners who participate are eager to teach their dogs to take direction from a camouflaged handler. In training, however, it is best to take one thing at a time. While teaching a dog to negotiate hazards, do not complicate an already difficult problem by making your casts ambiguous. Make sure he understands how to execute a clearly-visible cast in each situation. Another consideration is that you will want to run longer blinds in training than the 100 yards or so required in hunting tests, and, of course, greater distance requires greater visibility. If you need to handle to a long fall while hunting, there is no reason you can’t wear a white sweatshirt under your hunting coat for just that purpose.
There are many other hazards and variations of them besides the ones we listed above. As you progress with your retriever’s training, we hope you will develop a feel for the kinds of situations which give him difficulty. When he reaches a point where he suddenly starts refusing casts, there is probably a reason. Instead of correcting him for disobedience, identify the problem and work on it, starting close up, as we described.
With patience and understanding, you can bring your dog to the point where, he, too, creates the illusion of being able to take any cast, at any angle, regardless of terrain. Just remember that it is an illusion, and when it occasionally breaks down, address the problem through training. Don’t be fooled by the illusion into disregarding the difficulties that terrain, wind, cover, and water pose for your dog—allow for him to be fallible, understand the challenges he faces, and he will give you the best he has to give.
"The Great Illusion: Blind Retrieves," by John & Amy Dahl. © Copyright 1999 by John & Amy Dahl, Pinehurst, NC. First North American electronic serial rights to Tri- Tronics, Inc.