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The Great Illusion - Blind Retrieves

by Amy Dahl, Ph.D.

Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband John, of The 10-Minute Retriever - How to Make an Obedient and Enthusiastic Sporting Dog in 10 Minutes a Day.
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.

Carrying a straight line through a small piece of water is something few dogs do naturally.
Photo by: Author
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 step-by-step. 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.
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