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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Taking an angle into high cover at a distance from the trainer requires teaching and practicing.
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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.

Obvious routes the dog can take are square into the water, to the right, or down the shore, to the left. The ‘angle entry’ directly toward the orange dummy must be taught.
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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.

Stop your dog and cast him out of the hazard promptly before he "commits" to it.
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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.
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