Taking a Line

The key to all retriever training is teaching your dog to follow a direct path to a fallen bird

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Photo © BillKonway.com

By Gary Koehler

There will almost assuredly be times afield when your retriever needs help locating a downed bird, whether you're gunning the marsh or stalking the uplands. Establishing the dog's correct—and most direct—path will aid in the recovery process. Lining may sound simple, but all too often backyard trainers overlook the amount of practice needed to perfect this important skill. Introducing proper lining while your dog is young will pay dividends down the road.

Lining should be taught before you begin using multiple marks or obstacles in your dog's training exercises. The emphasis should be on control. Make it clear to your dog that running a straight line is a requirement, not a request. A dog that is out of control is unlikely to follow any line he is given. As in all phases of training and hunting, obedience is the key to success

"We always start with lining," says 30-year veteran trainer Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi. "It is much easier to teach memories and recall when lining is introduced at an early age."

For Stewart, proper lining requires that a retriever pursue either a seen or unseen bird and maintain the same line to the fall area without distraction. There are several important things to consider when teaching this skill. One is the dog's initial alignment. A dog will move in the direction he is facing, so do not be sloppy when placing your retriever at heel. Extend your arm in front of the dog's head, above his line of sight. Use your hand to encourage him to look at the target area, but keep these actions simple—unnecessary hand movement can be distracting.

"Drop a bumper at a fixed point, such as a tree or shrub, then turn around and tell the dog to sit. Return to the dog, place him at heel, and point at the dropped object," Stewart says. "Only when the dog is patient and quiet do I let him retrieve. The retrieve is his reward."

Stewart starts working with his retrievers on lining when they are quite young and sets the distance of the bumpers based on the dog's age. "With a three- or four-month-old dog, the distance is going to be very short—maybe five yards," he says. "As they get older, I increase the distance.

"Probably the most common mistake is taking a dog that is seven to 12 months old and sending him out too far. The dog figures, Hey, I am out of his control out here. He's on his own, and you really don't want a young dog to learn that you do not have control. Don't send him out too far."

Proper lining can help you save birds that may otherwise have been lost. If a duck is wing-tipped and sails into the distance, use your dog's lining skills to send him in the specific direction of the downed bird. His confidence in you will keep him on a straight line. Once he is on his way, blow your training whistle, which should prompt your dog to turn to look at you for additional instructions. As he closes on the crippled bird, his nose will take over.

Mimicking realistic hunting scenarios in your training will also help your retriever develop a proper line. "When your training advances to include multiple bumpers, do not let the pup take the shortest one," Stewart advises. "Make him go after the longest. In most hunting situations, you will want to have your dog pursue the farthest bird first, so training him that way from the start helps establish this pattern." 


During his long and distinguished career with DU magazine, the late Gary Koehler was among our most popular and prolific contributors. We are honored to share this previously unpublished column with our readers.

DECOY DISTRACTIONS Once you have introduced lining to your retriever, consider adding some decoys to the mix. The decoys may distract your dog as you put him through his paces. Your job is to teach your retriever to disregard these distractions.