In a field trial or hunt test, one of the most difficult retrieves often involves a “poison” bird. This is a retrieve where a dog has to ignore an easy mark and complete a longer, often blind retrieve. Retrievers routinely encounter similar scenarios while hunting. For example, imagine a pair of greenheads pitching into the decoys. You shoot the duck on your side first, but instead of falling dead, the bird sails 80 yards and lands with its head up. Meanwhile, your partner cleanly folds the second duck, and it falls stone dead in the decoys 30 yards away. Not only is your partner’s duck an easier mark for the retriever, it’s also the last bird to fall, capturing the dog’s attention. But your duck is now swimming away and must be retrieved quickly. So you give the dog a line to retrieve the crippled duck first, forcing the dog to swim directly past the dead bird in the decoys. This retrieve tests the dog’s obedience, as well as its ability to execute your lining commands.
Lyle Steinman, a professional trainer who operates Castile Creek Kennels in Stewartsville, Missouri, believes in the value of an electronic collar for reinforcing obedience, particularly when working with dogs on distant blind retrieves. But being able to use a collar effectively from a distance starts with proper training up close. Steinman trains all his dogs with a good force-fetching foundation.
“The theory of obedience is that if you can’t control your dog at two feet, then you’re not going to be able to control him at 20 feet or 100 yards,” Steinman says. “A whistle and electronic collar are almost as important as your shotgun and shells.”
As for lining, Steinman trains his dogs using a variant of the “baseball diamond” drill. A bumper is placed on each of five “bases” around the diamond. The retriever is positioned on the pitcher’s mound, and the handler stands on home plate, where he uses hand signals to direct the dog to the bumpers. This drill teaches a retriever to follow the handler’s commands and to retrieve only the bumper to which it is directed.
Once your retriever has developed enough obedience to pass a visible dead bird, all that remains is to sharpen the dog’s performance on blind retrieves. Marking where a wounded bird falls is especially important in hunting situations. Always select a bush, tree, or other natural feature near where the bird landed as a reference point. Then simply give the dog a line to this landmark and allow the dog enough time to scent the downed bird before giving further commands.
Ice is one of the most dangerous elements faced by retrievers. Besides the obvious dangers of breaking through a hole and drowning, jagged ice can injure a dog. Consequently, Steinman makes sure his retriever is wearing a protective vest, both for warmth and protection, anytime the dog may encounter ice. And if he has any doubt about the safety of a retrieve, he won’t send the dog.
Stewart prepares his dogs for working in ice close to home, but he is careful how he does it. For starters, he never sends a young pup out on ice. A young dog’s coat isn’t thick enough yet, and if a pup has a bad initial experience with ice, the dog may refuse to retrieve in it later.
Stewart typically starts working a dog in ice and frigid water at 14 to 18 months of age. He begins by allowing the dog to become comfortable on ice by walking along a shallow, frozen shoreline where the water is only a couple of inches deep. “I just work on obedience here,” Stewart says. “Getting him to heel on ice is the first step.”
Next, Stewart begins sending the dog on short, shallow-water retrieves in thin ice that is easy to break. He wants the dog to learn to break through ice with its front feet while bounding. Only when the dog is older and has some experience does Stewart set up a longer retrieve that is likely to cause the dog to break through the ice and into deeper water. In this situation, he wants the dog to learn to use the solid ice to regain its footing and return to shore, so he conducts drills on ponds that are solidly frozen several yards from the bank.
“Always do your ice work in a controlled environment,” Stewart says. “Have your waders on, know how deep the water is, and be able to go get your dog if you need to. If you’re not sure about the water depth, don’t send the dog.”