Better Blind Retrieves

One trainer insists that straight lines are essential

by Dave Carty

Jeff Jordan had just returned from a training session and was winding down over the phone.

"There's really not much difference at all between a blind retrieve performed in the field and one that's performed in a trial or hunt test," he said.

I pressed him for an explanation. Aren't there situations in the field when it is in the dog's best interest to go around a hazard rather than through it? Not often, Jordan said.

"Even when hunting, (straight lines on a blind) are still important," says Jordan. "If, for instance, a dog tries to run around a bank, it may lose the mark on the bird and never recover, because its point of reference keeps changing."

That claim may not get nods of agreement from everybody, but there is no arguing with Jordan's experience: He's a lifelong hunter, and, for the past dozen years, a full-time dog trainer and the owner of Intrepid Retrievers, a kennel located in Bennett, Colorado.

Taking straight lines is essential to blind retrieves, a part of a retriever's education that Jordan, a former zookeeper, doesn't take lightly. Before he's through, Jordan's charges will have had months of drills, each one building upon the last. But first things first.

"Any time you approach teaching blind retrieves, you have to start at the beginning," Jordan says, "and everything starts with force fetching. Force fetching teaches the dog how to shut off pressure... and once they've learned how to deal with pressure and shut it off (from an ear pinch or toe hitch), then we can expand the training to the collar and get more control at a distance."

The goal is to get the dog to master single and multiple blind retrieves at distances of up to 300 yards. But that kind of performance does not happen overnight.

"First comes force fetching, then we move to walking fetches, then to the ladder," Jordan says.

In the ladder drill, bumpers are placed in a line roughly 10 feet apart and within sight of the dog.

"Up to that point, we have the dog on a leash and we're throwing him bumpers," he says. "But with the ladder, we don't throw the bumper; they're sitting on the ground in a row. It's almost like the dog's very first blind retrieve — we're no longer throwing an object; we're sending it to retrieve an object that's already there."

Next, Jordan works his dog on a pile of bumpers, teaching "overs" to the pile, right, left and back. At first, the dog is quite close to the pile — 6-8 feet — so Jordan can force the retrieve if the dog balks. Eventually, he increases the distance, using an electronic collar to provide pressure as needed. Then it is on to the baseball diamond exercise, an old standby in retriever-training circles. Jordan puts bumpers at first, second and third bases; has the dog sit at the equivalent of the pitcher's mound; and sends him for retrieves — a right and left "over" for the bumpers at first and third, a "back" for the bumper at second.

By now the dog is ready for some advanced obedience, so Jordan takes a break from retrieving lessons and works on getting the dog to sit and come to the whistle. When the dog's obedience is up to snuff, it gets to return to retrieving lessons — and more bumpers.

"Now, I'll put out the same piles I used for the baseball exercise, but instead of the dog sitting at the pitcher's mound, he'll be at home plate with me," Jordan explains. "I'll send him out, stop him at the pitcher's mound, then send him over (or back) to the piles."

When the dog has absorbed that task, it is worked through "T's," an exercise with two piles of dummies to the left and two to the right. It's an important step. With a right "over," for instance, the dog is sent past the close pile to make a retrieve from the more distant pile, teaching it to rely on the handler's commands. Then it is on to water "T's," during which the dog, once it has made a retrieve, say, on a left cast, is told to swim past the handler and to his right and is not allowed to leave the water until given the command to do so. This encourages the dog to maintain eye contact with the handler while simultaneously teaching it that water is a fun and safe place to be.

Finally, the dog is ready for the "blind" part of Jordan's blind retrieve training: channel blinds.

"We move to one end of the pond with a blind (bumper) set up at the opposite end," Jordan says. "Then we send the dog down the middle of the pond (the channel) to make the retrieve. When the dog gets that down, we start backing up until we're maybe 75 to 100 yards away from the pond before sending the dog, which has to make a long entry, then swim the length of the channel to get to the blind."

Before the dog graduates, Jordan will continue to fine tune it on drills — memory blinds, poison birds, cheating singles — too numerous to describe here. But as the dog learns to rely on its handler's commands, it learns to make blind retrieves. The upshot is a finished animal that performs snappy blind retrieves.

Jordan's slow, steady approach pays off.

"I'm not going to hunt behind anything less than a master hunter, because there's nothing a dog like that can't do for me. But more importantly," he says, "my hunts are going to be more fun."

For more information on blind retrieves, please reference The Fundamentals of Blind Retrieves