By Mike Stewart
One of the most exhilarating and rewarding aspects of developing a finished waterfowl retriever is training the dog to run blinds, that is to pick up birds the dog didn't see fall. Little else in the gundog world will equal the thrill of being directly involved with a retriever, one on one, as the dog boldly goes out to a fall area to locate an unseen bird under complete control, returning promptly to make a retrieve to hand. Successful blinds are a visible testament to anyone's training efforts.
Our goal is to develop a hunting companion that has the trust and confidence in his handler to go out enthusiastically for a retrieve without seeing anything fall, just because the line was set and the retrieve/release command was given. That's when all the hard work comes to fruition... the natural game-finding ability achieved through genetics, the dog's intelligence and the skills trained into the dog, combined with the dog's confidence in the handler that there is a retrieve to be made.
Successful blinds are mutual victories for both the dog and the handler, and the achievement will likely mark the pinnacle of the overall training experience.
Let's briefly look at the four fundamental skill sets necessary to run successful blinds.
A line is simply the dog's most direct route of travel to the bird. Holding a line implies that the dog will run a straight line to the fall regardless of influences and distractions. Primarily, lining skills are developed at Wildrose through sight, trailing memories. Initially, a barrier edge is used to provide support for the young dog to run straight. One may incorporate a fence, field road, ditch edge or wood line to encourage holding a straight line. As the young dog's lining confidence and skills improve, we eliminate the "crutch" of the straight edge and begin to incorporate various types of terrain. Permanent blinds involve the dogs' running to a familiar location where they have successfully found bumpers in training. Permanent blinds are confidence builders and serve as a transitional step to cold blinds. Cold blinds, as the name implies, are blinds that are run in new, unfamiliar locations. The locations may differ, but the sequences to line and release the dog are identical to previous exercises, so confidence is transferred.
The retriever must respond well to whistle commands and cast effectively in order for corrections to be made to the line if necessary. Dogs must reliably:
- Stop on the whistle promptly; a slow stop can put the dog further out of line.
- Recall quickly under all conditions.
- Hunt back toward the handler, slowly searching for a fallen bird. This is usually a different whistle signal than the recall whistle.
Casting requires the dog to drive deep and straight back on command, and to take right and left casts with accurate lines. The dog must be conditioned to take and hold straight lines given by hand signals until stopped or until bird scent is discovered. A dog that does not handle properly cannot be adjusted to the correct line to the fallen bird, a vital requirement to running successful blinds.
The third necessary skill for effective blinds requires the dog to hunt the fall area thoroughly. This is where the nose counts. What we want are effective game finders trained to hunt cover, marsh or thickets on command after a whistle stop. The dog's drive on the line is interrupted in the general area of the fall. Wind direction must be considered. The "hunt" command causes the dog to devour the area in a methodical search for the bird. The dog should remain (or hold) in the area, land or water, throughout the hunt unless otherwise directed. The competent retriever should also possess the perseverance to handle diving, wounded waterfowl and the skill to track runners (injured birds making an escape) as often occurs.
Last but not least is the dog's confidence in his handler. Confidence enough to go out with enthusiasm and accuracy on the line without even seeing any indication that there is a bird to retrieve. Blinds require the dog to trust that there is a bird down and his hunting pal will help locate his reward, the retrieve. This level of confidence and trust is built slowly in training through daily success. "Make haste slowly" is always our rule. Never test the dog above his limits. The dog's confidence in himself and his handler is established through repetitive successes, not failures. Interdependence is the relationship between the dog and the handler that must be established to run blinds effectively in the field.
There is little else in dog training to equal the thrill of your retriever picking his first blind on the hunt. So often our retrievers do not see the birds go down. The dog's ability to handle blinds may mean the difference between whether or not the bird is recovered. The retriever's ability to pick those unseen, fallen birds remains a very important aspect of the dog's role as a game finder... to bring back the ones we can't get.