Retriever training session. Image by Katie Behnke and Wildrose Kennels.jpg

Katie Behnke/Wildrose Kennels


Perhaps there is nothing more rewarding in the waterfowl hunter’s world than bringing a new retriever along on their first hunt and watching them make a perfectly executed retrieve. While any successful retrieve should be commended, many dogs possess enough natural instinct to be a functional fetch dog without a ton of refinement. This may be the result of quality breeding, but too often it leads owners to “leave well enough alone.” This is unfortunate, considering this new dog is essentially a clean slate and is going to be their best hunting buddy for a decade or so. Why not provide it with the highest level of training attainable?

The Fundamentals

When handler and hunting dog have a special connection that allows total control during a difficult retrieve, the odds of losing game decreases dramatically. Plus, it maintains a positive relationship with the handler and their working dog, which may grow less than cordial during a confusing scenario.

There are many resources to assist the process, including countless videos available online, as well as tried and true instructional books. Classics such as Water Dog: Revolutionary Rapid Training Method by Richard Wolters, first published in 1964 for example, is still cited by many veteran trainers as their primary instructional manual when it all began for them decades ago.

While techniques have advanced in many ways, the age-old basic premise of teaching directional commands still apply today. Obviously, basic obedience including whistle training, steadiness, and holding dummies at heal are pre-requisites, but the actual nuts and bolts of casting a dog with hand signals and whistle is fairly basic.

The process not only develops a better retriever but can also be very rewarding for both man and beast. Some dogs may require a little more investment in time, but many require only relatively short sessions a few times a week to become better hunting dogs, and it’s well worth the effort. Before you know it, you’ll be handling your young retriever on complicated blinds in November.

Small Steps and Drills

The key is following the process at a pace the trainee is comfortable with. Professional trainers have been refining techniques for decades to not only achieve the best results, but also do it relatively quickly. Steve Smith of Otter Tail Kennels in Wisconsin has some good advice for trainers attempting to develop a great retriever.

“I will start hand signals on the force-fetch table,” says Smith. “As soon as the dog is picking bumpers up off the table, I’ll sit the dog on one end of the table and put the bumper on the other end, then give them the hand signal to go that direction and say, “fetch.” It’s a quick easy introduction and I think it pays off when I get to the yard to start baseball.”

Baseball, in this case, does not include bats and fastballs, but these drills do utilize the approximate layout of a baseball diamond to line dogs (typically from the theoretical pitcher’s mound) to the bases where they pick up a throwing dummy. At the very least throwing dummies are left at each base position for the dog to pick up, but this process can be expedited by using buckets, marking cones or other cues that aid the pup in quickly identifying the exact location of dummies and thus encouraging them to run a straight line.

Smith continues, “When I get to the baseball diamond, I like to use a flat, evenly mowed yard. Instead of white buckets to mark the bumper piles, I use old plain white t-shirts on hangers on the blind stakes. They offer a bigger target for the dog to see, take up less space in the truck, and get the dog used to looking for a viable gunner in the field on marks if you want to do any field trial style training.” 

One benefit is most dogs have great success picking up on this game, so training sessions usually end on a high note. This is important because few things build trust between handler and the dog more than success and the happiness that goes along with it. When pup is wagging that tail and licking the trainer at the end of a session, life is good.

While the basic premise remains the same, some trainers have added hacks that improve their ability to work dogs, but not make it so easy that the odds of failure in the field increases. “A lot of people ask me why I don’t mow paths in taller grass to teach “overs” and angles,” Smith explains. “To me, I think that teaches a dog to avoid cover and just take an easier path. I see a lot of dogs running out for a mark, get on a trail and follow it instead of busting into the cover. I always wonder if that was because they were taught in baseball to follow the path and to find something.”

Individual Pacing

“Focusing on your pup’s frame of mind is key to sending the correct message when handling a young dog,” says Chris Writt of Writz Kennels in Northern Indiana. “For instance, is the pup focused on the intended line, or are they head swinging, anxious, or uneasy? Working this out also builds confidence in the handler and dog’s relationship.” 

Taking into consideration the pup’s demeanor and ability to retain lessons is critical throughout the process of teaching directional commands. Some dogs may file a single lesson permanently in the memory banks, while others need some reminding. In the end, the handler’s patience, consistent instruction, and the ability to maintain the critical balance of trust and authority are what drives the pup to buy in. This is how trainer and trainee form a steadfast bond that will maximize success in the field.