By Gary Koehler

Even the most experienced retriever can't be expected to see every bird fall during a morning of hot shooting. It is at such times that being able to direct your dog with hand signals can make all the difference.

At long distances, verbal commands become impractical. Your retriever simply can't hear you. Factor in wind, waves, gunfire, and the excitement of the moment, and confusion can reign supreme. That is, unless you and your dog are in sync through the use of hand signals.

Training your retriever to respond to hand signals should actually begin long before you take the dog hunting. You can start by using hand signals in combination with verbal cues when teaching basic obedience. For the "down" command, for example, say "down" and motion toward the floor with your hand open, palm down. Early on, you may need to nudge or push on your retriever's back so the dog knows exactly what you are telling it to do.

A key element here is consistency. Use the same command every time. Do not deviate. If you do, you might as well be speaking to the dog in another language. Also, make sure the dog is looking at youif he's not, he's not going to read the sign language.

To my mind, there is no quick way to train a hunting dog. Shortcuts may work occasionally, but I would not count on them. To get the most out of your retriever, you must be patient and willing to put in the time. No two dogs are alike. Some are quick studies. Others take longer to grasp and master the task at hand.

Tactics vary by trainer, but one tried-and-true method for teaching your retriever to follow hand signals is the "baseball" drill. Visualize a baseball diamond and stand at the equivalent of home plate with your dog at heel. Walk with the dog to the middle of the diamond, where the pitcher's mound would be. Command the dog to sit and stay. Blow one burst on a training whistle. Toss one bumper to either first or third baseno more than 10 yards away is ideal. Walk back to home plate. Once there, extend your arm in the direction of the thrown bumper and release your dog to retrieve the bumper and bring it to you. Go slow. Start with one hand signal. Your retriever will eventually figure out that your outstretched arm is telling him the direction to go. The next training session, send the dog to the other base. And the third time out, send the retriever to second base with the "back" commandperhaps the most difficult of the three.

There are an untold number of training videos and books available that cover hand-signal trainingand everything elsein much more detail. Some trainers use exaggerated body language when sending, or casting, their dog after a bumper. Others use piles of bumpers and alternate casting drills. Electronic collars sometimes figure into the training. Most trainers use a whistle to signal the dog to pay attention and watch for hand signals. The entire exercise can get quite involved, but the lesson can be taught by amateur trainers. Corrections are often necessary. And good work should always be rewarded with praise.

If you have any doubts about the value of communicating with hand signals, consider this scenario: You stop your truck on a country road and get ready to haul decoys and gear into a field. Your retriever is released from its crate and immediately begins running around and sniffing the grass, as dogs are inclined to do. A vehicle approaches. Your dog is not by your side. You blow on your whistle to get the dog's attention and give the hand signal for "sit and stay." Your dog obeys the command. The vehicle passes by. You may have just saved your dog's life.

Fowl Fact: SAY WHAT?
Aging dogs sometimes develop hearing problems, and some retrievers become deaf for one reason or another. Hand signals then become the primary means of communication between owner and retriever.