The blind retrieve has three parts: lining, in which the handler initially sends his dog toward the downed bird; stopping, in which he uses the sit-whistle to stop his dog whenever necessary to redirect the wandering animal; and casting, in which he redirects his dog with arm and whistle signals. In this article we’ll focus on effective lining, that is, on how the handler can initially launch his dog toward the downed bird in a manner that minimizes the need for subsequent stopping and casting.
When sent on a blind retrieve, a well-trained retriever uses “pictures” to guide him. Because of his extensive training on pattern blinds that encourage him to use pictures plus his actual experiences in real blind retrieves, he has almost unconsciously “pasted many pictures in his album.” Consequently, when the boss tells him he’s about to run a blind retrieve, the savvy beast surveys the scenery before him and then sifts through his picture album looking for a reasonable match. When he finds a spot out there in front of him that somewhat resembles one of his pictures, he locks in on that spot, and if sent will run straight to it.
Clearly, the handler’s most important job in setting his dog up for a blind retrieve lies in helping him select the correct picture. With that properly done, the rest of the blind retrieve usually goes well. However, if the dog starts out with the wrong picture, what follows may well turn into a hack job: Tweet! Over! Tweet! Back! Tweet! Over! Tweet! Back! And so on until either the dog stumbles on the bird or the handler blows the side out of his whistle. (Which has happened!)
To set your dog up properly, you should try to get his spine and his head lined up with the downed bird. Of the two, his head is the more important, for a dog that uses pictures will go where he’s looking, even if his spine is lined up a bit crooked. In a hunting situation, the easiest way to get him properly situated is to heel him a few paces directly toward the bird and then stop when he’s headed in the right direction.
In a field trial or hunt test, you should heel your dog to the line so that your last few steps are straight at the bird. Incidentally, if your dog always sits crooked when heeling, you should finesse him appropriately, that is, heel him in whatever slightly off-line direction it takes to get him to sit facing the bird.
Once your dog is sitting correctly, your next job is to tell him he’s about to do a blind retrieve, so he won’t gawk around looking for a mark. To do this, I’ve always said “Dead bird!”
Others use different cue-words. Take your choice. After proper training, whatever you use will tell your dog that looking for a marked retrieve is futile, that he should instead search for a suitable picture.
Once he grasps the notion that this will be a blind, not a mark, he’ll scan the scenery before him. Don’t interfere. Let him look. It won’t take him long to lock in on a picture, that is, to gaze intently at it.
By the position of his head, you can tell in which direction he has found his picture. Let’s assume it’s correct, or at least close enough for your purposes. In hunting, you have all the latitude you want in deciding what is close enough, but in a field trial or hunting test, you have to abide by the judges wishes, whether expressed or just generally understood. Frankly, in a field trial, a “P.I.L” (Poor Initial Line) will seldom win anything for you above a green rosette. And, these days, judging jest ain’t all that different in hunt tests, either.
If your dog has an acceptable picture, you should confirm his choice verbally, perhaps with a soft “Good.”
If he has an unacceptable picture, you should first tell him of his error with “No!” and then guide him onto a better one. Field trialers and hunt testers have developed all sorts of esoteric hand, arm, leg, and body motions to Gee and Haw their dogs just a tad, or even half a tad, this way or that.
It would surprise me only slightly to hear that some highly successful field trial pro is training dogs in his string to shift around by following Morse code instructions tapped out by the handler’s toes. You know, left toe messages to move the dog to the left, and right toe messages to move him to the right. Even that wouldn’t be foolproof. Some of his clients would forget whether his dog was trained in metric or English units of measure and would tap misleading messages.
In hunting, where an unacceptable picture is usually quite some considerable distance from perfect, you should re-heel your dog and set him up again. Don’t try to move his head this way or that by waving your hand around above him. You want your dog focused “out there” where all the pictures are, not on your hand. Methinks that, for hunters, using the hand in lining is usually pointless, and sometimes counter-productive. If the dog has a good picture, he’ll go to it, with or without guidance from the boss’ big paw.
If, after this re-positioning, he comes up with another bad picture, repeat the drill. If he keeps selecting the same erroneous picture after two or three corrections, you should put a little more emotion into your “No!” before you reposition him. If you’ve convinced him in training that all manner of evils might befall him if he persists in this behavior, he’ll comply with your wishes under non-training conditions
Once you have your dog properly lined up on a picture that is acceptable for your present needs, confirm it with “Good!”
This is the word most retrieverites use to send their dogs on blind retrieves. This practice started many decades ago in a totally illogical manner. Some retriever sage “reasoned” that since, in casting, he sends his distant dog farther away with “Back!” it would make sense to send him from his side on blind retrieves with the same word, rather than on the dog’s call name, which is used on marks. However, if the dog were actually to make the connection between being cast farther away and being originally sent with the same word, he would react identically in both cases. Thus, he would spin around 180 degrees before starting to run.
That works fine on the cast, but in lining it’s exactly the opposite of what the handler wants. Happily, our retrievers are no more logical than was the inventor of this curious custom. Or maybe they just humor us. Either way, on the same word, “Back,” they run forward when lined and to the rear when cast.
After you confirm your dog’s picture with “Good,” you should immediately send him with “Back!” If you wait, hesitating uncertainly, he too will become uncertain and start looking for another picture. That means you’ll have to set him up all over again.
Look at it this way: If you’re not convinced he has everything right, you shouldn’t say “Good.” If you’re sure enough of his picture to say “Good,” you should be sure enough to send him immediately, before he changes something. In judging, I’ve often agonized watching an inexperienced handler freeze after saying “Good.” Predictably, the dog changes his picture and equally predictably the handler panics and sends his dog in the wrong direction. What follows usually ain’t purty.
On the other hand, when the handler sends his dog immediately after saying “Good,” the dog usually takes a nice line and collects the downed bird with a minimum of further handling. On a good day, the beloved beast might actually line the blind. Even on a middlin’ day, he’ll usually find it with two to four whistles.
Clearly, precise lining is the key to clean blind retrieves.
Nota Bene: Jim Spencer’s books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.