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Teaching Blind Retrieves

Cover shaping can simplify the training of this must-master bird dog skill.

Teaching Blind Retrieves

Training for blind retrieves will make a more confident, capable hunting dog. (Photo By: Sven Mewis/Shutterstock.com)

With the fall progressing, the waterfowl are starting to move south again, and I am beginning to think about following them to warmer places. I have never been much of a duck hunter, and I have never really had the patience for or interest in training retrievers to a field trial standard. I am a spaniel guy who occasionally will suffer the presence of a Lab or a golden in the uplands provided the dog is small, athletic, and works close. I train flushers to work well on upland birds, and to have the skills necessary to ensure some good shooting and the retrieval of game for their owners or handlers. I aim to produce a dog that exhibits practical skills, and I personally don’t have a lot of use for a retriever that can accomplish a complex, 400-yard blind retrieve that requires whistle blasts and hand signals.

All that said, I do want my dogs to be capable of blind retrieves, albeit in a more utilitarian sense. I want to produce a dog that I can send on a straight line to a bird that I have marked down whether the dog saw the fall or not, and once that dog is close, I want him to use his nose to locate the bird. I also want a dog to take a similarly straight line back to me, delivering the bird to hand. If a dog can accomplish this definition of a blind retrieve within a hundred yards or so, I am happy.

In our thick Northeastern cover, it is rare for a hunter to watch an upland bird fall dead any farther than a hundred yards out. When I do witness such an event, rather than send a dog on an epic blind retrieve, I simply let the dog continue to hunt in the direction of the fall, supposing that the bird will have enough juice to flush again, run, or at least make for an easy cripple retrieve. There are, however, moments when obstacles or conditions make a blind retrieve a handy skill, which brings me to my topic here today. In this installment, I will outline what it takes to teach a flusher to make blinds in situations where the upland gunner may have significant trouble getting physically close to the fallen bird at all, and therefore needs to use a dog to hunt dead, locate, and retrieve a fallen bird. When followed incrementally, this process will establish a reliable blind retrieve that can be drilled and practiced indefinitely.

Cover Manipulation 

The northeast has four defined seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall—and each allows for a unique set of challenges and opportunities where gun dogs are concerned. What is most noteworthy about summer is how lush our cover gets, and how quickly a bare training field becomes a tangle of grass, brush, weeds, and brush. Keeping the training field in check can feel like a significant part of a trainer’s weekly work, especially in June and early July. But fast-growing cover and the required mowing provides an interesting opportunity for us flushing dog trainers. A trainer can literally manicure the environment into a series of varying cover types, gradations that range from close-cropped, nearly bare ground all the way to thick, dense scrub. These physical gradations in cover can be utilized as training tools, particularly when they are manipulated to create physical boundaries either confining a dog, or to establish obstacles that the dog must overcome. Nowhere does this manipulation of the landscape prove more valuable than in the process of teaching a blind retrieve.

Flat-Coated Retriever dog training
Use available cover and structure to put your dog on the path to success when teaching blind retrieves. (Photo By: Sven Mewis/Shutterstock.com)

As the cover grows in early summer, my friend Danny Lussen and I always mow a long, hundred-yard strip in the shady section of our training field, maybe eight feet wide or so. We keep this pathway mowed through the season, even as the brush and grass grow up on either side of it. That growing brush creates a physical and psychological obstacle. In the training I am about to describe, we want to create a straight, walled-in channel that allows a dog to pursue his target along a defined straight line.

The teaching of a blind retrieve begins once a dog has an established sit or “hup” command. The drilling requires two people. The handler can “hup” or sit the dog at one end of the mown path, and the helper can advance along the path a short distance, say 25 yards. With the dog “hupped” at the heel of the handler, the helper drops a dead bird or bumper in the visible middle of the mown path. The helper should drop the bird or bumper in such a way that the dog sees it fall, ensuring that the dog’s focus is on this clear mark. Once the mark is dropped and the focus established, the handler can release the dog. In a perfect scenario, the dog makes a hard charge to the target, picks it up, and retrieves it back to hand. The wall of cover that establishes the path will ensure a straight retrieve, and a dog with bumper or bird in-hand will return on a straight line to the handler.


Progression to Blind 

Over time, the same process can be repeated with distance between handler and helper steadily increasing. Eventually, though, we incorporate the “blind” element. To do so, the helper can drop a bird or bumper as usual, and as the dog is returning the bird or bumper to the handler, the helper can drop another bird or bumper in the middle of the path. Once the retrieve is complete, the handler “hups” the dog again and allows him to get focused on the bird or bumper that has seemingly appeared by magic in the path. Note, this first “blind drop” should be done close enough for the dog to see the mark. Once the handler sees the dog keyed on the second mark, he or she can release the dog with a “hunt dead” or “go get it” command. The dog, with a clear visual on the target, will rush out and make the retrieve. This essentially makes a connection between a command and a desired outcome of work focused on a mark that the dog did not see fall.

Flat-Coated Retriever dog training
You may have to show your dog a few close marks before progressing to long-range blinds. (Photo By: Sven Mewis/Shutterstock.com)

Moving up through the drilling, the helper repeats this drop increasingly farther away from the entry to the path. As the initial retrieve is made, and the second bird or bumper is dropped while the retrieve is in progress and the dog’s back is turned, the increasing distance makes the dog’s ability to ascertain the target visually less likely. Instead, at 40, 50, and 60 yards the dog must trust that the command “hunt dead” means that a bird lies out there somewhere, and with alignment down the path, the dog will gladly run a straight line towards the promise of a bird or bumper. Final ascertainment of the mark will require the nose, but as the distance is lengthened, the handler will learn of line up the dog down the path, and the dog will make a straight run with the conviction that some distance out there, a desirable target is waiting.

But what if the dog fails? What if he flags, comes up short, or goes off the path and into the heavy cover to search? In this case, just dial the distance back, and establish visual focus on the mark before the release. Drilling this will re-affirm that upon the release command, a desirable target will exist whether visible or not, and the most direct way toward that reward is a straight line.


The beauty of this drilling is the number of skills that it enables us trainers to cement for a dog. First, there is the “hup” command and then the release of the dog towards a visual retrieve, which drills steadiness and control. The linear physical corridor of the mown “path” establishes an intense retrieve, and the physical walls of the path force the retrieve to take a line straight back to the handler. Anticipation of release on the initial retrieve heightens prey-drive, and the visual process of establishing a mark similarly heightens intensity upon the release. With the second drop, and the subsequent drilling of the “blind,” the dog learns that a second release and the use of a specific command such as “hunt dead” or “get it” means that there is, definitively, a dead bird or cripple up ahead. This conviction and establishment of trust will enable you to send a dog toward a target he did not see fall, and to use his nose to hunt for that target upon arrival at the destination. All of these processes can be dialed back in distance when the dog fails or lapses and can therefore engage more senses (eyes and nose) for maximum success in repetition.

Flat-Coated Retriever with dog training dummy
The ultimate goal of teaching blind retrieves is to confidently send your dog out to trust their nose and eyes to locate the prize. (Photo By: Sven Mewis/Shutterstock.com)

Teaching the blind, at least in practical terms, is a simple lesson cemented by repetition, stairstep increase of distance, and a good lawnmower. Anyone who tells you otherwise is working way too hard.

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