Starting a Retriever Gundog Puppy on Blind Retrieves

Field Trial 064

The conservation aspect of a retriever’s job is exercised by his ability to collect the crippled birds quickly before they have a chance to run off or swim off to die uncollected. Often pup will have to ignore closer lying and quite tempting dead birds in order to retrieve the cripples first. Many times the cripple will be the very bird that he did not see fall. In that case pup must be guided to the cripples area of fall by a sequence of whistle stops and hand signals. This might seem to be a daunting training task, but if done in the right sequence it is remarkably easy.

The term I give to this important aspect of a gundog’s work is “the long unseen cripple”. There is a definite series of steps in pup’s life that will make it easy for you to train him to a great degree of proficiency on the behaviors for retrieving the long unseen cripple. The one most important factor in making it easy to teach pup blind retrieves is to not give him any marked retrieves. A marked retrieve is the retrieve of an object (bird, dummy, tennis ball, etc.) that pup has seen fall. He has been hard-wired through the genetic selection of two hundred years to go for falling objects. The retrieving of those seen falls is like crack cocaine to a retriever pup. He can’t get enough of it. When a puppy has had a number of marked retrieves, it becomes much more difficult to teach him blind retrieves. Conversely, if he has not had marked retrieves, he doesn’t know what he is missing and he loves blind retrieves.

The only other prerequisites for blind retrieves are having a little obedience and being steady enough to sit while you toss a dummy out 10 feet to become the blind retrieve, The most  important behavior for blind retrieves is stop/look (at handler) when a whistle signal is given.. Pup will also have greater probability of success when he has completed the period of extremely fast growth that encompasses his first 6 months of life. During that first 6 months most of his energy his going into growth and he does not have a lot left over for long  retrieves.

The basic trick to training pup on blind retrieves lies in making sure he is always successful. Then he will learn rapidly. The key to success lies in pup’s inherent GPS system. Pup can always find his way back to a place that he has been before, especially if that place contains something that he wants. One extreme example happened with me back in the 70’s when I was running field trials. I was driving across Wyoming with a truckload of 16 Labradors and stopped late one afternoon at a wildlife management area to let the dogs get out and exercise. It was an ideal spot with a large area of ponds bordered with cattails and well off the highway. I turned out all the dogs and let them run and play in the water for a few minutes. One of them got off some distance across a couple of ponds and happened to flush a mallard hen off of her nest. She proceeded to act like an injured duck and lured the dog away from the nest. The last sight I had of the dog was a tiny black figure disappearing over a ridge in the distance. I called in and loaded all the other dogs and drove around for an hour looking for the miscreant. I had no success, so I went back to the place where the truck had been parked for the let out. I tossed a jacket on the ground and went to the nearest town and had dinner and spent the night. The next morning I went back to the coat, and there sat the dog. He knew exactly where that truck had been parked when he took off. When you think about it, mother nature had to equip dogs with a good GPS. When an ancestral bitch had a litter of puppies, she had to support them and herself by hunting. The hunt might take her miles away from the pups in their den. She had to be able to find her way back to them. Similarly, when an ancestral dog found a valley teeming with rabbits, or a section of stream with a lot of fish to catch, he needed to be able to find it again when he got hungry.


Whistle Stop
The most important element in the blind retrieve is the whistle stop. The handler gives a “toot” on the whistle to which the dog responds by stopping and looking at the handler, who gives the dog a directional cast toward the unseen fall. To accomplish a blind retrieve, note that sitting on a whistle “toot” is not required. The dog can quite proficiently accomplish a blind retrieve by simply looking at the handler in response to a whistle signal. The dog doesn’t need to sit to get it done. First understand that a dog’s hearing is four times better than a human’s is. If you train pup to stop/look when he is close to you with a loud whistle blast, then he will not be very responsive to the soft sound he will hear when he is 200 yards away. Therefore, when he is within 30 yards, keep the whistle volume very low.

Here are the steps leading to pup’s learning to get the long unseen cripple:
1. Take the dog for a walk and encourage him to get out away from you. When he’s 8 or 10 feet away give a soft “toot” on the whistle. When he glances back at you throw him a tennis ball. Note that the behavior is “stop/look”. The payment is the tennis ball. Take a quarter-inch drill and drill a hole through a tennis ball. Thread a 8” piece of nylon rope through it. Knot each end of the rope. This will give you a “handle” that enables longer throws, and thus payments at greater distances.
2. Repeat the whistle-stop payment 3 or 4 times. End the lesson. Skip at least one day before another lesson. Do 2 or 3 lessons and then proceed to #3.
3. On the this lesson sit pup and throw a dummy out 20 yards. Send pup. As he picks up dummy, give a “toot”. When he looks at you throw a tennis ball out to him. He will spit out the dummy and go for the ball.
4. Repeat step 3, but give the toot when he is half-way to the dummy. When he stops and looks at you throw the tennis ball. If he doesn’t stop, then go back and repeat step 3.
A few sessions of this activity will have pup crisply looking to you on hearing a whistle “toot”. Then he is ready for the long unseen cripple lessons.

Long Unseen Cripple
Using dummies we will recreate the scenario of two close dead birds downed close with a long unseen cripple 30 yds out. We will use pup’s position-finding talent to insure his success. Start in a field with minimal cover where you can run pup on a 30 yd memory retrieve. The dog will learn faster and to a higher level if one or more days off occur between training sessiions. In other words, every other day is better than every day for training. The goal of the exercise is not to line the blind. Conversely the goal is to send pup to the area where he thinks there is a bird, and let him hunt a little. Then handle him away from “his” area and to a fall. This allows him to be rewarded with the “find” for moving his hunt area from “his” to “yours”. This programs into pup the behaviors needed to find those tough, long unseen falls that he will get in real life hunting, where generally the location of the long unseen cripple is pretty fuzzy in everyone’s minds.

1. Session 1 – Taking pup at heel with you, go out 30 yards and drop the a dummy representing the unseen cripple. Then return with pup half way back to your starting point. Stop, turn and send pup the 15 yds to pick up the unseen. Then take him with you to put the long unseen back again. This time take him back the full 30 yards and send him again to pick it up. This will fix the unseen’s position for the next lesson, which should come the day after tomorrow.
2. Session 2 – Return to the scenario of session 1. Take pup out with you to place the long unseen.
Then put a couple of short “dead birds” to handle him away from on his way to the long unseen cripple. To simulate the “dead birds”, leave pup sitting and walk out in a line 30 degrees to the left of the line to the unseen. At about 10 yards, stop and throw two dummies with good lofting throws of about 30 feet (away from the line to unseen). Then walk over and pick the 2 dummies up. This will insure that pup will be successful on the exercise. Then walk back in to pup. Send him toward the two falls you just picked up. When he gets to the area of those 2 falls, let him hunt a second or two, and then give him a whistle toot. If he looks at you, start walking toward the long unseen cripple. If he gets off course “toot again” and again when he looks signal by walking the direction he needs to go. You will over a number of sessions fade the walking signal down to a hand signal.
If he does not look, keep giving a toot every 3 or 4 seconds, until he does. If he doesn’t stop and look for you to give him a walking hand signal, then terminate the exercise and do a few whistle stopping exercises tomorrow, returning to the long unseen exercise in a few days.

After 6 or 8 sessions on the basic model of unseen cripple drill, the dog will be fairly proficient. Then you need to start making the distances longer and raise the distraction level by moving it to different fields, and adding distractions such as other dogs running around while yours is performing, adding shots, and sometimes using birds. Keep picking up the “short dead falls” until the dog is totally proficient on all variations of the drill. Keeping the dog successful is the key to a fast, easy training program. .
When your dog is proficient at this long unseen cripple drill in a number of variations, he is ready to become, with some hunting experience, a fabled “dog of a lifetime”.

3 thoughts on “Starting a Retriever Gundog Puppy on Blind Retrieves

  1. I this training method and understand the concepts. However, I tried step one of the whole process with my dog and she seems to pay no mind to the root on the whistle, let alone look back at me. What do I do in this situation?

    1. The whistle toot is the cue. The behavior is look at the trainer. The reward is throw the ball for a retrieve
      If you need to start with the dog 3 ft from you, do so. Then move it out. As soon as she sees the throw a couple of times she will know where to look when the whistle toot occurs.

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