When training for the NAVHDA Invitational last year, I taught Zara how to do a 100 yard blind retrieve across the water to get a dead duck. This was a completely new skill to her and although she didn’t pass the blind retrieve during the actual test, I do believe she understood the concept and my training process was effective.
In the summer of 2021, I started laying the foundation for Zara’s blind retrieve training. I was planning on entering the Utility Test one last time that fall and I knew if she got a Prize 1, I was going to take her to the Invitational. Since I had some time, I figured I’d start the basics. The first thing I did was choose a new command. While some people use the same command that they use for any retrieve (such as “fetch”), I wanted a unique command that meant “go out straight and get something you haven’t seen fall.” Many people use the word “back” for a blind retrieve. I had done some work teaching Zara to walk backwards using “back” and I didn’t want to confuse her. Instead, I chose to use the word “blind.” It was short, unique, and easy to say loudly. I also included a prep command to tell her that another command was coming. So I would set her up, say “set” and then once she was looking in the correct direction, I would say “blind.” I figured if I just said “blind,” she may not be paying attention. I could have used “ready” but since I use that at other times (“ready for a walk?”), I chose “set” (ready, set, go).
When people teach their dogs to retrieve (either via force fetch or another technique), the process often includes pile drills. For this exercise, several objects such as bumpers are placed in a pile and the dog is sent to the pile over and over to retrieve an object. The handler can start close to the pile and back up, so the dog is eventually retrieving at quite a distance (could be 100 yards or more). I did this with Zara and I also did some short blind retrieves where I’d throw an object into cover when she was not looking, such as a patch of bushes and vines in my yard, and then bring her out. I’d direct her to the cover and give a fetch command. Both of these techniques transferred well to the beginning of my blind retrieve training.
Go Out Straight to Get Something
During this time, I watched a webinar that was presented by Jo Laurens, a force-free gundog trainer who is based in the UK. She described how she taught dogs to do blind retrieves across land by using a white pole and a food bowl in the beginning. I followed this process to introduce Zara to the new “blind” command and the concept.
To start, I stuck a white pole into the ground in my yard and placed a plastic bowl in front of it. Then I brought Zara close to it (probably about 6 feet away to start) and held her by the collar. I tossed some treats into the bowl as she was watching. I said, “Blind!” and released her to get the treats. When she returned to me, I repeated the exercise. I did this for a few days.
Once she had the hang of going to the bowl, I added a bumper. I stood a short distance from the white pole, held her by the collar, and threw the bumper to the white pole. Then I released her with the “blind” command. Even though I could have made her stay steady until I released her with a “whoa” command, Jo’s webinar recommended holding the dog instead so that they were eager to get the bumper instead of having to use self-control for steadiness. I always rewarded her with some food when she returned with the bumper.
I threw bumpers at the white pole while holding Zara’s collar to build the association between “going out straight and getting something” and the “blind” command.
Eventually I moved to placing a pile of bumpers next to the white pole while Zara was not looking. Then I brought her up and sent her to the white pole using the “blind” command. At first, I started very close (10 feet) to the pole. I gradually increased the distance until she was doing this at about 30 yards in my yard.
The next step was sending Zara on a true “blind” retrieve when she hadn’t seen me place the pile of bumpers near the white pole. However, I started close to the pole, where she could clearly see it.
Blind Retrieves Along a Fence
Once Zara understood what “blind” meant, and was easily doing the repetitions in my yard, it was time to increase the distance and try new locations. I talked to one of my NAVHDA friends, Stacy, and she recommended setting the bumper pile and white pole along a straight fence line. I started with Zara close to the pile (about 30 yards) and then backed up along the fence. This worked very well and the fence helped to keep her running straight. Eventually I got her doing 120 yard blind retrieves along a fence. I found several locations that had long fence lines – a baseball diamond at a local park, the fences at the bird dog clubs I belong to, a fenced dog park, and a soccer field at another park.
Practicing blind retrieves along a fence. This one was about 75 yards. Soon after this, I refined the way I positioned my hands to send her to make it more clear.
Blind Retrieves Toward an Objective
Once Zara was reliably doing long blind retrieves along the fence, it was time to move away from it. Stacy recommended sending Zara toward an objective – something like a clump of trees, a gate, a large bush. While it seemed easy enough in theory, I found that Zara really struggled with this part of the training. She would go out straight for several yards but then veer off and start searching. She did not really seem to see the objectives, even when I placed the white pole in front of them. I tried it in different locations for a few weeks, with varying success.
Blind retrieve toward an objective (a raised sewer cover). Note the clearer hand positioning.
By this point, it was the beginning of July, and I needed to transition Zara to doing blind retrieves across water. The Invitational is held in September so I needed to make sure I had enough time to get her confident doing water blinds. So even though she wasn’t super solid on the blind retrieves toward an objective, I chose to move on.
To start, I had someone stand on the other side of a channel of water and show Zara the object the first few times. I also transitioned to using dead ducks at this point. Before then, I had been using bumpers or dokkens. They would call her name, show her the duck, place it on the shore, and hide. Then I would send her using my command. The first blind retrieve across water we did was about 50 yards.
Zara’s first blind retrieve across water in July 2022. My friend shows her the duck initially and then hides before I send her. This was about 50 yards.
Once she got the hang of that, I sent her on “cold” blinds where a friend would place the duck without her seeing it. When I trained last year, I always had someone on the other side of the water just in case she had trouble. This way, if she had gotten most of the way across, that person could call her name and encourage her to keep going. This was especially useful once I increased the distance to 75 yards or more.
I felt like she understood the concept of “cross the water to get a duck” pretty well. While she didn’t always swim an exact straight line, once she got on the far shore, she could usually find the duck using her nose. I tried to practice in as many places as possible and I varied the distances. One day I would do a 75 yard blind, the next time I would do a 40 yard one. Then an 80 yard, then a 50 yard. I hoped that would build her confidence. On average, I did about two blind retrieve sessions per week in July and August into early September. I worked up to just over 100 yards.
I was very particular about how Zara was lined up before I sent her so she would swim straight out when I sent her.
At the Invitational, if your dog struggles on the blind retrieve, you are allowed to give them additional commands to help them get across the water or find the duck. For example, if your dog swims about halfway across and then turns around and starts coming back to you, you can give them another “blind” command to tell them to turn back around and go to the far shore. Or if they make it to land, but start running the bank in the opposite direction of the duck, you can whistle or call their name to get their attention and then give them a left or right “over” command to tell them to run in the other direction. This is called “casting” or “handling.” While excessive commands are not allowed, if your dog takes a few well-timed commands, you can still earn a high score.
Before I started this training, I listened to Episode 132: Handling 101 (Force Fetch 5) of the Gun Dog It Yourself podcast before I started teaching casting commands to Zara. I found Bob Owens’ description very thorough and helpful. I spent a good amount of time working on casting commands on land and Zara had a decent handle on them. But I never put in the time to transition them to water. This was a conscious decision I made – with everything else that I had to work on, it was just going to be too much to fit it in.
I tried to give Zara a casting command at the IT last year, but she didn’t take it. If she did, we may have passed. This year, I am definitely putting in the time to work on a solid understanding of these commands on both land AND water.
Building the foundation of casting drills / T-pattern on land in 2022. I used a whistle, hand signals, and verbal commands to send her back and left and right.
Training with Distractions
Since the blind retrieve was new to Zara last year, I focused a lot on setting her up for success. I was particular about the locations I used for blind retrieves and I tried not to do very difficult blinds, where it might be confusing to her where to swim. This summer, I plan to add in more distractions and try more challenging scenarios. For example, I plan to train with a live duck near the send point. This will simulate the scenario we had at the Invitational in New Mexico. She kept going to an area of reeds and I had heard that people had seen live ducks in that area. I will also do a blind where someone throws a large rock into the water as she’s swimming across, to simulate a fish jumping out of the water. I want her to understand that the “blind” command means swim straight across the water and go get the dead duck no matter what, even if there are distractions.
So far, our training is going well this summer. We’ve already transitioned to water and she’s done blinds up to 75 yards. I look forward to continuing to refine this skill over the next few months.