Old Dogs, New Tricks

It’s been a while since I tried to teach my springer spaniel, “Hunter,” 8, a new trick. For that matter, it’s been an even longer time since I’ve tried to learn something new to teach a hunting dog.
Thus, I set out to learn how to teach Hunter directional retrieving, that is, getting him to go where I point on a blind retrieve. When learning a new trick I usually consult first with another hunting dog owner for advice. While visiting longtime Pheasants Forever photographer Dale C. Spartas at his place in Big Timber, Montana, last month, I watched with admiration as he ran his black Lab, “Callie,” through a retriever training session, which she performed flawlessly. 
I’ve trained Hunter on blind retrieves before using the ‘back’ command. But, I never really trained him to venture beyond 20 yards, a mistake. So, since his last training, he’s regressed to the point that he just runs out maybe 10 yards before turning back.
To ‘lengthen’ him out, Dale said put the dummy progressively further out. I put Hunter on ‘sit’ and let him see I have the dummy before moving out of sight and placing the dummy. Then I return to his side and give the command ‘back.’ This has worked fine so far. I’ll see how it goes afield this fall.
For directional retrieves, Dale suggested the wagon wheel or lining drill. It goes like this: I put Hunter on ‘sit.’ Then, I toss out three dummies, one left, one right and straight out, calling out ‘mark’ each time. I have Hunter sit facing me on a check cord and then proceed to direct him by hand (right dummy, point with the right hand, left same) to whatever dummy I want him to retrieve. I mix up the order to keep him paying attention to my hand direction. If he goes after the wrong one, I use the check cord to pull him back, put him on ‘sit’ again and give it another go. You can also skip the check cord and use a whistle to stop the dog before re-issuing the command.
So far, it’s working. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Hunter is catching on quick, although when I mixed up the routine (two dummies only), he got a bit confused. But that’s part of the training. I want to make sure he’s actually following my hand direction and not just doing it from memory. 
The basis of blind retrieves is trust – your dog must trust there will be a pot of gold (a dummy or bird) at the end of the rainbow.
If you’ve ever shot a bird your dog doesn’t see and have had to throw sticks or rocks (water retrieves) toward the downed bird to get your dog to initiate a retrieve, you’ll realize the value of this training. Good luck out there this season.

-Mark Herwig is editor of the Pheasants Forever Journal and Quail Forever Journal.