Part II: The 'miracle' of handling


Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part series on teaching your dog to handle. For part one, click here.

It's an all-too-familiar scene in the duck blind. A bird drops into some heavy cover on the far side of the pond, a bird the retriever didn't see fall and doesn't know is there.

For some lucky hunters, collecting that bird is as easy as pointing their dog in the right direction and handling it to the fall with a few blasts on a whistle, a few handle signals and some verbal commands — back … over … back. The dog obeys each direction change and swims to the spot like a guided missile.

The hunter whose dog hasn't been trained to handle… well, I hope he has a good pair of waders or is handy on the oars.

In a previous column we established that training a dog to handle is a systematic process, and we completed two of the seven steps for getting the job done: Three-handed casting and run/force to pile.

In this column we'll finish the blueprint, covering the Single T, Double T, Water T, Pattern Blinds and Cold Blinds.

If you've been working on the first two steps, your retriever should be reliably leaving your side when sent for a back pile approximately 100 yards away and should be honoring all stop whistles and back casts. Getting the dog to leave on the back command should no longer be an issue, so it is time to add the first set of over piles.

The Single T

The setup for this step begins with a pile of dummies about 100 yards away, as in the previous step. We then add piles about 70 yards out and 30 yards to each side of the original line to the back pile. The piles should be composed of white dummies, and they should be clearly visible from the line. When properly constructed the setup should resemble a lower case letter "t", hence the name.

We begin by sending the dog to the back pile from our side. As with the previous step, you should start with the dog close to the pile and gradually back away with each send.

Once you have moved some distance from the back pile, say 60 or 70 yards, the dog may be tempted to veer to the side piles. When this happens do not become frustrated and recall the dog. Instead stop him with the whistle and give him a back cast to the pile using your right or left arm. As noted earlier, if the dog gets confused move closer to the pile and start over.

For the first session or two, concentrate only on running to the back pile as in step two. Every fourth or fifth time, use the whistle to stop the dog on his way to the back pile, then raise your arm straight up and send the dog with a back command. You'll want to continue this even after you begin working on the side piles.

Once your retriever has been reliably running to the back pile and ignoring the piles to the side for a couple of days, it's time to work in the over cast to the side piles.

We start working on the side piles by sending the dog to the back pile from the line. However, we then stop the dog when he is even with the side piles and give him an over to the left or right.

Frequently at this stage a dog will not honor the over and dig back to the far pile. This is a natural reaction since he has been running to this pile for several days. When this happens simply stop the dog with the whistle again and repeat the over cast. Should he get too far back, use a come-in whistle and/or move toward him until he takes the desired cast.

Upon completion of his first successful over, call him in and reward him with a little praise. Then send him to the back pile again without stopping. Should he veer back to the side pile that he has just returned from, simply stop him with the whistle and cast him to the back pile. As with the previous steps, patience is the key to success.

Most dogs will become proficient at this drill within a few days, ignoring the side piles when sent to the back pile, and taking the appropriate over when asked to do so along the way.

As with the previous step, the retriever should be sent to the back pile two or three times without stopping for every one time that he is handled. Also, the dog should only be sent to the back pile from the line. Never send the dog directly to the side piles from your side.

The Double T

Once the dog is doing reasonably well with the single T, it's time to add another variation. We start with the same setup as before, but add a second set of side piles approximately 40 yards from the line and 20 yards to each side, forming a lower-case letter "t" with two cross bars instead of one.

Once again, begin this drill by sending the dog from your side to the back pile, ignoring the new side piles. Gradually, start to work in over casts to both the old side piles and the new ones.

Occasionally you'll want to stop the dog and give him a back cast rather than an over. If he goes to the side pile, stop him and give him the appropriate cast to the back pile.

Since it is much easier to get a dog to go over than back, more emphasis should be placed upon sending the dog to the back pile than to the sides.

Due to the complexity of the double T setup, it's unreasonable to expect a dog to work it to perfection. However, by the completion of this step the successful retriever should be taking most casts reliably. He should honor every whistle and he should be able to take an over or back even with a dummy in his mouth.

The Water T

Now that the retriever has a good grasp of handling to piles on land, it's time to move to the water. The ideal pond for this drill would be about 40 yards across and 60 yards wide. It would be deep enough for the dog to swim in, have clean banks and the grass around it would be cropped very short.

However few things in life are ideal, and it may be necessary to improvise. The important thing is to have three visible piles … a back pile on the far shore and an over pile to each side.

Begin by identifying the back pile for the dog. Since it is impossible to move right up to the pile, start by tossing a dummy across the pond to the back pile. Once the retriever is reliably leaving from your side and swimming across the pond to the far pile you can begin stopping the dog and casting back.

Concentrate solely on the far pile for the first couple of sessions. After a few days you should gradually work in the overs, but remember to continue to put more emphasis on back.

As the dog becomes more competent at handling in the water, increase the complexity. Start this by stopping the dog en route back to you from the far pile with a dummy in his mouth and casting him back again. Slowly work in handling to the over piles with a dummy in his mouth. Require the dog to stay in the water on these casts, and only allow him to exit at the side.

By completion you should be able to swim him from one side to the other with or without a dummy in his mouth. As with all previous steps, remember that there is no set time limit for completion of this step. Let the dog dictate the pace, and be patient. Rushing here can lead to a very poor water attitude that is not easily reversed.

With the water T complete, yard work is over, and it is time to make the transition to the field. In other words, it is time to take the show on the road.

Pattern blinds

Teaching good pattern blinds is perhaps the most crucial part of training a retriever to handle in the field. Pattern blinds are blinds the dog literally learns by running them over and over, virtually memorizing the "pattern". This step is all about building the dog's confidence, so it's very important to start slow and simple. Beginning pattern blinds should be conducted in an area with low cover and very even terrain.

Begin by setting up a pile of five or six dummies in the field. As in step two in the yard, start by sending the dog for his first pattern blind in the field from right in front of it. Gradually move away from the pile and send. As the dog develops confidence in running to the first pile, add a second pile of dummies at a 45-degree angle to first. Later you'll add another pile of dummies 45 degrees to the other side giving you a crow's foot. Bear in mind that as new blinds are added in a field the dog will want to veer toward old ones. This suction is similar to that of the side piles on the "t" in the yard, and it should be handled in similar fashion by stopping the dog with the whistle and giving the correct cast. Just as in the yard, if the dog becomes confused move up and simplify.

Over the course of several days, return to the field and repeat the exact same blinds. Remember, these are "pattern blinds", so variation in a field should be avoided. After the dog builds confidence in one field, move to another and set up a new set of pattern blinds. Over a period of a couple of weeks you should be able to establish pattern blinds in a number of areas utilizing both land and water.

When the dog is able to move around through several sets of pattern blinds and handle with confidence it is time to move to the last step, the cold blind.

Cold blinds

A "cold blind" is simply a blind that's run in an area that the dog has never seen before. Initial cold blinds should be short and easy for the dog to locate. As with early pattern blinds, early cold blinds should be run in areas with few factors to influence the dog to go offline. Unlike pattern blinds, cold blinds generally should not be repeated.

Cold blinds should not replace pattern blinds. On Monday, you might run a pattern blind on familiar ground. On Tuesday you go to a field the dog has never seen and run a couple of cold blinds. The next outing you run an old set of pattern blinds in a field the dog is accustomed to seeing.

As the dog develops confidence in running blinds, complexity can be increased. Avoid introducing your retriever to difficult concepts via cold blinds. Instead, teach the concept by utilizing a pattern blind first.

Rushing into difficult cold blinds can lead to "no goes", and a general lack of confidence. The process is only complete when your dog will consistently and confidently leave your side on a cold blind.

Even when your dog is doing well on cold blinds, it's still a good idea to go back to pattern blinds in familiar fields to keep their confidence up.

While a dog that can handle on a difficult blind may seem miraculous, it is really a trained skill. Building a handling retriever is not always easy, but with time, patience and the right blueprint it can be done.

Courtesy of Delta Waterfowl.
For more information visit their website at www.deltawaterfowl.org.