How To Train Your Retriever When Land Is Scarce: Part 1

September 15, 2011

We were giving Buster a workout. Three partners and I were approaching our limit of mallards on a cold and windy November morning in southern Iowa. One of those partners was Kurt Lemke, a 30-year veteran retriever trainer and waterfowl guide). My mother always urged me to choose my friends carefully, so I’ve been careful to choose friends who can train dogs and blow calls.

But let’s get back to Buster. Buster is a black Lab, and one of Kurt’s favorite dogs. At just 18 months of age, Buster was already the kind of working dog that would make most hunters proud. He executed multiple marks and blinds, and did so with obvious gusto. Even more obvious was Kurt’s pleasure in watching Buster. For Kurt, watching dogs is the point of hunting ducks.

I’ve been a gun-dog fanatic all my life, but only recently came to the retriever world. A few years ago I acquired my first Lab, a beautiful black male from Rick and Andrea McConico’s Old Oak Kennels in Owatonna, Minn. (612-269-1194). Rick helped me get the pup started right and could easily have finished the dog, but I was eager to bring the dog home and get some “do-it-myself” experience.

Fortunately I have friends like Kurt close to home to keep me from screwing things up. Kurt showed me the “baseball field” on his training grounds, where he teaches dogs the basic skills they will need for blind retrieves. Kurt lives on a large acreage in the countryside. He has a grassy field with white-painted traffic cones permanently staked into the ground in a diamond pattern, like the bases of a baseball field. He puts piles of dummies at each cone and sends the dog from the “pitcher’s mound” position for retrieves.

This technique is likely familiar to most readers, but there’s one problem with it — many of us live on small lots in the city. We must make our baseball diamonds portable. This is easily accomplished with three white buckets and a dozen dummies. Buckets work just as well as cones, because all the dog needs is a visual reference. Moreover, buckets are stackable, have handles, and fit easily in the back seat of a car, so a lunch-hour trip to the local park becomes a quality training session.

But what do you do with those buckets? Here’s a brief primer on how to start the urban retriever.

Prerequisites: Forced Retrieve And Steadiness

I suspect many retriever owners begin “playing baseball” with their dogs prematurely, the consequences of which are a confused dog and a frustrated owner.

Before you begin lining and casting drills, your dog must have completed forced-fetch training, including what Kurt calls “force-to-the-pile.” In other words, the dog is not merely trained to retrieve dowels on a table; he is also force-trained to retrieve dummies from a pile on the ground. Rick McConico accomplished this training for me. Force-fetch training can, of course, be done by amateurs after reading a good book on the subject, but I truly believe a good pro is worth his (or her) pay where force-fetch training is concerned.

Your dog must also be steady. By “steady,” I mean the dog should be trained to line up at your left side on the command, “Heel,” facing in the same direction as you, and sit there irrespective of temptation until you release him. The dog should also sit on command, without hesitation, even at some distance from you.

Only with these basic building blocks in place can you proceed with construction of a genuine duck-fetching machine. To that construction we now turn. A blind retrieve consists of two parts: lining and casting.

Phase 1: Lining

One of the most important skills for a waterfowl retriever is lining, which is simply when the dog runs a straight line in the direction it is sent. Begin training your dog to line by using a single bucket. I like to set up the drill on a soccer field or the outfield of a baseball field. I like these fields because they have chalk lines, which provide an additional visual cue for the dog.

Take your dog to the chalk line and tell him to sit. Walk away and dump the dummy pile directly on the chalk line 20 yards from the dog. Then turn the bucket upside-down and set it on the line near the dummy pile. Your dog watches all of this with curiosity, and begins to learn that dummy piles are found near white buckets.

Now return to your dog and stand beside him, facing the bucket. Put your hand out over his head, pointing toward the bucket, and send him with the command, “Back!” As he runs toward the dummy pile, scurry backward about 10 yards. [FIGURE 1]

When the dog returns, praise him as you take the dummy. Then face the bucket and tell him to “Heel.” I use a choke chain with a very short length of cord to adjust the dog if necessary, and get him to face the bucket. [FIGURE 2] Now the two of you are 30 yards away from the bucket. Send him as before, and run back another 10 yards. In your first training session, you will probably lengthen his line to about 50 yards. If he balks on the line and seems unable to see the bucket, shorten up and try again. Each day, send him from a little farther away on the initial cast.

After a week or so, start setting up the drill before you get the dog out of the car, so he doesn’t see you setting up the pile and bucket. Now he is learning to look for the white bucket. With repetition, your dog will eventually learn to run 100 yards or more to the dummy pile. As soon as he is lining as far as you want, try removing the bucket. You will need to start short again — perhaps 20 yards. Here is where the chalk line really helps.

In addition to the single-bucket drill, try setting up buckets with dummy piles in a diamond configuration at first-, second- and third-base positions. [FIGURE 3] Take your dog to the center or “pitcher’s mound” position. Line him up facing one of the piles and say, “No.” Then turn toward another pile and say, “Heel.” Adjust the dog’s position with the choke chain if necessary. When he’s facing the new pile, send him. When he returns, take the dummy and line him up facing the pile from which he just retrieved. “No” him off that pile, turn toward another and say, “Heel.” Send him again. Now you are teaching him to run multiple lines in the order that you select. You are teaching him that “No” can mean, “Not over there, pal; over this way.” Alternate the single-bucket drill with this three-bucket drill, using them on different days.

To really test the dog’s ability to run directly where you tell him, set up all three buckets and send him to them successively from home plate. [FIGURE 4] Here the angle between the lines is much more acute, so you may need to “No” the dog off the wrong bucket if he seems distracted. Don’t send him until he’s looking where you want him to go.

When the dog will run a good long line with or without buckets, you are ready to start over again in natural cover. Using the bucket as a visual aid, try sending the dog across a small urban stream or pond, or in the higher grass of a suburban greenbelt. [FIGURE 5] After he masters that, try it without the bucket. In each new level of difficulty, you begin with the bucket and wean the dog off of it as he shows that he’s ready. And you always begin with short retrieves and gradually work longer. In the end, you’ll have a dog that can run a line in the direction you choose. Lining is crucial to blind retrieves. In fact, many retrieves in real hunting scenarios can be accomplished by simply lining the dog up and sending him.