Pups: Thinking Finished from the Very Beginning, Part 5

by Rich Carpenter

Making Blinds Fun for the Dog and the Trainer.  Having a dog that can run good blind retrieves is very important for a good hunting retriever.  Admittedly I’m not the best duck shot in the world, but I’m much more apt to drop a bird that my dog will not see to mark than I am to shoot a double when I’m hunting alone.  And to run Seasoned and especially Finished test work and have any reliable success, you just have to have decent blind work.  With teaching blinds, I think a lot of us struggle early with just how to teach blinds and how to avoid the problems that often accompany training and running blinds. 

Clearly basic obedience must be there to teach blinds.  As in so many things retriever work oriented, if you don’t have a completely reliable “sit,” things will never work out well. 

But assuming that “sit” is rock solid (at heel and at distance) a far bigger challenge in teaching a young dog blinds is coming to grips with all the little skills and bits of information we need to tuck into that fuzzy little noggin’ without overwhelming the pup or getting a lot of stress involved. 

I’ll admit right up front that my first HRC Lab, Amos Moses, probably never ran an excellent blind in his life and it was my fault for not knowing how to teach him.  With me as his teacher, it’s a wonder he ran them at all.  The second dog did better, but the old-timers at the PRHRC club in North Platte still gleefully rib the hell out of me for my “back to the truck, Gator” cast I gave at one of their tests.  Actually, what I was doing was throwing up my hands in total desperation as Gator was disappearing into the woods hot on the scent of Bigfoot or something.  Dang! Just before that.  I thought I was a sit whistle and short over from a one-whistle blind.  Well, I was, but that moment didn’t last long.  Didn’t have the sit I needed!

So, by the time Roux came along, I was looking for a better method and, for me, that blind training method turned out to be the one outlined in Mike Lardy’s TOTAL RETRIEVER TRAINING tapes. 

Whether it’s Lardy or other good programs out there, for someone getting started a program that has a very definite discrete sequential flowchart can do a lot to not get going too fast or jump ahead.  Both those things for the pup are like us trying to drink out of a fire hose. 

But, even with a good program you can have problems, and most of those problems are somehow tracked back to confusion.  Not to say there aren’t dogs whose attitude is to tell the handler to go pound sand.  There are.  And probably not a dog who won’t give that a try at least once.  But in reality, particularly with the right start, it will be infrequent that the dog is willfully going against your wishes.  Much more likely is the dog doesn’t understand.  Sometimes, if punished when the dog doesn’t understand why, the dog may be frantically and desperately trying several options, hoping to guess the correct one to avoid punishment. 

What I like to work to get in my pup is to be like the dogs you see lining up for a blind with a big smile on their faces.  It’s almost like they are saying, “YES!!! I don’t even have to think about where the bird is.  I can just pick a spot on the horizon in the directions I’m being pointed; lay my ears back and fly! My handler will hit the whistle and tell me where to go if I’m off course.”

Of course, I don’t know how dogs think, and it’s probably not that way.  But I can tell you that Roux and a number of other retrievers truly enjoy lining up to run a blind.  But I can also tell you there are other dogs where the thought of running a blind is a major stressor, and actually running it is even worse for them. 

I think the difference is a relaxed understanding of blind work on the part of the dog and teamwork between the dog and the handler. 

That is what we are after, and to me it relates more to us as trainers reading our dog, understanding (or following exactly if we don’t fully understand) our training approach without moving ahead before the previous stage is fully digested by the dog. 

But, digested, not perfected.  To me, excellence is a goal to strive for; seriously seeking perfection will take us where we don’t want to go.  Lardy stresses something that is hard for some of us to do, and that is not to grind something into the dirt.  Don’t keep at something (like the Double T) until the performance is absolute perfection.  Get performance of the skills and actions to the level to where they are generally performed correctly and move on!  The skills will continue to be honed to a fine edge as the pup progresses.  And with a good program like Lardy’s, if you moved on too soon, it will be apparent, and you go back and get it good enough. 

So teach your blinds by whatever program you are following, but always be alert to the little things.  Reward the try.  Don’t punish or harp on honest mistakes.  Stay off that collar for casting errors in the early blind training.  Watch for confusion.  Know that as simple as it seems to you, it is very complex to your young charge.  Backing up for a bit can be the fastest route to where you are going. 

Look for little ways to help and communicate with your dog.  Chances are if you pay attention, you’ll see how your pup shows stress or confusion.  For example, in Roux’s early blind running days, if I spent too much time fiddling around trying to get an ideal initial line, he’d suddenly start whining.  That was the signal I needed to smarten up before I caused serious problems.  Essentially, he was telegraphing that at that stage in his training, he could not make any finer “clicks” in his line adjustment mechanism.  So, time to kick him off and then handle as needed.  Continuing for the perfect line after that point can soon end up in a no-go or popping going off the line. 

In almost any new skill introduction the beginning is teaching and tilting the scales to help the dog succeed and to get repetitions of successful actions to where the action becomes almost automatic.  Then very gradually the skill is used in ways that make a mistake more likely, but still you are loading the deck.  When it is getting more generalized and at the proofing/testing stage, then circumstances are set where there is a good opportunity to err if the newly learned skill is not applied.  Then, there may be a correction sometimes; but, still not for an honest mistake.  Then more information is likely needed or to move back a little to simplify. 

In concrete terms this is the path in teaching three-handed casting and then introduction of indirect pressure with a collar.  When we start everything is stacked for the pup.  There is only one pile.  The pile is identified each time out before we start and subsequently if needed.  We’ll teach each pile individually before ever having bumpers in more than one location.  Then when we’ll make the first attempt, for example, to first cast to the right over pile and then cast to the back pile, we’ll again tilt the scales for pup success.  Before that first back cast, we’ll be sure the pup has just picked up the last right side pile dummy, so if there is an error, there cannot be a reward for the error.  Further, in addition to no attraction or reward where the pup has just been, we’ll set that pup back at the pitcher’s mound angled a little toward 3rd (which will also have no dummies) and us moving a little toward third from home plate.  Now we’ll give the back cast as a Left Hand back, so the pup is even turning away from the temptation of where it’s been.  We want success, not a test.  And we don’t want to forget good feedback and to show appreciation of both honest effort and success.  Don’t need a bunch of mushy crap, just a sincere, “good dog!” to show you are appreciating the work.  It may still not be close to where you want to end up, but if the dog is struggling to improve, reward the try! It will pay off. 

Now eventually when the skill is good and solid, we will test and we will correct for choosing to do the wrong thing, still watching for the honest mistake and not correcting there.  This drill is where indirect collar pressure is introduced in the Lardy program.  Now, depending on the pup, we’ll let pup see the piles put out, and get a successful cast each way and back.  But now we want the dog to think and do the right thing, which is the correct response to the given cast.  Now we will give a right over to the right side pile, but we will follow it up with a right-hand back to the back pile, so the pup has to turn and look at the side pile it’s just been to, to do the right thing and go to the back pile.  We should already be past the point where the dog takes off somewhere between over and back, just confused.  Now the dog is expected to be able to pull this off.  Not perfectly and maybe not even real well to start, but we’ll help and part of the time we’ll apply a little pressure to help.  If we see the pup turn around to take the back cast and then suddenly telegraph you the signal, “screw it, I’m gonna get the side pile bumper.” Then we are going to toot, nick, toot, applying indirect pressure.  But, to help insure that results in the correct response, we are going to give the pup an angled left hand over as a literal cast to help it go to the back pile.  A literal cast is the cast that if followed exactly would lead the dog to the bumper in a blind retrieve.  But, if the dog does the same thing and suddenly heads for the previous blind in early blind training, there would be NO application of collar pressure for the wrong cast.  It doesn’t know that in the field yet, only in the yard in a known drill location. 

But again, it’s not automatic and we are trying to avoid pressure for actions that are confusion based.  Pressure is on us to be alert and reading this pup.  Say we give the right hand back cast and pup takes sort of a big looping move to the right and is getting pretty close to the right pile.  Here is where timing and reading is so important to helping get you and pup on the same page and the pup comfortable.  You are riding the edge here and you don’t have much distance.  But it would be a shame if, even though it was very close to the side pile, you hit the whistle and nick whistle, just as it dawned on you the pup had committed to going back.  That’s where confusion can enter.  Better to risk the dog getting the side pile dummy because you guessed wrong or gave the pup just a hair too much time.  Not the end of the world.  “Tweet” to sit the dog, walk over and calmly take the bumper, a quiet “no” or “wrong,” replace the bumper, move the dog just a bit left and give a left hand back to get the right location.  Now repeat.  Chances are a little learning will take place, rather than inducing stress. 

A couple related things to making it fun.  Teach and train that LH / RH back solidly before you get to 3-handed casting.  As noted before, I start it when the pup is 8 weeks old playing on the table.  But start it ahead.  Several ways to start it off the table, usually sitting the dog facing you and tossing over the dog’s left or right shoulder and a little to the side will just naturally have them turning the right direction of your cast.  A long lead would be involved if the pup is not reliably steady.  If this is a struggle with a pup that is just totally right-pawed, find a table or lawn chair or something to sit the pup beside, facing you, and toss over an outside the shoulder away from the barrier.  Chances are excellent the pup will not turn into it and will give you the correct turn.  Gradually work both sides and move up or back to where there is no barrier and see if it’s stuck.  If the pup still has a tendency to go one way or the other, load him before the cast so he’s going to turn the correct way. 

Later in cold blinds it will be very important to minimize use of the collar.  Misapplication of the collar (applied at the wrong time, rather than necessarily amount of electricity) when confusion is at hand is perhaps the source of a huge percentage of problems with the dog popping, spinning or even no-going, though no-going and bugging are more apt to be caused by too much screwing around by the handler trying to get too fine an initial line than the pup is capable of.  A bellowing “NO!!” for a confused sensitive dog can shut them down in a variety of ways.  Early on, rather than corrections, we often need to move up and simplify or to give more information and encouragement and have the resultant success of finding a dummy on the blind retrieve.  Precise lining and casting will be fine-tuned in yard drills.  Lardy, when running a young dog on the initial cold blinds doesn’t care if the dog turns the wrong way on a cast, he just wants the dog to change direction at the cast and get the reward of getting the dummy.  Even if the dog ends up at the wrong dummy, it’s good: the dog got the reward of a retrieve from changing direction at the handler’s instruction.  With a thorough approach, patience and gradually introducing and increasing factors, a dog will get stronger on blinds for probably 2 or 3 seasons. 

In a way it’s a long way between the 3-handed casting and the first cold blinds, but not as far as it seems if each baby step is taken properly and enjoyed by the trainer and the pup.  Yes, you have to have standards, but that doesn’t mean you can’t both enjoy it. 

A couple unrelated tips: If you’ve trained “sit” to where you expect the pup to sit as you go away, you’ve no doubt experienced the frustration that the only time the pup moves after you is when you were walking away with your head turned and didn’t see it start to move.  Well, if you don’t mind more conventional trainers snickering at you, get yourself a cyclist’s rear-view mirror that clips to your eyeglass frame.  Amazing what a short time you need to wear it to make pup think you have eyes in the back of your head. 

If you train a lot by yourself and do many poor man marks with remote sends (you walk out, throw the mark and release the dog from thrower position) and stretch them to any distance, you’ve probably run into situations where, due to wind, background noise or whatever, the dog can’t hear your verbal release and doesn’t go.  You might try laying a 2-way radio next to the dog at the line and releasing it over the radio.  May not work for some dogs and you may need to spend a little time introducing the radio.  Hopefully, your dog won’t pick up the radio and holler “Get it up where I can see it!!!”

Good training.