Coming out of duck season, did you have any banger volleys that ended with fist pumps and high-fives around the blind? If you did, chances are that your dog had to run both marked and blind retrieves. Both are very common during normal hunting scenarios, and it is important to train for both if you want to have a well-rounded gundog.
The simple definition of a marked retrieve is any retrieve that your dog is able to visually see on its way down. A blind retrieve, or an "unmarked retrieve", on the other hand, is any retrieve that the dog does not see on the way down. Whether or not a downed bird is a mark or a blind plays a very important roll in how you will handle your duck dog on the retrieve as well as the gundog training required to get him there.
Two seasons ago I was on a goose hunt with some friends in Arkansas. We were targeting Speckled Belly Geese, but we happened to decoy a flock of snow geese. One wounded bird sailed out about 400 yards into a cut bean field and fell. "Did he mark that?", my friend Aaron asked. I looked down at my dog, Cedar. He was absolutely locked in, ready for his release command. "CEDAR!", I shouted, and off he went.
Just because your retriever sees a bird or dummy falling doesn't always mean that he will be able to get to it easily. Marked retrieves can vary from super easy and simple to very complex. Running drills for marked retrieves is a very important part of retriever training, whether you are training for duck hunting, HRC hunt tests, AKC hunt tests, or any other type of dog training for retrieves.
The variables that make marked retrieves more difficult include distance, factors (such as wind, water, and terrain), and added retrieves or multiples. When you begin to combine these variables, you can get into some very difficult geometry problems for your water dog to solve!
The distance of marked retrieves is fairly straight forward. Many of the birds we shoot in the field fall within gun range, twenty to fifty yards away. Marked retrieves within this distance can be simple and easy, but they can also be challenging based on factors and number of birds down. Some marked retrieves, however, may sail out a long way from the dog and handler. We must train for these types of retrieves so that our dog is confident in covering more distance to make it to the area of the fall.
Factors also play a large roll in the difficulty level of a marked retrieve. Wind, hills, changes in cover, water, etc. can influence your hunting partner to veer off path and miss the mark, literally. Training setups for marks should consider these factors, aiming to teach a dog how to tackle them correctly in order to make it to the bird.
Multiples also present more difficulty in running marked retrieves. Having a retriever mark one bird is much more simple than two, three, or even four birds at once. For duck hunters, it is unlikely to expect a dog to mark or remember more than four birds at once, and often that is even a tall order. Most hunt test scenarios at the higher levels of difficulty focus on three or four marks at once, although there is a small gap of time between each throw.
When you combine distance, factors, and multiples, you can really have some fun training your duck hunting dog on marked retrieves. In general, marks will get your pup more excited than drills or blinds, making it fairly easy to maintain a great attitude. The goal is to build confidence in your dog. You want a Labrador retriever who is confident in running all the way to the area of the fall, establishing a hunt, finding the marked bird, and delivering it back to you. The goal is to have as little interference from you, the handler, as possible during this exercise. The opposite is true of blind retrieves...
Have you ever seen a bird go down on a hunt and everyone in the blind let out a sigh of disappointment. "We'll never get that one..." I've heard it so many times, and there is really nothing as awesome as handling your dog right to he bird that everyone thought was un-retrievable. There is a moment when a dog comes back into sight, bird-in-mouth, and everyone says, "Dude! No way!" Those are the moments a retriever handler lives for!
Unlike the marked retrieve, your gundog will have no idea where the bird is on a blind retrieve. This means that running blinds will be more of a teamwork exercise. Your job will be to get your dog to the bird, or as close as possible, using three key components - the initial line, whistle stops, and directional casting.
The initial line is the direction you send your dog for a blind retrieve. It takes a lot of training to build the confidence required for a gundog to take a straight initial line, especially when factors and longer distance are involved. In our Cornerstone program, we use multiple lining drills such as the ladder drill, lining memories, and pattern blinds to build confidence in the initial line.
It is also important to learn the sequence of sending a dog for a blind retrieve. Unlike a marked retrieve, where your gundog is released with its name, you're going to go through a set of commands or "queues" to let your dog know that you are about to run a blind retrieve. This is a way of telling your hunting companion, "Okay, we are about to do this one as a team."
Even if your dog takes a great initial straight line, it is common for factors to cause him to veer off that line. In this case, he will need to be handled by you. Whistle stops are crucial here. You will need to teach your dog to turn around and look at you when you blow one solid whistle blast. There are many drills for this, and it is important that you develop a solid whistle stop on both land and water in order for your dog to successfully run blind retrieves.
The third step in teaching blind retrieves is directional casting. Casting involves using your hand and/or voice to send your dog in a new direction after each whistle stop. Again, there are many drills within our program designed to specifically teach a dog how to take proper casts, including T-drill, walking baseball, etc. It is important that your dog learn to take these hand signals at any distance, no matter the other factors involved.
When you combine a good initial line with reliable whistle stops and directional casting, you should be able to get your hunting dog to successfully retrieve birds he did not see fall. Again, confidence is key! It takes a lot of drill work and practice to get proficient at running blind retrieves. Our modules on retriever training supply the drills you will need to teach your dog these skills.
Once you take your dog to the level of Advanced Retriever, a lot of your time will be spent polishing both marks and blinds. It will be important to combine the two so that they interfere with one another. These combinations can involve all sorts of factors, and they can range from fairly simple to very complicated.
These combinations happen often in hunting situations. Imagine two birds are shot right over the decoys, and a third bird is shot behind the blind while flying away. Your gundog marks both birds in the decoys, one at twenty yards and one past it at fifty yards. However, the bird behind the blind was not marked and is likely swimming away.
You need to have confidence in your ability to line your dog up for the bird behind the blind, send the dog, stop and give directional casts until that bird is retrieved to hand. Then, you must turn around and send the dog on the first mark, the short one, immediately followed by the longer mark which is directly through the old fall area.
This is just one of many situations that happen often when we are duck hunting with our retrievers. Having a gundog who can successfully deliver all three birds to his handler, proficiently and quickly, is a game-changer.
Training for both marks and blinds, combined with high levels of obedience, is the ultimate goal for gundog enthusiasts. There are no shortcuts, even if you have an American field trial Labrador or a British Lab with an excellent pedigree and a ton of natural talent. The same training can be accomplished with Golden Retrievers, Boykin Spaniels, or any popular breed of retriever. You have to put in the work, both with marks and blinds, in order to have an advanced retriever.
That's also what makes owning a training your own dog so great. Not only do we get to experience the awesome satisfaction of watching these dogs perform in the duck blind, but we get to celebrate all of the successes along the way. This starts with the very first marks we give our puppies, tossing a sock down the hallway or a puppy dummy across the lawn. That feeling of pride should carry all the way through every drill, marking setup, and training session until we are running blinds at two-hundred yards through water and difficult terrain!
If you are interested in teaching your dog the skills necessary to run marks and blinds next season, click here to see our available training program options!
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