Teaching your retriever to handle starts with 3-Hand Cast drill
Today I will cover one of my favorite drills to teach retrievers. It is often referred to as 3-Hand Cast or Baseball. This great drill can be taught to retrievers of all ages, from young puppies all the way through to the old guys. After they get the hang of it, most dogs seem to really enjoy it, and it can be a great attitude booster.
Upon successful completion of this drill, you will be able to have bumpers at first, second, and third base and send the dog to which ever base you want them to retrieve from. In addition, when you send them to second base you will be able to turn them to the right or left, which ever you decide.
If you are working toward teaching your dog to handle or understand hand signals in the field, please understand that 3-Hand Cast is just the first step in a very systematic progression of drills that can get you there. Do not expect your retriever to understand these concepts in the field, just because he can do the work in a yard setting. There is a lot more work to do before you can expect your dog to do a blind retrieve.
Equipment needed for 3-hand cast drill
Here is what you will need to do this drill:
Bumpers – at least three (as with most drills, however, the more you have the better). Learn what kind of bumpers/dummies including types, colors, and numbers here.
Lead (optional). If your dog is not responsive and obedient, I suggest using one. Learn What is the right lead for your training here.
Mat (optional). Some people like to use a mat for their dog as it can speed up the learning curve, however, I do not use one.
Area to train. Teach this drill in your living room, driveway, or backyard – little space is needed to get your dog to become a pro.
Prerequisites for your dog
There are a few prerequisites needed for your dog to do this drill. Your retriever needs to:
- Be steady, meaning they don’t retrieve an item until you tell them to.
- Have at least a moderate retrieving desire.
- Been taught to front finish, meaning they will come and sit in front of you upon delivery. This is not mandatory but is helpful.
The playing field
The 3-hand cast drill is best described if you think of a baseball diamond.
The dog will start at the pitcher mound (facing you) and you will be positioned at home plate.
Teaching the 3-Hand Cast drill to retrievers
To start teaching this drill:
Put the dog at the pitcher’s mound facing home plate and tell them to SIT.
Back up so that you are standing at home plate.
Wait for the dog to make eye contact with you, then toss a bumper to first base. At the same time you make the throw, say the dog’s name (which hopefully you have been using as their release to retrieve an item) then immediately say OVER. This should sound like this: SHADOW OVER
Your dog should immediately run over to retrieve the bumper you just threw.
After your dog picks up the bumper, walk out to the pitcher’s mound to meet him/her. Take the bumper from them and reset him/her.
Repeat steps 1-4.
Progressing past introduction
Once steps 1-4 are solid, move to Step 5.
Now, you can stop using the dog’s name after the throw and just say the command OVER.
If your retriever responded well to going to first base, you can start extending the length of time between the throw and when you send them for the retriever. This would look like this: Throw – (pause) – OVER. At this time, you can also start using a direction cue. As you say OVER stick your right arm out in the direction of first base. See video below.
Focus only on first base at this point. Do not rush this drill, we want them totally reliable before moving on. Some dogs may move quickly through the above steps, and some may take longer. Progression will be determined by your dog’s capacity to understand what you are expecting of him/her.
Adding third base
If your dog has mastered first base, it’s time to teach third base.
You teach third base the same way you taught first base. The only difference is you are going to put your left arm out to the side when you say OVER. For now, only focus on teaching third base. DO NOT complicate it by having a bumper or throwing a bumper to first base.
Mastering third base usually goes quickly. Most retrievers catch on fast since they know what is expected of them because they just learned first base.
Add in complexity slowly
Once your retriever has a solid foundation of sitting still at the pitcher’s mound, giving you eye contact, and waiting for you to give the OVER command as well as the arm movement, it is time to start building on the drill.
Add in complexity slowly.
- Start by having your dog at the pitcher’s mound.
- Throw a bumper to first and then to third base. Make sure your dog remains stationary at the pitcher’s mound. This is where a lead can come in handy.
- Send your retriever to one of the bumpers. NOTE: At first, and only a couple of times, send the dog to the one they want the most, which is usually the last one thrown. However, you should quickly transition to mixing it up and send them to the bumper opposite the one they want.
- After the dog makes the retrieve, meet them at the pitcher’s mound and take the bumper from them.
- Leave your retriever at the pitcher’s mound and return to home plate.
- Re-throw the bumper to the base where they retrieved it from.
- Repeat the process, mixing up which base they are to retrieve from.
Reading your dog important for handling drills
Being able to understand what your dog is thinking is an important part of this drill and retriever training in general. To do this, watch your dog for clues. Is he leaning toward one of the bases? Is she looking toward one base more than the other?
These are the clues we are talking about. They will help you understand what your dog is thinking and give you a way to control the situation and direct the dog away from their natural inclination.
Handling corrections during the 3-Hand Cast Drill
If your dog starts going to the wrong base, meaning not the one you directed them to, simply say NO-NO and call him/her back to you at the pitcher’s mound. This will be helpful later when you start teaching your retriever the NO-NO Drill.
Reset your retriever at the pitcher’s mound and resend them to where they were supposed to go.
When your retriever is confused, simplify the drill by throwing another bumper to the base they were supposed to go to as a clue.
If your dog does not stop when you say NO-NO, you will need to start using a lead so that you can stop their progress towards the wrong bumper.
Don’t worry if, by chance, they are able to get the wrong bumper, don’t make a big deal about it. Just don’t let it happen again.
Adding Back casts
If your dog has mastered first and third bases, your retriever should now be taking left and right OVER casts with consistency. Now it is time to add in BACK casts.
This is, by far, the hardest part of this drill for your retriever to learn. Be patient and do not rush this!
The mechanics of teaching 3-Hand Cast BACK casts
When giving a BACK cast, you are requiring your dog to turn in a specific direction indicated to them by your voice, arm movement, and sometimes even a sideways step.
You may be wondering, “What difference does it make which direction the dog turns as long as they are going back?”
Well, if the bird is only a few feet away, not much at all. However, if the downed bird is several yards away, certain factors such as wind, terrain, and water come into play. As you, the handler, get more experience directing your retriever to a downed bird, you will notice the effect of these factors. Wind will push your dog, hills may change his/her trajectory, and your retriever may try to cheat or run around water. Turning the retriever in the correct direction will ultimately help aid him/her in finding the bird.
Teaching second base – the BACK command
To teach second base, focus on teaching a BACK turn in only one direction first. Make sure your retriever is consistent on the one direction before teaching the other direction. As with teaching OVER, avoid getting caught up in going too fast.
Start by teaching your retriever to turn to the LEFT BACK first.
Put the dog on the pitcher’s mound facing you and then return to home plate.
Remind the dog to SIT, then with your right hand toss a bumper behind your dog but along his/her left side while saying BACK and raising your right arm straight up in the air.
You can help the dog learn to turn in the correct direction by also stepping to the side (in this case stepping right) as you are giving the BACK cast.
This will cue the dog on which direction you want them to turn. It will be especially important as the dog progresses and the distance between you and the dog increases.
After your dog turns in the correct direction (in this case left) and makes the retrieve, meet them at the pitcher’s mound and repeat. See video.
Remember, anytime your dog turns in the wrong direction, simply say NO-NO and call him/her back to you at the pitcher’s mound. Do not allow him/her to get the retrieve. Reset the SIT and try again.
NOTE: Your dog may not stop when you say NO-NO. If this happens, you will need to start using a lead so that you can stop their progress towards the wrong bumper.
Once your dog is consistently turning to the left, you can start teaching the right turn BACK. Follow the steps above with the opposite hand and arm gestures.
Once your dog is turning reliably to the left BACK and the right BACK, you can then put a bunch of bumpers at second base and alternate sending them on left and right BACKS.
See how it looks as we are teaching and building on this drill. See video.
Continue doing BACKs for several sessions. This is the most common cast your dog will use, so they need to be very solid on it.
Adding complexity to 3-Hand Cast drill
If your dog knows all three bases and is reliably turning BACK, LEFT and RIGHT, depending on which direction you want them to go, it is time to add complexity. This is a good time to make sure you have your retriever on a lead as they will make mistakes.
You will need at least 3 bumpers for this part; however, more would be better.
If you are only using 3 bumpers, once the dog makes a retrieve throw a bumper back out to the base they just made a retrieve from. You want there to always be multiple plugs out there to retrieve.
Alternatively, if you have more bumpers available, you can put several bumpers at each base you are working on right away. This is preferred since it will speed up the pace of the drill and teach your dog to retrieve from a location they did not previously see you throw to.
Add complexity by alternating directions
To start alternating directions, use only two bumpers, one at first base and another at third.
- Send your retriever using a RIGHT OVER to first base.
- Meet them at the pitcher’s mound for delivery.
- Move back to home base and re throw the bumper to first.
- Now, give your dog a LEFT OVER to third base.
Once your dog is going LEFT and RIGHT reliably, throw a bumper to first and second bases. Now alternate between a RIGHT OVER and a LEFT BACK.
Have a bumper at second and third bases. Alternate between a LEFT OVER and a RIGHT BACK.
Adding in all the bases
Once your dog is good with RIGHT OVER and LEFT BACK, as well as LEFT OVER and RIGHT BACK, it is time to have bumpers out at all three bases.
Again, after your dog makes a retrieve from one of the bases, replenish the base with bumpers if needed.
Reading your dog and responding accordingly
With bumpers at all bases your dog will be tempted to go to the wrong base. This may be because of confusion, laziness, or desire. It is your job, as trainer, to determine which one is occurring because your response will need to match the failure.
Learn more about the visual cues your retriever gives in How to train a Labrador Retriever – Tip#1.
If your dog is making mistakes due to:
Confusion means your dog is unsure where you want them to go. You can usually spot this by hesitation and not immediately running over to a bumper. If there is a slight delay in your dog’s response, as if he/she is trying to figure out what you are asking them to do, the correct thing to do is to simplify.
Go back to reteaching each base, or at least the base they are confused about. No need to get frustrated, usually a few retrieves to the problem location will get them back on track. This is a common problem, don’t make it a big deal, just go back to teaching and simplify.
Laziness is a common problem and is often seen with this drill. It might look something like this. You gave your dog a LEFT BACK but as they turn to their right to make the retrieve, they see the bumper at third base. This is very tempting to your retriever and they may decide they would rather pickup that bumper than the one to which you are directing them.
In this case, by either voice, lead, or both, stop them from making the retrieve at third base and reset them at the pitcher’s mound. Then repeat the LEFT BACK.
If they continue to want to go to third base, remove the bumper from third base and do several LEFT BACKs to solidify what you want them to do.
I see this most often with high-strung dogs. They cannot wait to make a retrieve, so they start moving as soon as they see your arm moving or hearing the first part of your speech. By not waiting for the correct information from you, they often go to the wrong base.
To cure this, slow everything way down. Make your retriever wait a lot longer before directing them to a base. Also, try to read where they want to go and send them in an opposite direction. Lastly, make sure you have solid eye contact prior to giving them a BACK or OVER.
Final thoughts on training your retriever in the winter with the 3-hand cast drill
The 3-hand cast can be a great drill to teach your retriever in the winter or any time of year. It really helps retrievers learn to make eye contact with you and grow and learn in their retrieving desire. But it can be a complex drill and takes a lot of time and work to master. Keep at it and seek help from a professional if needed. I, personally, offer one-on-one training as well as many programs to help you and your retriever meet your hunting goals.
In addition, as I stated before, it is important to remember that teaching your dog to handle requires a certain progression, of which, 3-Hand Cast is just one step. Several other drills, in a certain progression or order, are necessary before your dog will be able to handle reliably in the field.
If you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I’m here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.