Smart Dummies

Training with pseudo-birds? Use the right species!

The ultimate retrieving dummy looks, smells and feels like a duck so that gun dogs in training won't be tempted to bring back other objects during an actual hunt. Corks added to the throw rope provide a better grip, thereby making it easier to toss the dummy longer distances.

(Question) I recently acquired my first gun dog, a Weimaraner pup from solid hunting bloodlines, and plan to train him myself, mostly for upland birds but also some waterfowling. But I'm a little confused by the variety of training products on the market.


In the September issue of Gun Dog there was a section on training equipment, and some of the retrieving dummies shown there looked like gimmicks. Are the ones that look like gamebirds really better than the plain old canvas or plastic knobby ones? If dogs operate mostly by scent, does the appearance of the dummy really make any difference? -- Kansas

(Answer) Actual, honest-to-goodness gamebirds are vital in the training of any gun dog. But whether it's establishing fundamentals, brushing up after a lay-off or polishing the retrieving requirements of a hunting dog, the only economical way to do the job right is to use bird substitutes.


Whatever their inanimate similarities or differences, the various ersatz "birds" that are flung for Fido to fetch represent a practical way to get a training job done. They can be utilized in-house, in the yard or in the field. They are readily available and can be used over and over. The vast majority of sportsmen, even when they can afford real birds, don't have a source, don't have a holding pen or can't find a convenient place to use them.


All of which is a very unfortunate fact of life. Everything in our world has become more artificial and contrived, including dog training. And hard as it might be to imagine, there may well come a time when gun dogs will be tested in field trials and acclaimed winners and champions without ever having had a mouthful of real feathers.

That's the downside. The positive fact is that there's no shortage of objects that can be used in basic retriever training and result in turning out worthwhile gun dogs. Supplementation with as many real birds as you can manage is strongly recommended, despite the fact that some dogs manage to finish the job by adapting to game shot while hunting.

Most, however, will need introduction plus practice with actual birds while training, whether pigeons or pen-reared gamebirds. However, initially using dummies greatly reduces training cost and enables frequent, informal fetching sessions that are invaluable in programming pups or perking up adult dogs.

The quality of dummies used in training and the methods of utilizing fake birds varies. The designation "smart dummies" is not an oxymoron, although each trainer in the end determines what he considers suitable. So to aid in determining which dummies are "smart" or "stupid," we offer some practical guidelines for dummy selection in order to make learning easier for your Weimaraner.

For openers, let's touch on some non-dummies, items which were not designed for teaching pups to fetch, but can be readily adaptable and may be available for spur of the moment opportunities when a made-for-the-job purchase is not.

Today, when the vast majority of personal hunting dogs are "in house" dogs (and must be started in the kitchen, living room or den) the tennis ball is a very "smart" dummy. It is the right size and texture, lending itself to being gently carried.

"Dumb" dummies, on the other hand, are golf balls and sponge rubber balls. Entirely aside from the danger of ingestion, both get the pup to start chewing. Virtually anything hard prompts most dogs to gnaw and virtually anything mushy incites squeezing and ripping. Chunks of golf ball can be passed, but swallowed whole can cause deadly obstruction, as can pieces of sponge rubber that swell and cause impassable blockage.

Don't tease and play with your dog and the tennis ball. Instead, incorporate it into your training routine. Require that your dog handle it with respect and deliver properly. Tennis balls can be used outdoors as well as indoors.

When you are outside with our dog, strangle any notion to fling a stick for your dog to fetch, whether or not it's the only thing available. Also, don't permit your dog to pick up sticks on his own and romp around with them.

The reason? When you send your dog to fetch a bird you've knocked down, you don't want him coming back expecting praise for delivering a stick. Whether "force" or "play" trained to retrieve, many a dog sometimes has difficulty finding the real thing and, having been praised for bringing back sticks tossed by the kids, will grab the nearest thing he thinks will please or appease his owner.

And as dogs will almost invariably do, considering their affinity for gnawing wood, they'll munch sticks while carrying them. This activity is all too easily transferred to anything they carry, resulting in some well-masticated, inedible gamebirds.

Perhaps the smartest dummy substitute is an old leather glove, both for starting puppies and for informal brush-ups with older dogs. They can be left to flop and flutter when tossed, or bound with tape to create a slightly more "solid" dummy. Weights in one form or another can be stuffed into the fingers to achieve greater distance and some heft. Knotted up socks also work, but they can't be tossed far for adult dogs and they get tangled with sharp puppy teeth.

Am I suggesting there's no need to buy commercially manufactured training dummies? Not at all! If you're at all serious about your dog's training, you'll need more than one and as many as you can afford. But don't throw away your homemade stuff. Continue to use it in conjunction with the dummies you purchase.

During training sessions, offer your young dog a mixed bag. This can save you frustration when you train only with artificial "birds" and your pup has had zero experience with the real thing on opening day of bird season. If, in training, he has fetched only one thing (or several of identical texture and dimension) throughout every session he will be much more likely to balk at picking up the first birds you shoot for him. He fails to associate this strange new thing with fetching.

Unless variety spices their lives, dogs can lock in on the single object use

d in their training and refuse to retrieve anything else. Even force-broke dogs, trained to pick up and deliver whatever they're ordered to, need to work with something other than wooden dowels and plastic dummies.

If you are coaxing and coercing a "natural" retriever, it's imperative that you instill the reaction to return to you with anything picked up. Multiple "fake birds" are valuable aids in getting through to a dog. While not a finished job, basic retrieving is a simple combination of a dog's willingness to pick up an item, carry it and come when called.

Whatever dummy you use, it can be "educated" to make it cleverer in getting the job done. If you haven't saved some wings from birds you've bagged, find the nearest gamebird farm or shooting preserve and acquire a couple of pairs. Tape these onto your dummies. Scent in the nose and feathers in the mouth go a long way to acclimating a dog to the real thing when it's finally encountered.

When your situation is such that you must use dummies exclusively to get in the necessary training, try stimulating as much as possible what will occur on an actual hunt. Hide dummies in cover for your dog to find on his own. Fire a shotgun (after proper introduction to gunfire insures against gunshyness) when dummies are thrown for the bird.

Have a helper do the dummy throwing. If your training has been limited to nothing but you throwing a dummy for your dog, a bird appearing out of nowhere and being shot "out front" can rate as a combination mystery, puzzle and "what should I do, Boss?" tentativeness for your dog.

A throwing motion in the direction of the fall (what the dog associates with retrieving) may get him to the bird. Teasing and tossing the bird for him, if he won't forthrightly pick it up, may flip his "on" switch. But some fun training that stimulates hunting, prior to the season's opening, will afford you more hunting time with a dependable dog.

Most of the training dummies being marketed nowadays are smart ones. So let's get the dumb ones immediately behind us. My distaste for artificial and mechanical extremes prompts the conclusion that very hard plastic dummies are stupid. As previously noted, dogs seem driven to munch, gnaw and chew on hard objects, possibly an atavistic urge dating back to their bone-chewing days.

Since pro trainers have converted almost en masse to force-fetch breaking and many breeders have abandoned efforts to produce inherently soft-mouthed dogs, my read is that the difficulty hunters have lately been experiencing with hard-mouthed dogs has been exacerbated by rigid training dummies, wooden retrieving bucks and other hard objects.

While a force-broke dog should pick up a beer can if told to and should gently carry anything in his mouth, very few "shoe leather" bird hunters attempt force breaking. The exclusive use of hard dummies can cause hard-mouth in retrievers and contributes to difficulties in getting a gun dog to fetch "naturally."

There are semi-soft plastic dummies. Most of them (and the rigid ones) have knurls on them (the knobbiness you referred to) that encourage taking hold, unlike those with a slick, slippery surface. Being heavier than the preferred canvas covered, kapok-stuffed dummies, they can be flung farther.

Back in the "good ol' days" a lot of us made our own dummies. You could still find a harness shop then that would stitch up short lengths of old fire hose that had some heft, texture and toughness. But nowadays, if you are looking for a decent, economical training dummy, it will come from a manufacturer of what is essentially a canvas-bound boat bumper.

They come in a variety of sizes. Get as many as you can afford of different dimensions and brands. In your training sessions, mix them up with previously suggested improvised dummies, like gloves, so you pup doesn't get to thinking there's just one bird he should deliver to hand.

Smart dummies for starting a pup are those commiserate with the pup's size and age, something he can pick up and handle without difficulties. Stupid dummies are anything big enough to discourage his efforts.

Anytime you are training a pup or adult to mark a fall, orange-colored dummies also are dumb. While it jumps out at us, orange seems difficult for dogs to see. On the other hand, if you are hiding wing-wrapped or scented dummies in cover for a dog to hunt out and find (aka upland hunting,) your ability to see the "plant" easily but your dog having to use his nose to find it, makes sense.

Finally, I'll tell you about one very smart and one near-genius retrieving dummy.

The very smart dummy is made by Real Duck. Real Duck dummies bring joy to this old dog trainer's heart. The cover simulates that of the fire hose material previously referred to. There's enough heft so they can be tossed fairly well but they have a rather low profile on either land or water, which encourages a dog to use his nose rather than relying exclusively on sight to find the object to be retrieved.

These are my favorites with pups who still have their baby teeth, and during that time between four to six months of age when their permanent teeth are coming in.

The brilliant dummy that is costlier but worth it is the Dokken Dead Fowl Retriever Trainer. This super-dummy is particularly good, in all probability, because it was "invented" and developed by a genuine gun dog trainer, Tom Dokken. It looks like a duck (or pheasant or a number of other gamebird versions), feels like one and, when scent-impregnated, apparently smells like the real thing.

The durable (foam) body of the Dokken dummy has a soft feel. The loose-swinging hard head and feet, which deter head and butt grabbing, condition a dog to taking the proper body hold and making the balanced carry natural.

Get at least one Dokken to supplement the less expensive and more durable boat fender types. If you train heavily, between investing in a half a dozen bumpers and improvising with some pseudo-dummies, you'll condition your dog to fetch anything you toss or knock down.

Practice makes perfect. Lots of it results in a smart dog. A smart hunter is prepared with an appropriate aid, recognized or improvised. Use the right dummies and get the job done, in your own house and yard, at minimal cost.

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