Training your gun dog is easy with these six essential pieces of gear
In a world that seems hell-bent on over-complicating almost everything, I take great comfort in the fact that flushing dog training requires very little in the way of gadgets, gear and elaborate training tools. Notwithstanding the possible exception of the electronic collar, the tools I rely on most in my daily training sessions have changed very little in the last century. Here are the training tools I rely on most, why I choose the ones I do and what aspects of my training I rely on them for.
1. English-Style Slip Lead
The first tool in my kit is the basic English-style slip lead. I use this lead both in training and in my general handling of dogs at heel, either walking to the training field, to the vet's office or to-and-from the kennels. The simple lead I prefer is made of soft, round polypropylene or nylon rope, with a fixed, non-corrosive metal ring at one end, and a fixed hand loop at the other. A loop of the lead passed through the metal ring creates the 'slip' or a loop that passes over the dog's neck that constricts with tension but releases instantly when slack is given.
This tool is invaluable in teaching the sit/hup command, as well as teaching the dog to heel. A simple pop of tension will bring the heeling dog back to position, and gentle upward pressure on the neck will force the dog's head up and hind end down into a sit. Be certain, however, to always position the slip over the dog's head in the same orientation (for a dog heeling on the left, the loop should form a P shape facing right as you look at the dog's face).
I always choose a slip lead that has both a soft rope construction and sufficient rope diameter to be easy and comfortable to handle, while nonetheless remaining friction-free for easy slipping and quick corrections. Some come equipped with leather 'stops' that keep the loop in place, but these are largely unnecessary.
2. Nylon Check Cord
The second training tool in my quiver is a 25-foot nylon check cord. I have used various types over the course of my career, and now I often find myself using a light cord of flat nylon webbing, similar to those used in horse training. Regardless of the construction, I generally handle a check cord while wearing gloves, as the friction can burn your hands, and if the cord collects thorns or poison-ivy sap, I like to keep my hands protected.
The check cord is a simple length of cord or webbing that is typically tight-woven so that it doesn't fray. It has a non-corrosive metal snap on the dog end and NO LOOP on the handler end. Be sure your check cord is free of knots or loops so it can slip freely through the training cover without getting caught or snagged and potentially injuring the dog. I use the check cord to reinforce the recall command, to establish the foundations of steadiness (post-flush), and to catch a young dog that is big enough to outrun me.
3. Training Dummies
Though I rely heavily on dead pigeons in my retrieve training, I also use rubber training dummies quite extensively. In recent years, I have come to prefer the white hard-rubber training dummies from Avery. These dummies are hexagonal in cross section, approximately 3" by 11", and fixed with a 12" throw rope at one end. They float, which is convenient for water retrieves, and I find that white provides good contrast for visual marking on grass.
It is critical that these training dummies be used in training scenarios only, and not be given as general chew toys. As with all training tools, the dog should have a clear association between training tools and work time; training dummies are for work€¦fun work, but work nonetheless.
4. Bird Bag
Perhaps my favorite training tool, and the one that is a little more personal than all the rest, is my bird bag. In any given training day, I use 20 or so live pigeons, several of which ideally get shot over the dogs. Since I tend to prefer 'rolling' pigeons, I need to carry them with me, and also carry the shot birds that have been delivered on a retrieve.
My preferred bag for this is a Brady Game Bag from England, in a model that I believe is called the Woodland Game Bag. This bag is approximately 15" by 20", with a shoulder strap, a flap cover and an external net bag that I use to hold dead birds. It is made of rugged canvas, and the main compartment has a rubberized lining, so if desired it can be easily cleaned or wiped out.
I tend to keep five or six live birds in the bag at a time, and the heavy flap keeps them from escaping but allows me to easily reach in and grab one. Though I have used numerous styles of bag over the years, these Brady bags have become my preferred design, and their quality is unmatched. If there were one tool I'd hate to have to replace, it would be my bird bag.
5. Training Pistol
Though I do a good deal of training with live birds and live shooters, I still rely heavily on the training pistol when teaching the early stages of steadiness to shot, and/or when training on wild birds off-season. Training pistols are not all created equal, and generally you get what you pay for. There are quite a few on the market, some of which are built to fire .22 crimps or blanks, some of which fire 209 shotgun primers.
Regardless of design, a blank pistol needs to be designed and constructed in a manner that allows for thousands of shots to be fired over the course of a training season, and therefore the quality of construction should be high. I personally prefer the .22 blank pistol, as there are several options for ammunition, which provide varying degrees of noise upon firing.
I begin with crimps and move up from there, but the versatility in volume is nice, unlike the consistent volume of 209 primers. That said, primers are cheap and easy to find€¦in the end, either will work.
The pistol I prefer is professional grade and made by New England Firearms on the frame of a true, functional .22 revolver. Some trainers paint the grip or barrel of their starter pistol with orange or pink paint, or mark with brightly colored tape, as color can be of help if the gun is lost in the brush or the training field. Though it is easy to neglect, the cylinder and frame of the starter pistol should be cleaned and oiled as would those of a real gun to ensure the pistol lasts a lifetime.
6. Training Collar
Finally, and this is a bit of an outlier, I do consider the training collar to be a core training tool these days. As noted in my previous column, I do not look at the e-collar as tool to be over-used or improperly relied upon, but it would be incorrect to say that it does not have its place.
There is a dizzying array of collars on the market, and many are targeted toward specific needs. A multi-dog GPS tracking and training collar, for example, doesn't have much application for me in my flusher training, and the significant investment in such a collar would be a waste for me. In general, I want a collar that is rugged and waterproof, with a significant range of stimulation levels, and both momentary (one quick moment) and continuous stimulation options.
If a vibrate/tone option exists on the same collar, all the better. It is also important to me personally that a PhD is not required to operate the collar. I personally like the Garmin Sport Pro and Pro series collars, as they are fairly intuitive and well built, with a design and function similar to the older Tri-Tronics collars. That said, every trainer seems to have a preferred collar system, and generally what you get used to is what you stick with.
In the end, it is helpful to remember that people have been training flushing dogs for hundreds of years, often with little or no specialized tools. That said, a few simple tools can make the training a bit simpler, and a bit more enjoyable. With the kit described above, you will have all you need to train a lifetime of dogs in a professional, efficient way.