It all started while filming a Gun Dog training DVD a few years ago. Training legend Tom Dokken saw one of the cameramen using a unique tool to film aerial shots of the dogs working cover. The tool? A drone.
With many people, when the wheels start turning they never really take them anywhere. Not so with Dokken, who years ago changed how we look at training dummies by innovating the first offerings in the DeadFowl trainer lineup. Today DeadFowl trainers, which are now offered in a wide range of realistic waterfowl and upland gamebird options, are the gold standard for professional and amateur trainers alike.
During that first day of taping as Dokken watched the drone being piloted around, he realized that a question he'd been asking himself for a long time was finally being answered. "For years I'd been attempting to develop something to teach a retriever to look skyward for where the retrieves will be coming from, especially in a duck hunting situation," Dokken recalls. "I wanted a way to get them to understand they need to look up, but I never hit on it until I saw that drone in action and realized it was truly possible."
Nearly all dummy training involves the dog watching the trainer for the dummy to be tossed by hand or via a launcher. Dokken notes that there is a place for both in training and that they'll never fully be replaced, but both styles condition the dog to watch the source of the retrieving dummy, which is, of course, the hand or the ground. He also notes that launchers help, but they also fire off dummies so fast that dogs sometimes lose the dummy until it's well out toward the end of its flight.
Bird releasers work as well, and he even tried to suspend them via wires to simulate a bird coming down from the sky, but that didn't work either. "Everything I tried resulted in the dog looking at a specific spot and not scanning the sky like I wanted them to.
"I really wanted them to recognize that they're looking at the sky to spot birds and mark them, which wasn't happening with my earlier attempts. I also really wanted to be able to control the speed at which the dummies came into view."
As you can guess, Dokken never discovered that magical training tool until he laid eyes on a drone zipping across the sky and then hovering over a single spot during their video production.
Shortly after that, he purchased his own drone and had it outfitted with a drop-release mechanism. He then did what he has always done — started messing around with dogs and his new tool. He quickly realized that dogs were quick to learn to do just what he wanted them to and he knew he was on to something.
Although it sounds pretty amazing, according to Dokken the dogs learning to scan the sky and watch the drone is simply a conditioned response and would be no different than if at random times we suddenly noticed $100 bills dropping from the sky. Before long, we'd spend far more time focusing on the airspace from which those Benjamins originated than we would staring at the ground.
Initially, Dokken learned that flying a drone and controlling it was pretty simple, which meant he had more time to expand its role in his training routine. "The more I flew it, the more I realized what I could do with the drone. I could send it out a great distance and let it hover. The dogs naturally took to watching it, and they'd focus all of their attention on the drone because they learned quickly that's where the dummy is going to come from. It only took maybe 10 short sessions for the first dogs to learn that, which was truly amazing."
Naturally, Dokken kept learning with the drone and testing it to see just how much he could incorporate it into his advanced training drills. He soon realized that he could run his dogs through serious long-distance training by sending the dog and waiting until it was halfway to the drone before hitting the dropper. This type of training without a drone is a hassle, and simply not that easy to accomplish — but it is essential.
According to Dokken, this revelation was almost too good to be true. "It worked so well that it was almost like cheating. I could do long-distance retrieves on land or water so much easier than before and I also discovered something else. If the dog lost its mark or its bearings while it was swimming, I could return the drone to the spot of the drop and the dog would be able to orient himself and work the retrieve to a successful conclusion, which is so important."
He also realized that the drone was an asset when dealing with blind retrieves and hand signals, "If I had a dog that was having a little trouble, I'd simply deploy the drone and let a dummy fall before the dog gave up in frustration. Again, this guarantees success every time. It's truly like having another handler with you that can do things that no human handler can do."
Tracking and Trailing
The benefits to drone training don't end with long distance and blind retrieves. They also extend into the world of tracking and trailing, which is a crucial part of any upland dog's repertoire.
"All sporting dogs need to be able to track wounded birds but it's hard to replicate a true hunting situation while training," Dokken says. Dogs are really good at learning to track us and essentially cheat in normal drills because we have to walk out and create a scent trail and hide the bird during most drills. With a drone, I don't need to walk anywhere and contaminate my training space."
To do this, Dokken attaches a dead bird to the dropper and then runs a 15-foot cord off the drone. At the end of the cord he attaches a rag that is soaked with liquid training scent. He sends the drone out and flies it low enough to drag the scent-soaked rag across the grass for as far as he wants and then he drops the dead bird. This is as close as anyone's going to get to replicating a true hunting situation and truly preparing a dog for real-world wounded bird recovery.
When a dog understands that drill and can accomplish it with ease, Dokken ups the ante by making a short drag and then flying the drone so that it will create gaps in the trail. This advanced drill, where the scent is no longer in a continuous line, will challenge all dogs and is a great way for them to work out an intermittent trail that contains cold spots.
Anyone who trains hounds, or might own a bird dog that pulls double duty as a game recovery dog, can benefit from this as well. "The ability to create a trail is great for gun dogs, but it's also perfect for dogs that are tasked with finding mortally hit deer and other big game," Dokken says.
"If I want to, I can create a half-mile long trail that zigs and zags all over the landscape or takes a few hard, 90-degree turns. If you're training a game-recovery dog, that's such an advantage."
Because of the nature of most waterfowl hunts, drone training is perfect for duck dogs. The ability to strafe a drone across the sky and simulate passing shots or ducks that are coming into decoys and suddenly drop from the sky is invaluable. You can also slow the process way down with a puppy so you can replicate a true hunt and create the perfect, easy-to-succeed first duck hunt long before you actually take them hunting.
The same goes for anyone who might spend their early season pass shooting doves. With a drone, you can control the flight of the dummy coming in and keep your dog in check next to you, just like you'd want to while sitting on the edge of a sunflower field in September.
It's not just the pass-shooters who will benefit, however. The trailing drills a drone allows you to create are perfect preparation for pheasant hunters and their four-legged counterparts. No dog needs to know how to trail a wounded bird that can eat up ground in seconds more than one that will spend part of his season nosing up ringnecks.
And the list goes on and on. It may be hard to justify the cost of a drone for an amateur trainer, but the benefits are hard to argue with. It's also hard to argue with anything that a trainer like Dokken advocates as one of his best tools, because if a professional can wring so many uses out of a single tool, it certainly will benefit amateur trainers as well. It's also highly likely that the price of drones will drop as more and more companies churn them out.
This is good news for all of us. Even if this may seem like a crazy concept now, it won't in a few years. You've got Dokken's word on that.
Get Your Drone
If you want a drone for dog training, you've only got one option right now. Through Everything Gun Dog (everythinggundog.com), you can purchase a DJI Phantom 2 that is fully outfitted with Dokken's drop-release mechanism ($1295).
This easy-to-fly drone offers 25 minutes of flight time per charge and features Auto Return-To-Home and Landing. For dropping live pigeon-sized birds, you can also purchase a drop box separately.