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Smarter Dummies

Modern Retrieving Tools For Training Gun Dogs

Almost everyone who owns a gun dog has a dummy, some made from plastic and others constructed from fabric. Most types of dummies are used for training a dog to retrieve game birds and to provide vital exercise and physical conditioning. Besides the physical aspects of the dummy-retrieving process, there's the opportunity to create a bond between man and dog, improve obedience and cooperation and relieve canine anxiety and stress.

From traditional low-tech, tube-type dummies costing a few dollars each to more expensive, high-tech retrieving tools such as those that look, feel, smell and even fly through the air like real game birds, there are many kinds of ingeniously designed "smart" dummies for a gun dog owner to buy and use.

Here's an overview of what can be found on today's market.

Traditional Dummies:

Design, Material, Color, Shape and Size Do Matter

Traditional dummies are simple in design, material, color, shape and size. Formed as long, narrow cylinders made to fit a dog's mouth and to be easily hand-tossed on land or into water, these conventional tube-shaped dummies were first discovered as "boat bumpers" made from canvas and stuffed with cotton kapok or chopped cork.

Though these original canvas or fabric-type dummies are still on the market and are regularly used for gun dog training and exercise, plastic tube-shaped retrieving tools have also become very popular, with each type of dummy having specific characteristics and purposes in a canine training and conditioning program.

"The canvas dummy generally has a more bird-like feel, tends to ride higher in water for greater visibility and will hold scent better because of its aroma-absorbing fabric cover," says Jim Dobbs from Dobbs Training Center in Marysville, California. "The downside of fabric retrieving dummies is that they can be relatively fragile [a hard-chewing dog can wreck one in a hurry] and higher-maintenance [they should be dried out after use in water to avoid the growth of mildew].

"Plastic dummies are more durable [an aggressive chewer, however, can still destroy one if given the time and opportunity] and maintenance free," Dobbs adds. "With a rope attached for efficient throwing, plastic dummies when tossed will usually travel farther than the lightweight, bulkier fabric-type products.

The Plasti-Duk, by Neumann and Bennetts, is advertised as the "original knobby retriever trainer." Made from plastic, the Plasti-Duk comes with a knobby exterior that encourages a dog to securely grasp the dummy without developing hard-mouth.

"Some trainers feel, however, that plastic doesn't hold scent or stand out on land and water as well as fabric dummies do. Likewise, the hard surface of a plastic dummy does not have the soft, bird-like sensation of fabric," Dobbs concludes.

"Back in the old days, a dummy was a dummy with a one-size-fits-all shape and dimension," says Larry Hansen, a trainer and dog breeder from Tracy, Minnesota. "Nowadays, these traditional retrieving tools come in a much wider range of shapes and sizes in both the plastic and fabric varieties. As a result, there are now dummies suitable for dogs of every breed, size and temperament, from little, soft-mouthed 10-pound puppies to 100-pound-plus powerful and aggressive adults.

"Modern-day knobby-type plastic dummies come in a choice of knob designs so they will encourage a dog's firm grip but discourage rolling or hard-mouth. Likewise, fabric dummies are available in a variety of sizes to simulate the different dimensions, weights and feel of actual game birds," Hansen adds.

"In deciding on the color of a dummy, remember that dogs are pretty much color blind and see most objects in shades of gray," says Tony Roettger, a full-time gun dog trainer from North Branch, Minnesota. "Consequently, bright fluorescent colors are more for the benefit of the trainer who wants to better see dummies at a distance.

"Because a dog doesn't directly benefit from the sight of a dummy's bright color, a dummy is more visible if it's in sharp contrast to the background. So, white shows up better in a dark green field and black will be more conspicuous against snow," Roettger continues.

The Mark-N-Bird Dummies by Randy the "Flagman" Bartz make use of a "sight-scent-sound" system to help gun dogs more successfully locate and fetch these tools for training and exercise.

The Plasti-Duk by Neumann and Bennetts is advertised as the "original knobby retriever trainer." Made from plastic, the Plasti-Duk comes with a knobby exterior that encourages a dog to securely grasp the dummy without developing hard-mouth. These retrieving tools are available 12 inches long in two- or three-inch diameters or in 10-inch lengths with 17?8-inch or 23?4-inch diameters. They all come in a variety of colors.

The Pawboy Dead Duck Dog Training Dummy, manufactured by Quack Decoy Company, is a two-by-12-inch hard plastic, tube-type knobby dummy with a duck head mounted on one end. The Pawboy can be used on land or in water to replicate the appearance of a dead or wounded duck or goose.

The head can be removed so lead weights can be added as a way to get greater throwing distance and to make the dummy stand with its head up in the water to look like a wounded bird that a dog can easily see from a great distance.

The Real Duck Premium Dog Training Dummies are advertised as tough because they are made from polyester fire-hose casing, tightly woven and double stitched for strength and durability. This fire-hose material is filled with granulated natural cork for long-lasting floatation and a bird-like feel. A sewn-in polyester cord provides a sturdy handle to make throwing this dummy easy and efficient. The product is guaranteed to withstand all normal use in a conventional training program.

The D.T. Soft-Mouth Trainer is made from a soft, pliable plastic that gives this dummy the supple feel of a real game bird. An S-Grip design on the surface makes this dummy easier for a dog to grip without slippage. By requiring less pressure to firmly hold this retrieving device, a dog

learns to have a softer mouth.

A needle-type valve, used to inflate the Soft-Mouth, allows a dog trainer to quickly and easily make this dummy softer or harder. The Soft-Mouth is available in two sizes: two by 11 inches and three by 12 inches, and comes in white, black, blaze orange, yellow and green.

Non-Traditional Dummies

Though the tube-type dummy is the most traditional, there are several other types of retrieving devices available, all designed to increase canine enthusiasm and skills when fetching inanimate objects and game birds.

Ruff Wear Fabric Flying Disks, manufactured from a durable Cordura nylon, are made to easily fly through the air with a simple motion of the arm and hand and a flick of the wrist. Most gun dogs, finding the flight of this disc to be irresistible, will chase it down and retrieve it over and over.

"Making the transition from standard lightweight, cylinder-shaped canvas or plastic dummies to real game birds can sometimes be a problem for gun dogs," says Tom Dokken, the inventor and manufacturer of the Dead Fowl Trainer. The idea of Dokken's DFT training tool is to have a dummy with the look, feel and aroma of an actual dead duck, goose or upland game bird.

"For many dogs, fetching their first 'real' duck or pheasant can be a traumatic event because the bird doesn't look at all like the traditional lightweight training dummy," Dokken says. "Some dogs won't pick up a real bird at all, some will pick it up by the head or foot and some might grab the bird and shake it--all bad habits to be avoided from the beginning." Dokken feels his Dead Fowl concept is the solution to these problems.

"One of the biggest problems in teaching a young dog to retrieve or in tuning up the retrieving skills of an older dog is keeping them interested in looking for, finding and fetching up dummies or game birds," notes Randy Bartz, designer and manufacturer of the Mark-N-Bird Sight, Scent, Sound Training System.

By using a combination of black and white dummies, black and white ribbon-like streamers and black and white ground flags, all with game bird scent added to them, the Mark-N-Bird products appeal to the seeing, smelling and hearing abilities of any dog as a way to increase his success in fetching inanimate dummies or real-life game birds.

"Black and white dummies, streamers and ground flags provide a broad range of visibility in all kinds of weather, water or terrain conditions," Bartz says. "Putting the highly visible black and white streamers on these dummies also creates a 'sound effect' because the streamers will flap as the dummy flies through the air, thus producing a sound similar to the flapping of bird wings.

Real Duck Premium Dog Training Dummies are advertised as super tough because they are made from a polyester fire-hose case tightly woven and double stitched for strength and durability. A sewn-in polyester cord provides a sturdy handle to make throwing this dummy easy and efficient.

"Adding commercially available liquid bird scent to the dummies, the streamers and the ground flags provides yet another sensory dimension that will help a dog find a dummy in the field," Bartz concludes.

The Sport-N-Dog Training Dummy by Kong Company is a lightbulb-shaped, all-rubber dummy with a rope handle for throwing and a built-in foam pad to hold scent and to add buoyancy. The Sport-N-Dog comes in two sizes and is advertised as the "world's strongest training dummy," made from a rubber material that is "resilient, durable, nontoxic, nonabrasive and non-splintering." Though also offered as a "chewing device," many gun dog owners prefer to use the Sport-N-Dog as a retrieving tool because of its erratic bouncing action, weight and shape and the ability of the user to throw it long distances.

Unconventional Retrieving Devices

Flying disks are most commonly made from hard plastic, which can be hard on a dog's lips and teeth. Nyla Bone manufactures a disk made from a soft synthetic that flies well without potential damage to a dog's dental structure. The Kong Company has recently come out with a disk made from a durable yet soft hard-rubber that is safe and comfortable for your disk-catching gun dog.

Ruff Wear has manufactured the HOVER CRAFT. It's made from a sturdy Cordura nylon in three sizes ranging from a "mini" that is seven inches in diameter to a "midi" nine inches in diameter to a "maxi" 18 inches in diameter.

Ball-Type Dummies

The Go-Frrr Ball, manufactured by Proball, started out as a kid's toy consisting of a firm sponge rubber ball in two sizes--21?2 or 27?8 inches in diameter--attached to two 12-inch lengths of surgical tubing that hook onto a plastic hand-held launcher. The ball is pulled back with the other hand and, when released, will easily fly through the air beyond 200 feet. The distance the ball travels is controlled by how far the surgical tubing is stretched when pulled back and released. Because the ball floats, it can be used in water as well as on land.

Hyperdog Tennis Ball Slingshot by Hyper Products is an oversized slingshot that shoots a full-sized tennis ball. At first it might seem like a mere gimmick...that is, until you shoot a tennis ball twice as far as you could throw it by hand and your gun dog chases after the ball with enthusiasm, fetches it, races back to drop it into your hand, then eagerly waits for you to shoot it again.

Or shoot the ball a long way into water, then watch as your dog learns to look farther out and harder for the "round fuzzy dummy" that has gone a greater distance than any conventional dummy.

Dummy Launchers

Small dummies, weighing eight ounces or less and made either from PVC plastic or fabric material, can be effectively propelled from a hand-held or shoulder-mounted launcher powered by .22 blank ammunition. These launching devices can shoot the smaller dummies from 75 feet to over 100 yards.

No gun dog should ever get bored during retrieving exercises with all the innovative, interesting and effective "smarter dummies" available. Though some of these products may look like gimmicks, every one of them has been proven as a sure-fire way to help hunting dogs become better retrievers.

"The advantage of this type of launcher is that one person training or exercising a dog alone can shoot a dummy up to

100 yards as a way of setting up extra-long-distance retrieves," says Jeff Luby, manufacturer of the Retrieve-R-Trainer and Lucky Dog Launcher.

"Along with the dummy flying through air, there is the gunshot 'bang' of the blank .22 shell as a way to gently break a pup to the sound of gunfire," Luby says. "Once most gun dogs have some experience with hearing the Retrieve-R-Trainer go off, then watching the canvas or plastic dummy fly through the air, the launching system will become their favorite training tool."


In addition to instilling and improving retrieving skills, training with any type of modern dummy also offers exercise and physical conditioning for any breed of gun dog. "A dog that will eagerly fetch a dummy is almost always in good physical condition," notes Dr. Jim Rieser, a veterinarian from Franksville, Wisconsin. "Even slightly overweight Labradors or chubby German shorthairs, if they regularly retrieve a dummy, will be in better shape than any house or kennel dog that just lies around all day and seldom gets daily exercise outside of the hunting season."

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