Basic Equipment for Retriever Training
By Glenda Brown
Beginners often ask what equipment they need to get started in field activities. The well-known quote, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” is attributed to American financier J.P. Morgan when asked how much it cost to maintain a yacht. Although the field is an area where you can really get carried away, have no fear, it’s not as bad as all that. Included here are some of the basic things you will need to get started.
You should have a leash, with a choke or a buckle collar for training. You will need these for your basic obedience work.
You will need a good supply of bumpers, in the 2×12 and 3×12 sizes, in both white and in black. I do not care for the canvas bumpers as I feel the rubber ones can be cleaned and dried so much more readily. This is just a personal preference. You will need to put throw ropes on them (although you can order some already pre-roped and/or you can order the ropes). You won’t need red bumpers at first until your dog is advanced enough to run blinds. You can often get a price break on bumpers by ordering in volume. You may have some training buddies who wish to go together on an order. Also, sometimes you can find someone who once ran hunt tests or trials and no longer does and who would give you some bumpers or sell them to you at a good price. If you visit Neuman & Bennetts in Klamath Falls, Oregon, you can buy their seconds very reasonably. They work just as well as the firsts, and I have yet to find a dog that knew the difference.
The reason I say white and black bumpers is that I feel that in order to learn how to mark, and/or to mark at all, it is essential that the dog sees the bumper. White bumpers are usually what are seen best, but with some backgrounds, a black one will stand out better. I know that some people feel throwing a red bumper for a marking test is fine, but, suffice it to say, I prefer either white or black. Later, when your dog is working at greater distances, you might want to tie some streamers on a few bumpers to help the dog pick out those really long marks. You can buy streamers ready-made, or tie a couple of strips of white surveyors tape on a few bumpers.
You will want to order a whistle, although two is better so that you always have a spare. You will need a lanyard from which to hang said whistles. There are a variety of good whistles from a clear Gonia competition whistle as well as a clear mega whistle. In addition, there is an orange-colored, pea-less whistle called The Answer whose sounds carry very well. The Dallesasse whistle is great for distance, as is one called the Green Monster. Depending on whether you will be working at a great distance or not, will determine the whistle you need. Some competitors advocate a Fox 40, but many judges are strongly against them since they are hard on their hearing. Some pros do not like their clients to use them in training – at least when the pro’s ears are close by!
The whistle has two very important uses. The first is to have your dog come to you. The second is to have him sit in the field when you have reached the stage when you will be “handling” your dog (giving it arm directions from a distance). When your dog knows the verbal “come” or “here” command, you can start training the whistle by incorporating short whistle blasts (beep, beep, beep) in conjunction with that command. Then gradually phase out the verbal “come” or “here” using the whistle instead. In the beginning, always reward your dog for coming to you on the whistle command. You teach the use of the whistle in the same manner as you would teach any obedience command.
You can start the “sit on the whistle” in the same manner. When you are heeling your dog, blow one short blast on your whistle and then immediately give the “sit” command. Do the same process you did for the “here” command in that you will start to eliminate the verbal “sit” and go to a whistle “sit.” There are good training books available which will walk you through this process.
Duck hunters, of course, need a duck call. A duck call is also used in hunt tests at the gun station to first get the dog’s attention for a marked retrieve. You should have one on your lanyard for when it’s your turn to man the gun station in training, and when helping out at hunt tests. It’s occasionally used by the handler on the line in the advanced stakes, so handlers in Senior and Master tests should come to the line prepared. They are available at most sporting good stores and online. Practice making life-like calls on your duck call. It’s not as easy as it looks.
A pistol that shoots blank shells is something which is a big asset, especially if you join a training group. When I started, since I could not shoot a pistol in Santa Barbara without fear of the police immediately showing up, I put together two short pieces of 2×4 wood connected with a hinge which I had my “gunner” clap together to make the sound of a gun before throwing a bumper. It worked, but obviously, this was less than ideal and wouldn’t go over well in a training group.
Get some ear plugs to use while shooting the pistol. You can get inexpensive foam earplugs at drug stores, sporting good stores, and hardware stores. Hardware stores, sporting and gun stores offer a variety of ear protection, including inexpensive soft rubber ones on a head band, and earmuff style ear protectors, which of course are more expensive. Take Note: Even though it is a blank pistol, it can still be deadly, so learn gun safety and treat it as you would a real pistol.
You will want a folding chair for when you go into the field to throw, or when you are near the line watching other dogs run.
A fanny pack, or a canvas bag that you can hang on your shoulder, depending on the volume of personal items you need, is helpful when it is your turn to throw. I put in my pistol, shells, some ear plugs, water, and a sandwich if I think I am going to be out there for a while.
A “radio” in field lingo is a two-way radio, aka a “walkie-talkie.” They aren’t expensive, but are an essential item. They allow each person in a training group to keep in communication with all the others. This communication saves much time and frustration, and has been known to save marriages!
You will need a visor, baseball cap, or straw hat for those sunny days.
You will need camo or dark-colored clothing for hunt tests.
White Handling Jacket and Black Handling Jacket
You will want a white handling jacket for field trial training. You can order really nice handling jackets online, or you can go to a thrift store, like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, and get men’s large white shirts for a couple of dollars each. These also make good “gunners” when placed on chairs, or used on stickmen later in your dog’s career.
You may wonder why I recommend a white handling jacket if you are planning to run hunt tests, but not field trials. I feel it is very important that the dogs see the guns in the field, especially when young dogs are learning about this new game. Also, when teaching handling, they can see you so much better if you are wearing white. I know there are diehard hunt test competitors who feel strongly that they must always be in camo, but I have entered some of my trial dogs in Master Hunter tests when I was there to run some young dogs in JH or SH. These trial dogs had never seen camo in competition, and still they did amazingly well. In addition, I have seen some hunt test people climb all over their poor dogs for missing a mark or not handling well when the dog could neither pick out the gun nor see the handler. It’s your call, but that is what I suggest while your dog is still in the learning stages. Obviously, when competing in hunt tests, you will need to wear camo or dark colored clothing. Keep in mind that dogs can pick out black very well against many backgrounds.
Eventually, you will probably think about investing in an electronic collar. I feel they are a marvelous tool when used correctly, but you should not use one unless someone who is knowledgeable schools you in their use. There are some excellent DVDs on “e-collar” training/conditioning in the GRCA Bibliography list. Remember, an electronic collar correction is to be used only after the dog has been taught what it is supposed to do and is not making an effort to do it correctly. I trained a couple of dogs through junior, senior, and master hunter without the use of an e-collar. That was mainly because, at that time, I didn’t know how to use one and was afraid to try as I had seen its use abused. When the time comes and you feel ready to invest in one, invest in learning its proper use as well. All of my current dogs are collar conditioned. If you already have an electronic collar, review the exact use of it before taking it to the field.
Other Training Aids
The above items should get you started. There are many more items which you might wish to accumulate as you become more involved, and here are some suggestions:
Camo Umbrellas are great for being a retired gun, or just to protect you from the sun, wind, and rain.
There are some good mechanical tossers which are very handy if you train alone, or even when training with friends. I have a Tangelo Tosser which I take with me when I train with a group since my throwing skills can’t compare to any of the men’s. By having this, I can do a good, consistent throw and be a little more welcome.
You might want to make or buy a holding blind or bird rack, or buy a couple of decoys.
Where to Order Equipment
You can order whistles, bumpers, handling jackets, and other training equipment online. Just search on your computer for gun dog training equipment.
Books & Videos
You should get as many good videos, DVDs, training books, magazines, etc., as you can afford. Most of the books would cover what you want to know in their Volume One. Check out the GRCA Bibliography section for suggestions. It also includes links on where to order. You might want go together with some friends and order some of these and share.
To start, you need videos or DVDs on the basics. You could all get together, share some popcorn or other goodies, and watch the videos together, discussing what you see. Many of these will walk you through early training in a well articulated and well-planned progressive manner. They will answer a lot of the questions you might have.
One book I used on a regular basis when I started was Tom Quinn’s “The Working Retrievers.” It is such a beautiful book with copies of many of his paintings, in addition to having a lot of valuable information. Many of his training methods have now been superseded with more advanced techniques, but it still contains a lot of good advice. At times you can buy used training books at some of the vendor booths at dog shows. The GRCA Bibliography contains a list of some excellent training books and where you can buy them.
Where to Obtain Books & Videos
Amazon.com and dogwise.com offer some of the books in the GRCA Field Bibliography, and links to others are included in the Bibliography.
Another source of training books is your local library or dog club. If you have a friend or acquaintance who trains field dogs, ask if they have some thoughts regarding books they have found helpful, or if they would be willing to loan you some. If you borrow books and/or videos, be sure to return them promptly!
Pros & Mentors
Spending some time working with a pro is highly recommended and can give you a big jump start. You can watch how the pro works, ask questions, meet other persons who have the same interests you do, and see how dogs are trained at various levels.
You will be fortunate indeed if you are able to develop a relationship with an experienced and knowledgeable retriever training enthusiast who enjoys sharing their knowledge with you and has happy working dogs. You should be comfortable with their way with the dogs, compatible with their techniques, and appreciative of their time.
Like any other dog pursuit, once you get through the basics, you will start to understand more, know what additional equipment you need, and what concepts you and your dog need to learn.