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On the dummy run

If, like me, you always read the classified advertisements at the back of Shooting Times, you will know there is a market for the latest must-have dog training equipment. Gadgets to fling, gadgets that go bang without risk of arrest, gadgets for all abilities and price ranges and yet, are they really necessary for training a working gundog?

Just what is a canvas dummy meant to represent? Even with feather or fur tied around it, is this inanimate object, which only gives off the handler’s scent, really representative of game? Also, what does its retrieval prove? I was taught to teach my first gundog more than 25 years ago, which I know in some circles still classes me as a novice. I started with basic obedience and was taught that a retrieve is only a retrieve when brought back to hand and held in the mouth until release. It sounds simple, but this is an exercise that has to be broken down into several modules.

Step one: you need a dog to sit until sent. Step two: the dog must run out in a straight line to pick the retrieve article and bring it back without dropping or mouthing. Step three: the dog must hold the article in a sit in front of you. Step four: the dog must release on command and await further instructions. This is a classic “obedience” retrieve, which is adopted in less formal terms for the field. Even those who pick-up need these basics without the frills.

What of game finding, though, as opposed to retrieving? When did the canvas dummy become de rigueur in gundog training? There is no mention of this training aid in old sporting books. Writing in 1892, John Wilkins, in The Autobiography of an English Gamekeeper, describes how a keeper of that time trained a retriever, having first put out a shot rabbit: Take him out and put him on the scent of the blood, standing quite still yourself and letting him do the work and bring the rabbit back to you without any assistance.

Once a dog is sure of “finding” you, extend the length of retrieve: As you go along, take the rabbit out of your pocket and drop it on the ground; walk on for 20 or 30 yards and then send him back for it. After a time, go from 40 to 100 yards after dropping the rabbit, then from 100 to 200 and so on up to a quarter-of-a-mile, making him go back and fetch it as before.

This suggests that the dog had been trained to “go back” and use its nose without having seen the end article. This attitude is confirmed in The Keeper’s Book of 1904. Writing under the heading, Use of Eyes instead of Nose, Dr Charles Reid states that this is, a common error made by many. To save trouble, or, it may be, from delight in seeing the young dog carry so well, he is allowed to retrieve what he sees.

Presumably this was hand-thrown game, as no mention of artificial retrieve articles are mentioned, but he is stressing that it is a mistake to train a working gundog on seen retrieves rather than to let it use nose and judgement.

The canvas dummy was first designed and manufactured more than 30 years ago, and is now routinely used for training, game fairs and working tests. I can see why they have been enthusiastically embraced: it is impractical ? and now probably regulated ? to provide warm or cold game in this sanitised world for the number of participants involved, but is use of the dummy detrimental to the dog’s instinct to retrieve feather, fur or fossilised remains, as most puppies do, in preference to a contrived man-made retrieve? Steadiness and direction control can be taught as efficiently without dummies; as for the ever-popular scurry, how much more entertaining for the audience to use cuddly toys to prove dogs really will pick-up “fur”?

Who can honestly say their dog has never grown tired of too many thrown retrieves? I made that mistake with my first gundog, buying whistle and dummy, and boring the dog silly with excessive retrieving. Fortunately, she forgave me, and became an efficient finder and retriever of game for many years.

I am sure I am not the only one at a working test who has used the excuse that a dog is “just not interested in dummies” since working on game. People will argue that this is down to obedience; if sent to retrieve and “hold”, the dog should do it. But who can blame them, having to retrieve a soggy bit of canvas that numerous other dogs have mouthed, particularly if there is far more exciting ground scent? There is also the problem of a dog only wanting to retrieve his own dummy and ignoring others.

As Dr Reid commented in 1904: Occasionally one sees a retriever trained most thoroughly, who does everything he is commanded perfectly, and yet he is of small value at work. Why? Because he is a machine ? the dog has no confidence in himself? The moment he loses the scent he looks to his master for guidance. Does this sound familiar at working tests or field trials? Should a dog have to be handled on to the end article rather than use its natural ability? This seems to be the main grumble in field trials today; many judges have come up via the working test, where robotic retrieves on dummies are required.

I note that dummies are now being produced in “realistic” shapes, with scent available. Could we be making a return to using actual game to train a gundog, rather than using objects that are meant to represent it?