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How your dog’s vision affects its training

Now here’s an interesting question — when you are starting your puppy’s training, which colour of dummy is it best to use? To answer we need to go back to basics: most professional trainers will tell you to make these early retrieving lessons fun and easy. The aim is to get the puppy used to fetching an object and bringing it back to you. To help achieve this you wouldn’t hide dummies in long grass or rough cover.

So to come back to my original question — which colour dummy is best? Believe it or not, blue or purple seems to be best. If we examine how and what a dog can see this may make more sense.

Three aspects

The dog has three main aspects to its sight. The first of these is motion. Think of a green lizard motionless on a leafy branch in the tropics. Both you and your dog would have a hard time seeing it — until it moved. Think back to a dog chasing a green tennis ball on green grass. He can follow it fine, even though there is no colour difference on which to “lock on”. When lamping, a lurcher can struggle to see a squatting rabbit — until it moves.

The second aspect — and this is one that is particularly important to gundog trainers — is contrast. A stationary object that has a distinct and very different shape from its background is easier to spot, while one that is patterned like its background will blend in. That’s the principle of camouflage clothing. Yes, such clothing is the colour of the woods, but, more importantly, camo breaks up the body’s outline against the patchy background scene of branches, leaves and underbrush. Even small movements are harder to see when an object’s outline blurs with its background.

The third aspect is colour. Most people think that dogs see in black and white, but they are, in fact, “colour blind”. They do see colour but their colour range — or, to be scientific, their chromatic acuity — is significantly less than humans’.

This is for two reasons: dogs have far fewer cone cells in their retina (cone cells are responsible for seeing colour) and they are dichromatic (they see only two primary colours, blue and yellow), whereas humans are trichromatic (we see three primary colours, red, blue and green). Consequently, the dog’s world consists of yellows, blues and greys. When a human perceives a red object it appears yellow to the dog, while a green object appears white, and orange all but disappears. So if you thought that by using an orange dummy you were helping your dog’s confidence, you were actually making its retrieves harder!

Evolution of sight

Evolution is a marvellous thing. Way back in time when humans were hunter-gatherers we hunted during the day and needed to be able to recognise what food was ready to eat. The colour of most ripe fruit tends to be towards the red end of the colour spectrum and fruit that is not ready to eat is nearly always green, so our sight patterns evolved so we could see the difference. Wild dogs, however, hunt at dusk and into the night and therefore vivid colour isn’t so important, but being able to detect movement is critical for survival.

So, to maximise an object’s visibility to a dog, we should strive to combine the maximum contrast (a dark and white pattern not like that of the background scene) and stand-out colour (one that is identifiable by dogs and does not occur often in the background scene). Therefore, the best colour to see against most background scenes is a boldly patterned bright purple/ blue or white object.

Natural instincts

Ultimately, we require our gundogs to use all their natural instincts, which include sight, scent and hearing. How many times have you seen your dog run straight past a dummy or even a shot bird and you cannot understand why he didn’t pick it? It could be that the scenting conditions were poor (that is another subject altogether) or there is a good chance he couldn’t see it due to the lack of contrast against the background.

A few years ago, I sent one of my cockers for a rabbit on a hot day. It had just dropped into a small indentation in the ground, but the dog ran over four times before she eventually picked it. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see it. There wouldn’t have been much scent around because it was so hot, but now I realise that as far as she was concerned the rabbit had literally disappeared.

Dummy colour

Anyone that is new to the gundog training world could easily get confused by the array of retrieving dummies that are on sale. The most common type is the traditional green canvas dummy. Interestingly enough, the science suggests that the colour of these dummies makes them hard for a dog to see and I have often wondered why they were produced in this colour in the first place. I suspect it was for no other reason than the canvas material came in that particular hue.

A few years ago, after a conversation with Shooting Times gundog trainer Ian Clinton, of the Working Dog Company, he put the first purple dummies available to the UK gundog market into production. They have proved to be very popular.

At the other end of the scale, red or orange dummies are nigh on invisible to a dog. Once we appreciate the visual capabilities of the dog, we can then develop training exercises using this knowledge to our benefit.

Blue tennis balls

Quite often when starting a young puppy out we tend to use tennis balls, because they leave a good scent trail and are easy for a puppy to pick up. But look at the colour spectrum and you will clearly see that green is not a good colour to use, especially on grass — in theory everything would look white to the dog.

You can now buy blue tennis balls and they are far better to build the confidence of a puppy — the colour will stand out like a beacon. At this early stage you want to make it as easy as possible for the puppy. As the dog becomes more experienced and the exercises become more involved, you can again use colour to your advantage.

I quite often use an orange dummy as a blind retrieve, and then I also put out a purple dummy as a seen retrieve. The purple dummy will act like a magnet and pull the dog towards it, but it takes some handling to get the dog on to the orange retrieve.

As already stated, contrast is important in a dog’s visual arsenal and a black and white dummy thrown out along the ground when a dog is hunting can be very tempting. When hunting our dogs, rabbits can be the downfall of many of us — they are the ultimate distraction, they run (movement) and they have a white tail that flashes against a dark body (contrast). In fact, I think the only thing that evolution missed in making the humble rabbit the ultimate prey for a canine was ever making them purple