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Training Retrievers Alone

by Dennis Voigt

Reprinted by permission of Retrievers Online Magazine, for information regarding obtaining a subscription please visit -

All amateur retriever trainers would like to be able to train their dogs whenever they could on the best grounds possible and with an experienced crew of helpers, including fellow trainers. Unfortunately, there are many commitments and responsibilities in today’s lifestyles and often schedules are inflexible and time is in short supply. Adequate grounds that are close may also be in short supply. A very common problem is that it is often difficult to get 2-4 people to help throw marks and create the proper set-ups and atmosphere. If you get together with 2-4 other Amateurs and they each have 2-3 dogs, it is almost impossible to set-up realistic land and water setups in a few hours in the evening. At other times, it is difficult to coordinate schedules with your training partner. In many cases, there simply may not be fellow trainers nearby.

The 4-Wheeler loaded with chairs, stickmen and remotes (Zinger Winger, Top Gun and Max 5000)
Advantages of Training Alone
The ability to train alone can be an asset so long as you can effectively maintain or progress your dog in the skills required today. Such retriever training can be very valuable when time is short and there is only time for a couple of setups. Also, you can custom train each dog which may not always be possible in a larger group. Your free time may restrict your training to short periods when nobody else is available. Rather than not train, training alone may be the solution.

Disadvantages of Training Alone
Before I describe my approach to training alone I will emphasize that there are several disadvantages. First is that it is a second-rate substitute for situations in which you have multiple helpers. For some trainers, a training group may help considerably with day-today motivation - i.e., getting out there and just doing it. Novices training alone will have nobody to help with advice about what they are doing and how to solve training problems. This can apply to experienced trainers also. In addition, there is no help with the physical setting up, the clean up, the supply of equipment and birds. It’s frustrating to drive for an hour, set up a big water triple, run 1 dog and drive home. Retriever training alone effectively may require the use of remote controlled bird launchers for certain experiences - such units are costly and can add complexity and extra work to training. Despite these disadvantages, training alone may help you to realize your goal. I have trained Open all-age dogs alone for many years now. In those cases where I was doing wildlife field research, there was often no training group in the area. Much of the time my schedule only allowed me an hour or so maximum per day, sometimes in the morning or perhaps only 40 minutes at lunch. A couple of years ago, just before I retired, I had a very busy schedule but 3-4 dogs. I rarely had time to train and rarely for longer than an hour. I was obligated to use techniques for training alone. I’ll be the first to admit that my dogs suffered during that period but it was more from lack of training than from not having a training group. These days I have the luxury of heading south for a few months in the winter, where I have a great training group with lots of help, knowledge, birds, equipment and superb grounds. However, when back home, I train alone during the day most of the time. There remains a shortage of nearby trainers with compatible schedules. Whenever I can, I arrange training with 1, 2 or more people but oftentimes that is not possible. I find I can reasonably maintain my dogs and also advance higher skill levels with the methods I use.

Diagram 1
The remainder of this article will describe methods and special procedures that I use to keep my dogs tuned up for today’s tough all-age competition. Everybody can visualize training alone when doing basics in the yard or maintenance drills in a yard-type environment. The real trick is to be able to train effectively for goose hunting blinds with assorted diversions and marks in field and water environments. In order to do this, I use equipment such as remote launchers and 4-wheelers not only to be more effective but also to be more efficient. Nobody has unlimited time. Often, I still find I only have 1-2 hours a day despite having more freedom about scheduling.

A Summer Day Training Alone
I will describe a "full" day from last summer when I was training 3 dogs (2 Open, 1 Junior) in order to paint a picture of methods that you can use to train alone. It will give you some ideas of methods, equipment and scheduling. This day was during the middle of the trial season several weeks before the Canadian National Amateur for which I was preparing (Chip won and Target was a finalist — Tule was 18 months and not running trials yet).

6:30am Got up and aired dogs for 15 minutes giving them water and 1 cup of food each. Loaded dogs into truck.

6:45 Took 3 ducks and 1 pheasant out of freezer to thaw – caught 2 live pigeons.

7-8:00 Breakfast and caught up on e-mail, then aired dogs for 10 minutes.

8:15 Took Tule over to "yard" field and did a 16 dog training bumper lining wagon-wheel with orange and white bumpers. Ran through picking up orange bumpers first and then white. Alternated sides after each 3 and worked on communication with "heel/here/that’s it".

8:45 Loaded 4-wheeler on trailer including birds, remote bird launchers and my white "stickmen". Note all my other equipment is always present on truck.

The Zinger Winger with a white coat which can be made to retire.
9:00 Drove to nearby field on home farm for first set-up: a 3-Peat Land/Water Blind (see Setup 1 diagram). At the field, I loaded up 3 orange blind stakes and 9 orange bumpers. Using the 4-wheeler, I set out blinds so that each line was through a narrow pond and through gaps between large round hay bales. Each blind was about 225-250 yards long. I drove a roundabout route but did cross the lines in two places with the 4-wheeler. Back at the line I set up a holding blind and put a mat at the line on a mound.

9:15 Aired Tule and ran him first. Did B1, B3, B2. For Tule, my emphasis was on the 3-Peat through the pond and keeping it simple. For Target and Chip, I wanted to add diversions and additional factors. I staked Tule out beside the truck and got 2-way radios, and put one in the breeze-way of the truck and one clipped to my back pocket.

9:25 For the big dogs, I wanted to put out a chair, a white stickman and the ability to do a dry shot and a poison bird. I also wanted them to navigate some dog training scent on the blind. I loaded up the 4-wheeler including a 5-shot bumper remotely controlled thrower (Max 5000). While in the field I used the radio to say "Plant the blind, Guns Up". This relayed back to the dogs in a trial-type atmosphere voice. I also test fired the ‘Max’ twice so that the dogs heard the guns in the field before they came out of the I also test fired the ‘Max’ twice so that the dogs heard the guns in the field before they came out of the truck. Next, I loaded 4 bumpers in the ‘Max’ but left a space between them so that I could do a dry shot, a mark, a dry shot, a mark. I drove to the other side of the pond and plucked feathers from a duck to scent the area.
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