June 26, 2023
Advancements in gear for retriever training over the past couple decades are truly remarkable. Remote-controlled bird launchers, retriever-specific e-collars and other advanced technology have made training easier and more efficient. Several years ago, I added another piece of technical my training regimen and it has had a profound impact on helping my retrievers become better waterfowl dogs.
How It Started
Despite our efforts to create realistic hunting situations during training, it always bothered me that the one thing we couldn’t mimic was a flock of birds working decoys. Ducks start to come in, then they circle back out, often multiple times, before committing. This can be an excruciatingly long period of time for a young dog to sit patiently, and it’s obviously much different than a training situation where the dog hears a duck call followed by a “Boom!” and moments later sees a bumper or bird falling.
When a dog is looking out at your thrower (or launcher), it’s really looking out more than up. And sure, you can use a blank-fired dummy launcher, but even then, the bumper is in the air for a very brief period. With the ability to make a drone hang in the air, fade away and then come back, and even make multiple circles at high altitude, using this technology mimics real duck hunting than any other type of training drill.
Several years ago, I was in Iowa working on some videos for GUN DOG Magazine. The video team was using a drone for some of the shots. I glanced over at one of my dogs and saw that he couldn’t take his eyes off the drone no matter where it went. I’m sure he was just begging someone to blast it out of the sky. That moment was what I call the missing link in my retriever training regimen.
When I got home, I took a drone and rigged it with a release mechanism used for bird launchers. I synced it to a remote transmitter in the same way one would set up a remote bird launcher. I also added some homemade “floats” so if my expensive drone ended up in the drink, I wouldn’t lose it. After multiple alterations, I had a final working model, and I’ve been using it since.
As I mentioned, being able to mimic a bird working the decoys for an extended amount of time is a priceless advantage during water training, especially for a young dog that hasn’t experienced its first waterfowl season. Just as I hit the release button on the transmitter, I’ll have a helper pop off a shotgun blank while the bumper tumbles to the water.
Sometimes I’ll use the drone while working on long water marks. It’s a great time-saver because there’s no need for a helper and a boat. A bonus is that if a dog is swimming toward a long mark and starts to lose confidence, I can take the drone and zoom it over the location of the bumper. By then the dog has learned to keep an eye on the drone and will swim toward it. This is similar to when you have a helper pick up a bumper and toss it again when a dog is having trouble finding it, but this is much more efficient.
Another time-saver is to use the drone to plant a blind or multiple blinds. No more rowing a boat across a body of water to plant a bumper or bird, or asking a helper to walk all the way around the end of a pond or lake to do it for you.
The drone can also be a great motivator in teaching a dog to run longer blinds. Once a dog has learned that good things happen when drone is around, I can take the drone and run it straight away, low to the ground or water, as the dog watches it. Then I’ll send the dog for the blind retrieve.
A Trailing Drill
I’m amazed at some of the creative ways retriever trainers have told me they use their drones. I’ve incorporated one such example into my own training. We all know how valuable it is to have a retriever that will trail a running or wounded bird, whether it’s a duck in a cattail bog or a pheasant in thick grass. I’ve used my drone to teach trailing by attaching a rag soaked with bird scent to the drone on a short cord and then sending the drone low to the ground, dragging the scent through the cover, and then stopping at the point where I’ve planted a bird.
Then I bring the drone back and walk the dog out to the start of the trail and encourage it to hunt. Not only is this efficient, but it also eliminates the chance that a dog is trailing my footsteps instead of the bird scent itself.
If there’s a downside to training with a modified drone, it’s that it’s not a cheap undertaking. Depending on how you set it up, it’s probably a $1,200-$1,500 investment. If you train with a group, you could mitigate costs by having multiple retriever owners go in on it. I’d encourage you to search the internet to find dealers, as well as discussions and videos from other trainers who have worked this piece of technology into their training.