There are many challenges faced when training by yourself
Historically, retriever trainers have been among humanity's most gregarious specimens, by necessity if not by inclination. Why? Because the typical retrieverite has long needed human assistants. To lengthen his dog's marks out beyond the range of his throw, he has needed someone to walk out an appropriate distance and toss dummies and birds. To offer a shot flier, he has needed two assistants, one to throw the bird, the other to shoot it, thereby allowing our hero to concentrate on his dog's manners. For a triple mark with an honor, he has needed four assistants, three throwers and one to handle the other dog.
Granted, in his 1946 classic, Training Your Retriever, James Lamb Free explained how you can do most of these tasks yourself, at least after your retriever is rock-steady (more or less). Leaving your dog at the line, you walk out, throw the dummy or bird, return to the line, and handle him. If you're handy with the shotgun, you can even throw and shoot live fliers for him. By moving between throws, you can throw doubles and triples. Overall, Free's technique works fairly well, and it gives you much more exercise than group-training. Years ago, my Chesapeake, Beaver, loved it, mostly because it gave him multiple opportunities to flaunt his innate contrariness. He'd sit quietly at the line while I walked out, threw, and started back. But when I was about 10 yards away, he'd creep forward a few feet, a big no-no. So I had to correct him, reposition him, walk back out a ways, then walk back again. As I approached him this time, that crafty beast just might creep again. And so on, until he felt he had made his point. I got exercise.
Of course, Free's technique doesn't work in water, even if you're an Olympic-class swimmer. But it can get you by on land when you can't train with a group. And for many years, it was about all the solo trainer had to rely on for regular training.
Technology To The Rescue
Then around 1960 someone invented a hand-held dummy launcher. It used .22 blanks to propel a dummy a considerable distance. With one of these, you can give your dog challenging single marks. It works especially well in training dogs for upland hunting, since the flight of the launched dummy approximates that of a flushed upland bird. You can even give your dog doubles and triples, but with a significant delay between falls, while you reload. Happily, you can use this device in water as well as on land.
By the 1980s a few ingenious retrieverites were setting up marking tests using electronic remote bird launchers designed for pointing dogs. With enough of these, the trainer could set up singles, doubles, triples, and so on, on land or in water. He'd place them in different locations out in the field, bring his dog to the line, and launch the marks one at a time in any sequence, by pushing transmitter buttons.
However, there was a problem. Although the springs on those launchers were adequate for lofting a live bird into flight, they couldn't toss dummies and dead birds far. Thus, an improved electronic remote box launcher eventually hit the market. Like those designed for pointing dogs, it's a low flat box that sits on the ground and propels a dummy or bird via spring-loaded trap doors. Being designed for retrievers, it's larger than the pointing dog models, and has stronger springs. One of these can toss a dummy or dead bird as far as the average training buddy. Thus solo training became practical.
But Technology marched on, first with a seeming deluge of electronic remote slingshot launchers. Typically, one of these large freestanding slingshot affairs has a metal tripod base with two metal arms extending upwards in a U-shape. A soft plastic bird/dummy pouch is suspended via four strands of surgical tubing from the arms of the U. On the back of the pouch is some sort of hook or fastening device that attaches to an electronically controlled release device on the back leg of the tripod.
To attach the pouch's hook to this release, it is necessary to stretch the surgical tubing, thereby providing the device's throwing power. In the earlier models, stretching the tubing to "cock" the launcher had to be done manually, which was no job for weaklings. In later models, this is done with a lever, making it much easier. Through the years, several manufacturers have brought out many models of these slingshot launchers, each with its own unique configuration and special features. (Look in the Equipment Section of this issue for pictures and descriptions of many of them.) One thing they have in common is that they throw dummies and dead birds an amazing distance, high and long, for beautiful marks. With one of these, David would have gone into his rumble with Goliath at least an eight to five favorite. And they work for both land and water marks.
Of course, they share one problem with the other launchers described above: They are single-shot affairs, not repeaters. You must reload them for every launch.
Not surprisingly, that problem was also addressed. We now have several models of electronic remote multi-shot dummy launchers. Some use .22 blank shells for propulsion; others use gas of one kind or another. Each model has its own configuration and special features. (Again, see the Equipment Section.) The advantage of these multi-shot remote launchers is that you don't have to reload them for each launch. This allows you to rerun your dog, even multiple times, without having to interrupt training to reload your launcher.
These "repeaters" also allow you to "help your dog out" when he loses his mark, much as a human assistant would. When he wanders some distance out of the area of the fall, clearly lost, and as the saying goes, "just gets lost-er and lost-er," you can launch another dummy from the same remote launcher. Hearing the boom and seeing the dummy fly, he'll race back to the area of the fall, snatch up one of the two dummies lying there, and bring it merrily back to you. Then, to cement the mark in his mind, you can immediately rerun him to see whether he has learned anything from the experience. Usually he'll do quite well on the rerun.
Mix And Match
With the right mix of remote launchers, you can, while training alone, set up almost any test you could set up with a training group. Of course, you'll need another person and his dog for honoring, so you definitely shouldn't alienate all your training buddies! (For a variety of training test designs, see my book, Retriever Training Tests, available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf.) You can also use these remote launchers for most of the drills described in my book, Retriever Training Drills for Marking.
The ideal mix would seem to be two multi-shot dummy launchers and one slingshot launcher (or one of the more powerful box launchers). In setting up a triple mark, you should use the two multi-shot dummy launchers for the memory birds, and the slingshot or box launcher for the "go-bird" (last launched, first retrieved). Your pooch is more apt to need "help" on the memory birds, and you can give it to him with the multi-shot launchers. He's more apt to break (so you can correct him) on the go-bird, especially if it's a big flopping and flapping dead duck, which t
he slingshot or box launcher can provide.
Blind retrieves? Sure, you can mix in any kind of blind retrieve with the marks you set up with these electronic remote launchers. Thus, you can readily use these launchers in place of a human assistant for many of the drills described in my book, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves.
Clearly, these technological wonders greatly facilitate solo retriever training, except for honoring and maybe shot fliers. Granted, the cost of such "capital assets" is significant. However, if you depreciate them over the 10-plus years of your dog's active life, you'll see they are a bargain. (If you explain the expenditure to your wife this way, she just might agree, especially with appropriate quid pro quo.)
Jim Spencer's books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf.