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A Bevy of Bumpers

by Paul Morrison

Little ones, big ones, in-between ones. White ones, orange ones, black ones, and even gray ones. With all the colors and sizes available for bumpers it is not unusual to hear people talk about being confused over what is best for training their faithful companion. For the novice, and the not so novice, a few questions come to mind and the answers are sometimes hard to find. But really, if you think about it a little bit, common sense will lead you to a reasonable understanding of what color or size is right for you and your dog. Before we talk about these things though lets look at some fundamentals of why and how to use bumpers.

Why are bumpers used?

The simple answer to this question is that they are cheaper and less messy to have around than are a bunch of birds. Another answer could be that they are easier to throw than dead or shackled birds. This is especially true when you are training in your backyard and your non-hunting neighbor, that serves on your subdivision’s board of directors, is watching every move you make. When it comes to doing cone drills, running blinds to piles, and running multiple marks on a hot steamy day one really begins to appreciate the convenience of having 20 or 30 bumpers retrieved to hand instead of 20 or 30 dead rotting birds.

The essential thing to remember

In basic retrieve training the primary objective is to teach marking and memorization to the dog. Marking is the term used to describe the dog seeing the bird in the air and noting (marking) the location of its fall to earth. Memorization comes into play when you begin to give the dog multiple marks, like doubles, triples, or even quads, at one time. As you begin to give these multiple marks the dog is learning to remember (memorize) where each bumper fell so that it can expeditiously retrieve each of the marks. As a good trainer you know it is essential for you to do everything in your power to help the dog succeed each and every time you train. While we all know that 100% success is impossible we must strive for such an achievement. Therefore, color becomes an important factor when running a dog on basic or even advanced marks.

For advance retrieve training where you are working on cone drills, blinds, directed retrieves, etc. the primary objective is to get the dog to forget its instincts, (at least momentarily) take direction from you, and trust that you know what is best. Bumpers work well here for a variety of reasons including the fact that they do not give off scent in the way a dead bird will. Color again plays an active role in this stage as you may want the bumper to be less visible to the dog than in a marking drill.

So what size do I use?

I am sure if you ask a dozen people this question you will get at least a dozen answers. I would therefore suggest that you take this with a grain of salt for it is simply what I do and not necessarily more right or wrong than what the next person does.

To begin with I use a puppy bumper with pups or first time adults. These smaller bumpers are less intimidating to a dog and make for a quicker pickup by a dog with a smaller mouth. These bumpers are usually about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and 8 inches in length. Yes, you could use a sock stuffed with God knows what but by using the small bumper you are laying ground work for future training situations. As the dog matures and gets confident in the bumper I begin to move to the standard size bumper that is about 2 - 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 12 inches long. The largest of bumpers run upwards of 3 - 4 inches in diameter and again are 12 inches in length.

I believe the largest of bumpers has a bit of an advantage over the standard size bumpers when it comes to marking as it is a little easier for the dog to see at a distance. Another advantage of the larger bumper is that it teaches the dog to open its mouth wider to accept larger bodied birds and a little greater weight. The standard size bumper is good to use for pile work, like cone drills, where size is not necessarily an advantage. Since the standard size is less in both bulk and weight it is easier to transport this size around a field when setting up drills. For this, and probably other reasons, the standard size is, well, the standard one used for most retrieve training. Some of my bumpers have cords attached and some don’t. In the early days of training a dog I try to not use bumpers with cords as they will sometimes bring the bumper back by the cord. Still a cord does help you when you are trying to throw the bumper a great distance. Also, if you use a bumper that is too big for a dog (like a pup) it may try to pick the thing up by the end instead of in the middle. If you don’t push the dog along too soon you will avoid this problem and the dog will almost always pick the bumper up in the middle.

What color is right to use?

Okay, so you are looking in the catalog and you see white bumpers, orange  bumpers, black bumpers, and even an occasional gray bumper. Heck, you can even find white/black combination bumpers!!!! You ask, “What color should I get?” Since no one is around to answer you decide to order a couple of each color, after all, if the companies make them there must be a reason to have each color. Right? Well, not necessarily.

Remember the basics? When teaching a dog to mark we want it to see the bumper well. Therefore, we should use a color that is easily seen by the dog. That must be the fluorescent orange one; right? Wrong!! While there is evidence to indicate that dogs probably see the extremes of the color spectrum they do see mostly in black and white with shades of gray. Therefore, MOST dogs do not see orange dummies and they should not be used for marking tests. I will say that a couple of my dogs appear to have the ability to see orange pretty well but I would still not use that color for a marking drill.

So I guess white is the best color. Well, it is most of the time when doing marking drills. Of course, if there is snow on the ground you could have a problem. It is important to note what background the dog sees when the bumper is in the air. If you are not sure, or your dog seems to be having trouble, get down on the ground so your eyes are at your dogs eye level and take a look at the background colors. Remember to think in shades of gray. If you are throwing bumpers in the winter against a background of leafless trees you may want to use one of those white/black colored bumpers. Then your dog may see the white when the bumper is in the air and the black when it reaches the area of the fall. If it is summer time and the background is a patch of tall green grass, white is probably the best choice.

The black bumpers can be used against a light background like brown grass, snow, etc. A lot of trainers use black with water marks to avoid teaching the dog to look for white on the water. With Lilly pad flowers being white or pink the dogs will sometimes be drawn to them if white bumpers have been over used. It is your call but I still see an advantage using white on the water especially when trying to lengthen the dog out on a retrieve. I do like to use black on a large body of water with a background that ends up being mostly blue sky. I think the dogs do better with black in this situation.

As for gray bumpers, well, I don’t see a need for them. I am sure some trainers have a different opinion but I think we have enough variety with the white, black, and orange colors. Oh, speaking of orange, it is a great color to use for blind retrieves especially when working on bare ground. Even then the dog should be well trained on the blind retrieval work. I will mix in a few orange dummies with the other colors when doing my pile drills but the best use of the orange colored bumpers is the blind retrieve.

Remember with a blind the dog is to be taking direction from you and forgetting its instincts of sight and smell for a while. You don’t want to be doing bare ground blinds of 100 yards with a pile of white bumpers, for when the dog gets out there a few yards it is going to see that white pile and run smack dab for it. Of course you will think that you are either the best trainer in the world or your dog is the smartest one around because he has picked up on this blind work in nothing flat. However, replace the white bumpers with orange or black ones, or move the pile to tall grass where the dog cannot see the bumper pile from a great distance, and you will soon come back down to earth. I think they call this a reality check. Dogs are good at giving us a reality check every now and then. So use those orange bumpers in their appropriate setting.

And then there is canvas and plastic

Yup! Just when we thought we had it figured out we have yet another thing to consider. Canvas or plastic, plastic or canvas, which is best? Well I don’t know. I do know that I like them both. The canvas do not do to well on the water so I use plastic almost exclusively when working water retrieves. The plastic is heavier and I can throw that longer so, when throwing my own marks, I will often times use plastic. Some people say the knobs on plastic bumpers help to prevent hard mouth. I have not seen any evidence to prove that to be the case. Some say that hard plastic bumpers will cause hard mouth. I have not seen any evidence to prove that one either. I like to use canvas on land marks and pile drills but for no particular reason. So I guess I cannot give you much direction here except to say that you should try both and use what you are most comfortable with.

Some final thoughts

A couple of things came to mind while writing this and since I could not come up with a good way to work them in I thought I would simply add them here. First, remember that when you are training on marks your dog must see the mark to learn. It drives me crazy to observe people sending their dog off to retrieve a mark that the dog did not see.

For instance, let’s look at this example. Bill is working his dog Brownie. Joe is throwing the marks at about 50 yards away in light cover. Bill calls for the throw and Joe blows a duck call to get Brownie’s attention. Just as the bumper is thrown Brownie spots a tweety bird fluttering around to his left. Bill, not watching Brownie but watching Joe instead, tells Brownie to fetch up the bumper. Brownie takes a few steps in the direction of the bumper and suddenly turns to chase the tweety. This frustrates Bill who then takes a disliking to Brownie’s marking ability.

What should have happened here? Bill should have been watching Brownie when the bumper was thrown instead of watching Joe. After all we are not teaching Bill to mark we are teaching Brownie. By watching Brownie he would have seen that the dog did not see the mark and could have called for another throw. When Brownie had finally seen a mark Bill could have then released him for the retrieve. This would have been a successful conclusion instead of the failure that occurred above.

The second point I want to make is that it also drives me crazy to hear  people say that their dog will not “do bumpers.” They follow this by saying that their dog will only retrieve birds. Finally it is not unusual to have such a person follow this up with some statement about the superiority of their dog over mine because theirs is smart enough to know that birds are meat on the table and bumpers are nothing. I cannot state my inner response to such a diatribe here but I will tell you my outward response.

To such a statement I say that, baring unfortunate happenings to the dog when training with bumpers in the past, this dog has your number. It is manipulating the trainer to the point of controlling what it will and will not do. The dog likes to get birds so it retrieves them. It does not have fun with bumpers, probably due to poor training, so it refuses to retrieve a bumper. This dog needs to be force broke for retrieving purposes and to establish a better understanding of its proper position on the team. If this is you, start force breaking now.

Well, that is enough about bumpers for the time being. I hope this has given you a little more food for thought.