Dummy Training – For Sniffer Dogs and Team Players

black golden retriever with a blue dummy

Dummy training is an exciting and varied dog sport for super sniffers.

What is dummy training? Throwing or hiding a food parcel – and a dog bringing it back. This at least is what many non-experts imagine. But dummy work with dogs is much more than this! Learn more here about this diverse dog sport.

Dummy training as a dog sport

Dummy training is a dog sport that originates from hunt training. Originally, it was about finding and retrieving slain birds or small game. In order to train hunting dogs without having to work with dead wild animals, the dummy came into use. Hence, it is a mock-up of real game.

Finding and bringing – sounds easy? It depends on many details with professional dummy training though. For instance, the dog cannot chew the dummy – after all, this would be a hunting no-no with a duck to be retrieved. The interaction between dog and human is very important with dummy training.

Basic tenets of retrieval

Many dogs can bring a ball back, but real retrieval is usually on a different level. Dummy training is about fetching and delivering the dummy on command – right to your hand. 

Dog trainer Carolina Jaroch: “Faultless retrieval is the requirement for successful dummy work. Retrieval cannot be confused with play!”

How does dummy training work?

There are three options when searching for the dummy:

  • Marking: The dummy flies through the air, the dog observes its flight path and notes where it has landed. It gets especially tricky when the dog has to complete other tasks in between. Several parallel drop points with different dummies are possible and increase the difficulty level.
  • Lost and found: Here real scent work is required, because the dog looks for the dummy on its own by its scent without knowing the drop point. The area to be sniffed is usually 50 x 50 metres in size.
  • Instructing: With this option, the owner knows where the dummy is and points the dog in the right direction with trained signals. Instructing is at the same time a great exercise for obedience at a distance. Patience is required before first being successful with this training method, because the dog has to confidently link the signals. Only then can they be used to point in a certain direction. Along with hand and verbal signals, whistling also plays an important role with instructing.

For which dogs is dummy training suitable?

All dog breeds that like retrieval are predestined for dummy training. This of course includes traditional Retriever breeds from Golden Retrievers to Labradors, as well as Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. One of their defining characteristics is also that they enjoy working together with their owners.

Many cooperative hunting dogs like the German Wirehaired Pointer also have excellent qualities for dummy work. Some herding dogs like the Border Collie love dummy work – when training them, it is particularly important to keep their at times over-exuberant temperament under control. Canines that are independent in nature like livestock guardian dogs or sighthounds are less cooperative working with their owners – dummy training requires more patience here.

Requirements for dummy work

Before embarking on the adventure that is dummy training with your dog, it should have good basic obedience. For instance, 'heel' plays a significant role. Equally, the dog's steadiness is very important. This means it waiting patiently, not barking or whimpering and only setting off on command – a huge challenge for many dogs. But Rome wasn't built in a day: 

“Basic obedience should of course be ingrained, but we also always train individual elements like impulse control, heel or retrieval calls in our dummy sessions” says Carolina Jaroch. 

Unlike in many other dog schools, all dog breeds from Chihuahuas to Weimaraners and of course hybrids are welcome in her sessions. This is because:

“From our perspective, dummy training is one of the best activities for most human-canine teams.” 

Can even puppies start with dummy work? Yes! However, basic commands have to be learnt in parallel. In addition, you should keep training sessions very short. But early practice makes perfect and you can already take the first steps in dummy training during the puppy phase! This includes, for instance, correctly establishing retrieval.

chihuahua with an orange dummy
Even smaller dogs can work with dummies at their own tempo. However, make sure not to overexert them!

Dummy training – what are the benefits? 

Ideally, this type of dog sport will be great fun for both you and your dog. At the same time, you can both also benefit from the following advantages of dummy training:

  • Canine-appropriate stimulation
  • Strengthens your bond
  • Reinforces practical commands like 'stay' or 'stop' in day-to-day life
  • Adaptation to senior or handicapped dogs possible too
  • Boosts dogs' self- confidence
  • Lots of outdoor exercise for humans and dogs

Useful accessories for dummy training

First of all, the food dummy or dummies wrapped with fur play hardly any role in professional dummy training. Instead, dogs learn to fetch standardised dummies, which are on average 10 centimetres in length and 500 grams in weight. There are also options for smaller dogs.

Colour choice should be carefully thought out too: White and blue dummies are easily visible for dogs and are particularly suitable for beginners. However, green, orange or red dummies are almost invisible to canine eyes and add an extra challenge.

The basic equipment for dummy training includes:

Those who start out professionally will acquire additional equipment, such as marker poles to help dogs with searching. Powder can also help to determine the direction of the wind – an important factor for sniffer dogs.

For transport, a spacious dummy vest or bag are best suited to storing lots of dummies and further accessories.

By the way: A dummy is definitely not a chew toy! After training, you should safely store all dummies. Dogs should never get the chance to chew a dummy lying around.

How do I learn dummy training?

You can do some individual dummy training sessions even without an expert – for instance, with online videos or a good book describing the training steps one by one. You can find our reading recommendations in the sources at the end of the article.

But if you really want an introduction to dummy sport with dogs, you should attend a course at a dog school or dog sport association.

Carolina Jaroch: “After the introduction, we go outdoors as a group – to meadows, water or forests. It's very enriching to work outdoors with dogs, but it is obviously important to be considerate, especially during the game poaching season.”

Dogs that poach uncontrollably need to be on a drag lead or in a fenced area during dummy training!

Read here more on the subject of hunting behaviour in dogs, as well as our tips on anti-hunting training for dogs.

black dog with an orange dummy
Working with water in dummy training – double the joy for water-loving Retrievers!

On your marks, get set, go! Dummy work exams and competitions

There are different competition classes from beginners to experts. If you train correctly from the start, you can soon go for your first competitions. These include what are known as working tests, although they are often only permitted for Retriever breeds.

Open exam regulations also offer inspiration for the next steps and new challenges for all those who train purely for the fun of it, because the most important thing with dummy training is learning together and enjoying the close collaboration between humans and dogs.

Did you know? One variation of dummy training can be traced back to the dog trainer Jan Nijboer, who also developed Treibball for dogs. In this training concept of natural dogmanship, Nijboer doesn't work with traditional dummies, but food dummies containing the dog's food.

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