First, “dummies” and “bumpers” are used interchangeably. Both names refer to those plastic, canvas and foam items used to train gun dogs. While they all share the same name, plastic, canvas and foam dummies all perform differently in the field. Choosing the right dummy can help your dog improve in his training.
Most canvas dummies consist of a durable canvas material around a foam core. These are a great choice for starting out young puppies. The solid foam core provides a little resistance, and is pleasant for puppies to grab onto. You can also inject the core with a training scent, to introduce puppies to game birds. Some foam dummies will float, but you should check the manufacturer’s specs to verify. And always make sure the dummy is made with non-toxic materials.
Plastic dummies have a couple of advantages: they are durable, they float and they aren’t as pleasant for dogs to pick up. (Give me a second, it does make sense). The ideal gun dog listens to and follows all of his handler’s commands, not just the ones he feels like. If dogs become used to carrying the hard plastic, they’ll have no problem with a downed bird. (If your dog really doesn’t like plastic bumpers, work with them until they overcome their dislike. Skipping over basic skills lays a poor foundation for more advanced commands.)
Plastic dummies are primarily available in three colors: black, white or orange. These aren’t random options; the color of a dummy has an important function. Dogs can’t see colors very well, but they can see contrast. White dummies stand out against dark backgrounds, and black dummies stand out against light backgrounds. Visible dummies are easier for dogs to find, and a good choice for building foundation skills. Orange dummies are a little more challenging. Dogs see orange as a shade of gray, and it blends into almost any background (think of orange as bumper camouflage). Because dogs can’t see the dummy, they must rely on scent and/or cues from their handler. Orange dummies are preferable for teaching more advanced dogs blind and forced retrieves.
Foam dummies are less common than the canvas and plastic varieties: they tend to be more expensive and less durable. But foam dummies also have a few unique benefits. Most are shaped like specific game birds. Ducks are most common, but you can also find quail, dove, pheasants, etc. The realistic shape and softer material help dogs transition from hard, plastic cylinders to soft, lumpy bodies. Several models also feature loose necks and dangling heads which will bang against a dog’s face if the dummy is handled too roughly. This design feature helps dogs develop soft mouths and proper handling technique.
One of the advantages of foam dummies is also one of their drawbacks: they are excellent at retaining scent. Injecting a dummy with training scent makes them more appealing and easier to find. The foam bodies also retain the smell of pond water and dog slobber, and they can start to stink after awhile. Regular cleaning with a baking soda solution and storing them in a well-ventilated space seems to keep this problem in check.
Choosing a dummy frequently comes down to personal preference. Some people are committed to a particular type of plastic bumper or foam dummy. But considering your dog’s needs when purchasing a bumper can make the training process easier and more rewarding for both of you.