Training Retrievers during the Restraints of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by: Dennis Voigt - April 10, 2020

Training Retrievers during the Restraints of the COVID-19 Pandemic!

Article by Dennis R. Voigt

    Training alone, one-on-one, has always been important to develop good skills and partnership with a working retriever. However, many trainers are dependant on others to help teach certain skills and on groups to create realistic set-ups and teaching opportunities needed for today's field trials, hunt tests and a number of hunting scenarios. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 Pandemic has dramatically changed retriever training and our games and our ability to train with others. Not only are most of out spring and summer events being cancelled (including future Nationals!) but group training has become either legislated against or altogether taboo and too risky. If you are an "average demographic" field trialer, you are also in the age group considered at greatest risk and currently recommended for mostly self-isolation and for sure extra social distancing and reduced travel!. In addition, many training grounds, and access for even hunting and fishing, are closed down.

    This article describes things that you can do alone (perhaps with a family member) to continue training and advance your retriever. The duration of our restricted activity at this point (early April 2020) is unknown but it is likely to be a couple of months and perhaps much longer for certain areas. I include some ideas about related "non-training" activities that you might consider during these difficult times. 


   For starters, here is a copy of a post I put on the Retriever Training Forum in late March describing in a general way what I was planning for April and May. Have a quick look before I go into more details.

It’s becoming apparent that the Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to affect us all in so many ways. . . .No matter the quarantines and travel restrictions and potential threats, I decided these should not stop developing, refining and maintaining my retrievers. Here are 10 things I am doing and suggestions for you to consider:

1. Reviewing all notes and identifying major strengths and weaknesses of my dogs-thus ID and describe each of their needs! 

2. Planning drills and exercises to address weaknesses. Planning set-ups and scheduling them to systematically advance dogs. Modifying my Derby dog training “slightly” to focus on potentially no Derbies! Ensuring my dogs stay in condition and good health by roading and exercise and best training schedules-lots of in house/one-on-one time.

 3. Planning to train alone a lot. This is not new for me during the summer but it involves getting all gear in A-1 shape: Trouble-shooting all my remote training devices such as Zinger-Wingers, Electronics and E-collars, pistols, Dewey Gunner, old Malcolms, Bumper Boy, Thunder Launchers, and all the other gear-holding blinds, mats, ATV, RTV, bumpers, etc etc.

 4. Reviewing all available grounds and planning to scout for and procure more.

 5. Viewing various training books and DVDs from multiple sources to list ideas about training that needed reminding! Importantly, this included my own DVDs and books-Training Retrievers Alone and 25 Essential Drills for Handling plus MANY Retrievers ONLINE articles. I was amazed how many notes I am making on my own stuff during these reviews. Big lesson!

 6. Consulting with potential training partners as to their plans and how we might safely train together and what grounds we can access.

 7. Developing a 2-month calendar to achieve all the above.

 8. Daily recording my dog training activity so I can identify subtle trends: both good and bad.

 9. Trying to keep a balance in life with family, friends and other passions.

 10. Staying active and healthy

    If nothing else, consider the above suggestions for you and your retrievers. Given that we need to develop plans to continue our retriever development by Training Alone, I have organized my suggestions into 5 groups: 1. Fundamental skills and teamwork in the Yard, 2. Field work alone without "devices", 3. Field work alone with "devices", 4. Conditioning and Partnership, 5. Student-time activities. 

    I will occasionally refer to references which explain and elaborate on a procedure. Quite a few of these are available at Another source with many videos is a free subscription and referenced here as Hillmann). My two DVDs and books are TRA (Training Retrievers Alone),  and 25 ED (25 Essentials Drills for Handling Retrievers). See RetrieversONLINE is a reference to which has free online articles, Collections of articles on specific themes and access to acquiring Back Issues of the Retrievers ONLINE magazine. 


1. Fundamental Skills and Teamwork in the Yard

    No matter whether you have little time or little access to large acreage, this activity is possible. A small yard and 15 minutes is enough! If you do nothing else, this can help your dog survive a period of off-time! Here are some ideas:

a. Heeling exercises-you can't do too much! Try different patterns-heel a pattern to spell your dogs name on the ground! Use holding blinds, mats and diversion dogs and bumpers. If you have two dogs, use them honoring. Can you heel backwards? Can you heel one step and auto sit sharply 10 times?

b. Lining Wagon Wheels of various difficulty. 

c. Casting Wagon Wheels of various difficulty.

d. The 7 bumper reverse lining drill as described by Hillmann or on my 25 ED.

e. Helter-skelter drill (see Hillmann)

On a slightly larger scale-perhaps 100-150 yards field

f. The Come-In drill (described 25 ED)

g. If required-Force Back at a distance drill-see Lardy Manuals and TRT (ybsmedia)  and 25 ED

h. If required-Split Casting drill-see 25 ED

i. No-No drill- see Hillmann and  25 ED


2. Field work alone without devices.

a. Stand Alone marks are your bread and butter:  Leave your dog steady and walk out and throw a mark (bird or bumper-gun or not). Release your dog with it's name and a slight cast to the throw will help teach go at bird not at gun. This is well-described elsewhere but see my Training Retrievers Alone DVD especially.

b. Develop Send Back and Walk Back marks as fundamental skills. Practice them in many places, conditions and configurations. These can be HUGE and have been practiced with many famous dogs and trainers. They can involve singles, doubles, triples or even quads for the super-advanced dog.

c. Do challenging 3 peat blinds with factors in all 3 blinds). Use either 3 walk-arounds, 3 repeats or 3 cold (see my 3 X 3 Method in 25 ED).

d. Do my favorite marking blind maintenance exercise (Diagram in my TRA). Basically, it's a series of stand alones while you walk around in a loop ending up back at home and then running multiple blinds through the various marks).

e. All sorts of water and land handling drills that can be done alone. Almost all of the drills and exercises in my 25 ED can be done alone! 


3. Field Work Alone with Devices.

    For this you need devices that launch birds or bumpers and perhaps retiring gunners (stickmen). You will also need various "stickmen" and electronics to control your devices. This can initially be a substantial investment but when used for many years, they are surprisingly economical. I am using devices that are well over 20 years old at times and in a few cases 30 years for stickmen so when depreciated they are tremendous value!  I use a set of 4 Zinger-Wingers along with various stick-men which don't get Covid-19 :-) . Other recommended launchers are the Slinger and the Son of a Gun. I have a Dewey Gunner and 2 old Malcolms.  All 3 of these devices can be remotely-controlled to retire and un-retire. The Malcolms are no longer made but the Dewey is an excellent device which I review at: . It's value is that you can remotely control retiring and un-retiring, which is a very valuable feature especially with the younger dogs.You can also get a device from Zinger and Slinger that drops a white shirt-man to the ground on command. I have even put a shirt on a clothes hangar and fed it under the rubber tubing on a launcher so that it fell to the ground when the launcher was triggered. You can also get various bumper launchers that shoot 2-12 bumpers without re-loading. These work especially well or certain drills. However, day in and out, I like to throw either ducks or pheasant for my marks. 

    This equipment allows me to set-up virtually all types of marking configurations including with retired guns and of course with blinds. To use this equipment on a daily basis you will want an ATV or UTV to expediate field set-up and re-loading. There are countless set-ups possible. You can study many of them and how to develop marking by using the 4 Collections on Marking at They include: 1. Favourite Marking Set-ups, Mastering Marking series I, II, and III, which address Key Concepts, Teaching Multiples and Improving and Refining Marking. My Training Retrievers Alone DVD also shows marking set-ups with and without devices. The book that comes with it discusses many details that I can't do in this short article.

4 . Conditioning and Partnership

    Keeping your dogs fit and healthy during these restricted times may require some extra effort. So many public places are now closed you may have to seek out private properties if you don't own acreage yourself. With scouting you should be able to find land and gain permission for lone exercise with your dogs. Ideally, you would use an ATV or UTV with your dog(s) either in a roading harness or running free. I run my dogs virtually every day on my farm with an ATV whether I train or not. It is so important both physically and mentally. Long walks with your dogs are also very valuable although not as good aerobically (but better for you!). I think the one-on-one walks have partnership benefits that roading doesn't. I often take a bumper along and stop and do some stand-alone marks or blinds or just interesting hand-throws and mix in some obedience.

Ask the top Professionals about the greatest threat on a weekend and they will say the Amateur with the great one dog! Why? Because of the tremendous relationship and partnership the two have developed. Witness, many National wins by Amateurs! Invariably, these partnerships involve MUCH time together! Maybe this is your Pandemic chance? However, beware that one of the greatest challenges of constant living with your dog is that they see and learn from your weaknesses. By this, I mean that dogs learn to ignore many repeated commands that are un-enforced. They can anticipate so much from your behaviors that they become independent rather than partners. You end up with the love but so little respect! It's very tough-so beware your standards of obedience!!


5. Student Time Activity

    Despite all of the above, you may not be able to spend as much time per week in the field with your dog. In addition, suddenly you will have many free weekends due to cancelled events and perhaps more daily time with less travel to training groups. Many of you will be working from home or perhaps simply out of work! All of this suggests you may be able to spend more time being a student to learn more about training retrievers. Today, more than ever, there isso much information available - when I started decades ago, we had a handful of books, no DVDs, no Workshops, no Forums and much secrecy. How that has changed!-Take advantage!

    If you are a note-taker of your dogs ( and IMO you should be) take the time to review and note strengths and weaknesses and make plans. If no notes, be honest and recall your training and latest test season--why did you fail and what do you need to do to fix? Identifying needs is the first step in fixing. Again be honest! If you have a training group or just a really good training buddy, maybe this is the time to have a long talk-What do they think about you and your dogs needs? Yeah-could be painful-don't ruin your relationship:-)!

    This really is a good time for some serious study of the many educational DVDs out there. I mentioned a few above but there are multi Mike Lardy materials, Dave Rorem and Rorem and Rex Carr (all available as well as Andy Attar, Farmer and Aycock and many Bill Hillmann DVDS and his free You Tube videos. Google is your best friend here but beware there is also much info that can be problematic. Often, it's not because  it wrong, but, because it is less effective and less efficient than the best material. Or, perhaps it is easier to misunderstand or be mis-lead by? Nonetheless, please do not be miffed if I didn't mention your favorites. What works for you works. And as always we all have different objectives and standards. The Take Home is be a student and learn more to improve your training and your retriever during these times!

In closing, I wish you the best and stay safe! I recognize that we all need to "Get a Life" so ensure you consider the best priorities for you and yours. Remember that "self-isolation" and "social distancing" are not jail. I recognize that for some of you, "making ends meet" at this time must be a priority but when things get us down, it's amazing how our dogs can help us get through tough times. Need I say more?  



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Written by: Dennis Voigt| April 10, 2020
Categories:  Miscellany

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