GL American Water Spaniel Club logoLast updated on:  November 6, 2017

Training hunting spaniels since 1993

an AKC licensed club     

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.