I had some friends over to train dogs at my place the other day. We worked with a couple young pups who have an upcoming puppy test as well as with Cross Timber’s Apex who is preparing for her Utility Test coming up in October. Cross Timber’s Apex (aka Meeka) is being trained by her owner Brandon Mathis who has done a great job thus far preparing her for the test, especially for a first-time trainer. As we went through the various parts of the test with Meeka, I began to think about the equipment that I have compiled and frequently use for preparing a dog for advanced hunting tests, such as the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association – Utility Test. Many new owners of versatile hunting dogs are overwhelmed by all of the tools and equipment that are on the market for purchase today. I felt the same way when I got serious about training my dogs to a high level. Early on, like many new and excited owners, I bought quite a few things that I never used much or didn’t really fit how I eventually learned to train my dogs. I have now narrowed down my training equipment to items I use frequently, and rarely do I find that I need items that are not on this list. 

I often get asked what equipment someone should buy in training their dog. Sharing the below list should save such folks valuable time and money as they research the various training equipment options. In the list below you will find items I use for taking a dog through more advanced hunting tests. Naturally, you would need less than this for taking a pup through lower-level puppy tests, but most of these items would still benefit you in training for the puppy tests of the various versatile-dog testing organizations.

Training Equipment

As I go through the different items, I will elaborate on some more than others. In the list below, where I mention the brand of an item that I personally have, please do not take it as meaning other brands are inferior. 

Here is the list in no particular order:

1. Homing Pigeons – As the old saying goes, “it takes birds to make a bird dog.” For training bird dogs, in my opinion, there is no other single more important item on this list than having access to healthy, good flying birds. If you build a small pigeon coop it would be a worthy investment, especially if you want to attempt more advanced hunting tests. The reason homing pigeons are such a great asset for training is that they always come back and can be used again and again, day after day. Being able to walk over to your pigeon coop/loft to gather up a handful of pigeons for training sure beats making calls all over the place to locate training birds every weekend. Trust me…I know. The other benefit is that once trained to come back from a particular distance homing pigeons can be used miles away from the coop at various training locations. For example, my plan in the next few months is to train my pigeons to be used at the Lexington Wildlife Management Area (thousands of acres) about 10 minutes from my house. I frequently hunt and train dogs at the Lexington WMA already, but having my pigeons trained to come back from this location will allow me countless options for training in new locations and fields with greater ease.

2. Starter Pistol – We have the Alpha 209 Primer Starter Pistol. We purchased a cheaper model initially, and it failed us. This training pistol has been used in the training of quite a few dogs and seems very well made and has not failed us yet. We use this more than we do a shotgun because it is safer, cheaper to operate, and there is no need to shoot any birds in most of the early stages of training a dog.

3. Shotgun (O/U or SXS preferred) – a shotgun as a training tool needs little explanation. Any type will do, but generally the double-barreled versions are a little safer and preferred at training days because they can be broken open when not shooting to render them incapable of firing. This is beneficial for the gunner who is trying to be as safe as possible, and is a useful visual for any training partners also in the field. They also have the added benefit of not spitting spent shells in the tall grass while you’re training your dog. Most folks who allow you to use their land for training will appreciate that you do your best to not leave spent shells across their property. Some land owners don’t care, but others may.

4. Kayak – a very useful tool when training for Duck Search. Many training ponds are inaccessible on the far bank by foot due to trees or other barriers. A kayak can be used to access the inaccessible when putting out ducks during training sessions.

5. E-Collar- We have found that the Garmin Pro 550 to be our unit of choice. We also have the Pro 550 plus (with GPS) for hunting. Some use the Pro 550 plus for both training and hunting. We have had other e-collars, but we find the Garmin Pro 550 (and the plus) to be feature rich, but simple to use. The ability to be able to change stimulation levels immediately, as you can with these collars, is invaluable because it allows you to adjust the level of correction very quickly as needed. They are also very durable and long lasting.

6. Remote Bird Launchers – One or two bird launchers will work fine when training a dog for natural ability, but we highly recommend having at least three for training a dog for advanced hunting tests that require dogs to be steady to wing-shot-fall. Having three bird launchers saves valuable training time as you can get three bird encounters at various locations of the field without having to put your dog up to reload a bird each time. Makes things seem more natural and is more like hunting also. Ninety percent of the time we have no more than three launchers in the field at a time, even when training for the Utility test. (Note: Having one of these three launchers be a larger size for loading a duck is handy as sometimes we will load a launcher with a duck on the far bank during early duck search training and launch duck in the water when the dog gets close to it or as a visual cue to get the dog to cross when training alone.) We have DT Systems launchers, but have heard that Dogtra makes a great product as well. The DT Systems launchers have been used extensively for about 7-8 years without a hiccup.

7. Dog Stakes – One is essential for keeping your dog stationary while training other folk’s dogs or getting ready for training your own. They are also useful around the vehicle to keep dogs safe when eating lunch, etc. while on hunting trips. I have 3 dog stakes because I use them for training my dog to be steady to wing-shot-fall. I will write an article on this later.

8. Shackle (Hose and String) – An old garden hose cut into about a 12-18 inch piece with a 12–18-inch piece of parachute chord tied to it is very useful for gun conditioning a young pup as well as for training an older dog to be steady to wing-shot-fall.

9. Check Chord (20-30 ft) – We like the vinyl coated check chords because they don’t fray and are water proof.

10. Leash (5-6 ft) – We have had leather and nylon versions. Pick the one you like. 

11. Pronged Collar – These metal training collars appear to be harsher than they are. We have found them to be a very useful tool for training a dog to heel during the early phases of heel training. We use this collar before using the E-Collar for enforcing the heel command.

12. Hot Wire Fence Posts (12) – The ones we have are white in color. These resemble the stakes that are often used at the Heeling portion of the Steady by Blind portion of the Utility Test. 

13. Duck Blind – Doesn’t have to be anything fancy. We made our make-shift “duck blind” for training from camo fabric and used heavy duty tape to attach some poles for poking in the ground when we train for Steady by Blind. Four poles attached, evenly spaced, to about 8-10 ft of fabric works fine for us.

14. Decoys – a dozen is about all that is needed for training. These are needed because the v-dog needs to learn to go through them for both hunting scenarios as well as for the Steady by Blind portion of the test. 

15. Live and Frozen Ducks – Housing about a half dozen live ducks is necessary for training your dog for Duck Search. You will likely need more over the time spent training for Utility. It depends on your dog. Frozen Ducks are helpful as well.

16. Good Flying Game Birds – Chukar or quail are used for the upland portion of the Natural Ability and Utility Tests. You will need to be able to house about a dozen or more chukar or quail. A dog that learns to point and remain steady on pigeons and heavily scented launchers will still need to be transitioned over to game birds just before the test. Note: Chukar are much more resilient and easier to keep than quail, but I would suggest contacting an officer at the test you plan to run your dog in and ask what type of game bird they plan to use in the field, and get species specific birds. Chukar are also fine birds to use for training a young dog to track for their NA test.

17. Frozen birds (Quail and Chukar) – These are useful for using to reward a dog with a retrieve during various training drills and steadiness exercises. 

18. Bumpers (6-9) – I have come to prefer the Sport Dog Lucky bumpers as they have a nice texture. They have some give and softness to them. Some bumpers seem much too hard and some dogs don’t like to pick them up as much. Almost all of my go to bumpers are half black and half white as they can be seen in almost any cover by the dog. Having a couple of the orange ones around is nice for certain training exercises when you want the dog to primarily use their nose on the retrieve, as they don’t see orange well.

19. Dokken (1 quail and 1 Mallard) – These are nice to use in a pinch when you don’t have frozen birds to work with. I suggest you not overly use them for young pups that you want to test in Natural Ability as they must go into the water with a thrown bumper. Dokkens are not allowed at the test. You don’t want them to start preferring the Dokken and start refusing to retrieve bumpers.

20. Bird Bag – These are useful for carrying extra birds to reload launchers with as well as when training a dog for steadiness. 

21. PVC – a 15 ft or so piece of PVC with a rope or leash attached to the end is useful for laying tracks with pheasant so that your personal/human scent is not right on top of the track itself.

22. Fishing Pole – This can also be used for laying a track if your cover is not overly high. This simple tool will ensure your scent is not close to the scent track.

23. Ponds/Water – Having proper water is essential for training a dog for Duck Search. Begin to locate ponds you can access on private or public land. For training a dog through Utility it is useful to have ponds that have a portion that requires only a 20–30-yard swim across with decent cover on far bank for early training. We recommend having other ponds (or sections of a pond) that require a swim of about 100 yards across. Most ponds will do for the Natural Ability Test, but it is still good to have 3-5 bodies of water for getting your pup used to entering different water.

24. Land – You will want at least a few fields of various terrain and cover to work your dog in. You want your dog to think that any time you put them on the ground in a new field that there are birds to find. This will pay off when hunting.  

I have listed the equipment I use for training a dog through the Utility Test. I realize this is a lot of equipment. Truthfully, it surprises even me that we have acquired so much over the years. One thing I did not list, but has been invaluable to me over the years is having good, reliable training partners. I have been fortunate to have several folks who are of like mind and who have similar goals for their hunting dogs to train with. We all hit roadblocks when training our dogs at times and having others to bounce things off of has proven very helpful to us all. Such training partners can often be found at your local NAVHDA Chapter’s training days. My training partners, and now close friends and hunting buddies, have contributed to the above list of items used for training. If you don’t have the money to buy all this stuff at once, I would suggest you find training partners who also want to train their v-dog to a high level and/or Utility Test their dog, and discuss what each of you is willing to purchase to add to the mutually enjoyed equipment.