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Decoys: Trial vs Training


Trial Decoys and Training Decoys

One of the most common questions I’m asked, is to explain the difference between trial decoys and training decoys. These two types of decoys come together on separate paths, to build, train, and finally test a dog’s genetics, ability, and training. Trial decoys and training decoys are equally important to the serious sport dog competitor but both of them serve very different purposes to the training and progression of a working dog.


Let’s start by explaining the differences between trial decoys and training decoys. A trial decoy is the “bad guy,” the person who is tasked with testing the training and genetics of the dog within the rules of the sport the dog is competing in. A training decoy is the heart and soul of the K9 team; the person that is often tasked with building and developing the dog for the tests it will face on the trial field. No one knows a dog better than a training decoy who has worked with a dog for months and in some cases years.


What Makes a Training Decoy?

In a perfect world, most training decoys would love to meet the puppy they will be training at 8 weeks old and have a blank slate to train with. At 8 weeks old, the training decoy has the opportunity to see raw genetics at play, and has the pleasure of developing a blank canvas and molding it into the warrior dog the decoy envisions. Training decoys have the opportunity to experience the small successes, the setbacks, the struggles, the light bulb moments, and the bond that will undoubtedly develop between both the handler and the dog, but also the decoy and the dog. Training decoys are intimate with the dogs they train, and should be credited with the bite development of the dog. It is the decoy that is training the dog in bite work, not the handler or trainer.


As a training and trial decoy, whenever I go to an out of town trial and work a variety of dogs that I’m unfamiliar with, usually one or two will stand out in my mind. My first question is “who are the decoys for this dog?” 90% of the time, when I’m impressed by a dog, there is very solid decoy work in its background. I love to see confident, hard biting dogs that bring speed, intensity, and courage to bite work. While a lot of what I described is based on genetics, I consistently see great training decoys developing dogs that fit this mold and I believe that is not an accident, or a matter of luck. Quality bite training matters.


Training decoys can often be found hugging the fence line at trials cheering for the dogs they developed on the field. They often know dogs better than the handlers and can pass on valuable information to both trial decoys and the handlers that trust them with their dogs. Training decoys never get enough credit for the work they do. Handlers and dogs will stand on podiums and receive awards for their dogs accomplishments and training decoys will humbly share the joy as they clap from the crowd. One of the reasons I truly love training decoys is because they often shy away from the limelight. They don’t want pictures, videos, or recognition, they simply just want to see the dogs they train get better and achieve their goals.


What Makes a Trial Decoy?

Trial decoys are some of the most highly skilled, technically sound, athletes on the field. They are also some of the biggest Prima Donas. When you watch an NFL game and listen to a wide receiver clapping their hands and rambling about how good they are, remind yourself that a lot of trial decoys are bred from the same stock. This is not the case with all trial decoys, as there are many that grace the field and have the best of intentions and truly want to make dogs better and test their training and ability in the purest form. Trial decoys have to have at least a little bit of swagger or a chip on their shoulder. After all, they are there to test dogs. I fully expect every trial decoy to truly believe they are the best decoy on the field and they will be the ultimate test for the dogs they have been tasked with decoying. If they didn’t have that mindset, I don’t believe they would be offering the best test for the dogs; which is their job.


Instead of asking what makes a trial decoy? A better question is what makes a great trial decoy? A great trial decoy values the safety of the dog over anything else. A great trial decoy values consistency in his or her work on the trial field. A great trial decoy becomes a student of being technically correct in all of their movements. A great trial decoy never makes the trial about themselves. A great trial decoy seeks competitors out to give them constructive feedback after the event and shares information that will better prepare the team for the next trial. A great trial decoy is humble and honors the sport in which they participate. A great trial decoy knows the rule book, knows the judge, knows what is expected of them, and knows their responsibilities on the field. A great trial decoy is the first to arrive at the trial and last to leave. A great trial decoy is an extension of the judge and a liaison to competitors. A great trial decoy should be described after a trial as being safe, consistent, powerful, athletic, and have the respect of competitors. A great trial decoy has the ability to adapt to split second decisions on the trial field and has the unique ability to always seem to be in the right place at the right time. A great trial decoy mentors new trial decoys and coaches them. A great trial decoy models what should be seen on the trial field. A great trial decoy leaves the sport better than they found it.


Trial decoys and training decoys both play enormous roles in the development and achievement of dogs on the field. While they are both very different and serve varying purposes, they are equally important to the dog. If you’re a competitor and love your training decoy, good, they are doing their job. If you’re a competitor and fear or worry about a trial decoy, good, they are doing their job.


Lastly, without decoys bite sports don’t exist, so take care of your training decoys, without them you won’t be ready to step on the field. Take care of your trial decoys too, without them, titles don’t mean as much.

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