Mastering the Wind: The Key to Advanced Gundog Training Success

Mastering the wind can be a game-changer when it comes to competing in working tests, field trials, and of course shooting situations.

Discover the crucial role of wind direction in gundog training. Learn practical tips for assessing the wind and how to use it to your advantage when training your dog for working tests and field trials.

I’ll often ask students on our gundog holidays if they have considered what the wind is doing before sending their dog on a blind retrieve.

Many will acknowledge its direction, but few know how to apply this knowledge to training and struggle to use it to their advantage to help their dog locate the dummy without having to keep stopping and handling them.

Mastering the wind can be a game-changer when it comes to competing in working tests, field trials, and, of course, shooting situations. In this month’s blog, we’re going to dive into scenting conditions, the impact of wind direction and how you can harness this knowledge to elevate and progress your gundog’s performance.

Understanding scenting conditions when training your gundog.

Before we move on to looking at the direction of the wind, it’s worth noting that a lot can impact scenting conditions.

These conditions dictate how your dog picks up the scent of a dummy or bird. On good scent days, the scent lingers stronger and longer. Conversely, bad scent days present a challenge with weaker scents. Recognising these conditions is vital for effective training.

How weather impacts scent

You might have overheard people say that it’s a good or bad scent day. That’s because the weather - the temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloud cover - has a significant impact on how our dogs pick up on scent.

Scent needs moisture to survive, so the ideal scent conditions are cool, moist days with no strong winds. While rain does provide this much-needed moisture, a heavy downpour can dilute scent and effectively wash it away.

Hot and dry conditions have a negative impact on scent as there is very little moisture, and vapours are more easily dried out and destroyed. Heat can also cause the scent to rise above the level where the dog is working.

How cover impacts scent

Just because the weather on the day of training is warm and dry, it’s also important to think about the cover you’re working in, especially in the UK where we get a lot of rainfall even in the summer months.

Scent will naturally pool in shady areas and can also survive in lush vegetation. That means if you’re working in long grass, sugar beet or other cover crops that have benefited from a good downpour a day or two before, the scent conditions can still prove to be good for the dogs.

But this might be limited to a very small radius around the area of fall, and if the retrieve item has really tucked into the cover, your dog might need to be right on top of it, disturbing the cover with their nose, before they pick up the scent.

On the flip side, short grass tends not to hold scent very well. While your dog is more likely to see a dummy or bird on short grass, this can make following the trail of a runner very challenging.

How wind impacts scent

Wind probably plays one of the biggest roles in determining whether scenting conditions are good or bad for our gundogs.

Wind not only determines which way scent is carried and spread, but the speed and strength of the wind will also determine how far it travels.

High winds are very effective at carrying scent long distances. The fact that it’s forced away from the area of fall very quickly in a certain direction means that scent can be quite weak at the area of fall, so dogs struggle to find the source.

Light winds tend not to spread scent a long way, but this means that scent only remains in a very concentrated area around the retrieve article. Dogs will need to get very close to the dummy or bird to pick up its scent. Light winds are usually more unpredictable as they lack a dominant direction and can change, often making it challenging for handlers to work around it.

Moderate breezes are the most optimal. Not only do they allow some scent to pool in an area, they will also spread the scent in a predictable direction, usually helping the dogs get on the scent and follow it to the dummy or bird.

Using the wind when training a gundog

As a handler, one of the most challenging parts of your job is figuring out how to help your retriever get to where they need to be to find a dummy or bird they’ve not seen fall without overhandling them.

It’s crucial that you are aware of the wind direction and its strength in order to use it to your advantage when sending your dog and deciding if and when to stop and redirect them.

How to work out what the wind is doing

While you can purchase wind-checking powders (like this to fit in your gundog training vest, you don't need fancy equipment to gauge the wind direction and one of the simplest techniques is to grab some grass and throw it in the air.

The limit to this is that it will only tell you what the wind is doing where you’re standing. It might be doing something completely different where the dummy or bird has landed.

Therefore, it’s good to get in the habit of scanning the environment to see if there are any signs of what the wind is doing out in the field.

Perhaps there’s a tree nearby with leaves and branches swaying in a certain direction, or maybe a hedgerow or some weeds. Of course, it might be hard to read what the wind is doing if it’s a really calm day, but that in itself gives you some good information to work with.

Front wind

If the wind is coming towards you, then it’s called a front wind. This is the easiest wind direction to work with because as long as your gundog takes a nice straight line, you know they will eventually hit the cone of scent. This will only get stronger and stronger as they keep running in a straight line towards the dummy or bird.

If you’ve just started introducing your dog to blind retrieves, have a dog that needs their confidence building, or a dog that doesn’t always go in the direction you’re sending them, then making sure there is a moderate front wind is a good way to increase the chances of them being successful and finding after taking your initial line.

It’s important that the wind is moderate and not too strong! Most dogs don’t like running head-first into really strong winds and so they’re unlikely to take the nice straight line you’re looking for in this situation.

If you have a more advanced dog and you’re looking to make blinds more challenging, you could intentionally run them directly into a strong wind. Doing this will help you to understand what your dog will do in this situation. You can then use this information in the future to help you decide if you need to handle them if they stray from the line you’ve sent them on.

Cheek wind

This is where the wind is travelling from left to right, or right to left. Which side of the item your dog ends up on in relation to the wind, will determine how difficult they find the retrieve.

If your dog ends up good for wind, they will be able to pick up the scent cone and work their way towards the dummy or bird. They might look like they’ve deviated from the line, but in this instance, you will not need to handle them and can let them use their nose and natural instincts to find.

However, if your dog ends up on the wrong side, they could almost trip over the dummy or bird and still not know it’s there. In this case, you absolutely will need to stop and handle them to ensure that they can find and pick.

When it comes to training, it’s good to get dogs used to working with cheek winds, again so you can learn what your dog’s body language looks like when they suddenly wind something.

Cheek winds can also be incredibly helpful if you’re working on your handling skills. You can set up scenarios where you intentionally send them off to the side of the dummy. If you’ve put them the right side for wind, when you stop them and direct them onto the dummy they should quickly hit the scent cone.

Equally, you can also use a cheek wind to help sharpen your stop whistle with a dog that’s overly independent or has gone a bit self-employed post-shoot season.

You need to be confident that they fully understand directional casts first otherwise, this exercise will be too hard for them and will only frustrate you both.

In this case, you would send them to the side of the dummy where they’re going to be wrong for wind. Unless the dummy is easy to see, they will likely struggle to find. At this point, you can stop and redirect them. This will reaffirm that the stop whistle is rewarding and will build trust that you are working as a team and are there to help, not hinder them. 

Back wind

This is where the wind is blowing away from you and is the most complex to deal with, as your dog could run a perfectly straight line and run right over the dummy or bird.

Using a back wind is a good opportunity to help teach a hunt-forward cue. Most handlers I work with have taught such an effective recall that if their dog overshoots an area, when they are stopped and recalled, the dog starts running back to their handler full pelt and it can be a bit of a yo-yo exercise to keep sending them back and calling them forward.

If you know there is a good back wind, you can teach your dog to stop and encourage them to hunt towards you. They should pick up the scent as if they’ve gone too far the scent will now be travelling toward them and so they’ll be rewarded for hunting instead of coming back to the line.

While all of this sounds good in theory, it really does depend on what the wind is doing. You need to remember that other factors influence scent conditions and that the wind direction and strength could be changing all the time. The conditions could also be very different even just 50 yards away from where you’re standing.

We can’t see scent and we don’t understand it like our dogs can, so if you’re trying to do any of the exercises above and your dog uses their nose and picks the dummy before you can do whatever you were trying to teach them, you’ve not failed - your dog is just proving how naturally talented they are.

Understanding wind direction in gundog training is more than a skill – it's an art form and one that will take years of experience to master. However, mastering this aspect of fieldwork is essential if you want to take your training and skills to the next level. By learning how to read the wind, and learning what your dog’s body language looks like when they are utilising it, you will inevitably have a huge advantage over those who don’t understand its role. You will either have the confidence to let them hunt without interfering or will know when you need to stop and handle them onto the retrieve.