Choosing a dumbbell
Dumbbells for dummies
The hallmark of a good-fitting dumbbell is that the dog can easily and comfortably see, pick up, carry, and present the dumbbell to the handler. There are a number of things that affect those four components.
Components of fit
One would think it goes without saying that a dog should be able to see the dumbbell in its "natural habitat" and yet people do make things harder than they need to for their dogs. A natural wood dumbbell is actually marginally contrasty with green grass or with green or grey matting because of the dog’s limited color vision. Why not make it easy? AKC obedience regulations circa early 2005 state:
They [dumbbells] may be unfinished, coated with a clear finish, or may be any color. They may not have decorations or attachments but may bear an inconspicuous mark for identification.
White or white-ended dumbbells are very popular. The other popular choice (because of availability) is deep fluorescent orange—a color that is virtually indistinguishable from grass green to your dog, and has very little contrast with dark grey or black matting indoors. If you have even a suspicion that your dog has to work at the retrieve, either because of eye configuration, coat, age, or disinclination, don’t ask him to do a blind retrieve. Get a white dumbbell.
For more information on color vision in dogs, see The Dog’s World of Color. For reference when choosing colors that contrast adequately with the environment, see Visibone’s Web Designer Color Card and look at the deuteranopia simulation.
Some dogs snag the dumbbell from above, others scoop. One way to test your dog’s style if you don’t know is to toss a toy into a corner (making sure it stays in the corner) and release your dog to get it. Not only will you usually learn your dog’s "handedness," you’ll also see if he approaches the dumbbell from above (snag) or at the level of the toy (scoop). Repeat this test a few times to account for variation, and make a note of it.
Why does this matter? A dog that snags will usually benefit from a dumbbell that has more ground clearance so that he doesn’t bang his nose on the ground grabbing his dumbbell.
Another quality to factor in is basic muzzle width. The bar needs to be just wide enough for the dog’s mouth to fit comfortably between the bells.
Carry & Present
You should be able to see your dog’s eyeballs while he is holding the dumbbell. If you can’t see those eyeballs, chances are those eyeballs don’t have a complete view of you or a jump. That’s just asking for trouble.
Old fashioned dumbbells had squared ends. Today’s dumbbells come in many forms; high angle (thin, steeply angled ends), low angle (broad, gradual ends), and a happy medium. Dogs with flatter faces may benefit from the increased viewing space of the low angle dumbbells. Dogs with long, narrow faces may benefit from the decreased width of a high angle dumbbell. Blunt, moderate muzzled dogs may not need any special accommodation.
High angle dumbbells are narrower between the bells. If your dog has a narrow face and eyeset, this may work great, plus it allows a taller end for those "snaggers." Low angle ends add width to the dumbbell, and potentially weight, because the ends are more substantial to accommodate the low angle cut of the bells and the end height. For a flatter-faced dog there will be a trade-off in terms of height off the ground vs. weight. Many smaller breeds with flat faces don’t appreciate a heavy dumbbell, so you have to balance those two factors.
And speaking of weight—you probably have an idea of what is "too heavy" for your dog based on what toys he plays with. Some dogs have definite opinions about how heavy an object they are expected to carry should be. At the opposite extreme are those dogs who love heavy objects and may even present a better retrieving picture if your dumbbell has some heft to it, because they are less inclined to mouth a heavy dumbbell.
The last thing to think about is the diameter of the bar of the dumbbell. Ideally the dumbbell will sit behind the canine teeth so the mouth is nearly closed when holding the dumbbell in a stationary position. Too big, and he will have to hold the bar in his molars, which is more likely to leave tooth marks. These marks may give the judge the impression that your dog chews or plays with the dumbbell (whether he does or not.) Too fine, and the dumbbell may spin behind his canines, which looks sloppy, and may cause him to shift the dumbbell back to avoid it rolling behind his canines. This seems to be a particular problem with metal articles.
Like weight, bar diameter is highly dog specific. Some dogs prefer a bigger bar. Some dogs prefer a more "dainty" dumbbell. Again, this may be largely answered by your dog’s choices in toys. Dogs with underbites often prefer narrower bars because their premolars do not line up leaving only a small gap behind their canines.
Most manufacturers have basic recommendations based on breed and sex of your dog. Using a small ruler you can get a pretty good idea of how broad your dog’s muzzle is from outside lip to outside lip. To confirm this use a dowel or popsickle stick marked to that measurement and adjust as necessary. Hair or jowliness need to be factored in. When ordering, I try to be within 1/4" of this measurement to avoid side to side slipping, but with a moustached dog or a dog with a lot of flew, size up rather than down. Let standard sizes dictate diameter in most cases.
In most cases, dumbbell end height will be proportional to the bar length. Measuring the muzzle from tip of the nose to just past the canine (from above) and doubling this will give you a good target end height in the average dog. Snub-nosed small breeds will likely need an end smaller than this, to avoid excess weight.
You probably have a good idea whether your dog falls into the dolichocephalic (long-nosed, e.g. the Afghan, Doberman, Fox Terrier, Belgian), brachycephalic (snub-nosed breeds like the Pug, Boxer, or Lhasa), or mesocephalic (moderate-nosed, e.g. Labrador, Springer). In general:
long-nosed breed=>high angle
snub-nosed breed=>low angle
If you’re unsure or think your dog presents a special case, compare your measurement for the bar length to the distance from pupil to pupil. If the pupillary distance (PD) is greater than the bar length, consider low angle in a small breed, or regular in a medium or large breed. If the PD is approximately equal, let standard sizes drive your choice.
I have been surprised when measuring snub-nosed breeds, expecting a greater disparity between their muzzle and PD measurements. In most cases they are pretty close, and ease of grabbing is the primary consideration.
Standard wooden AKC obedience dumbbells seem weigh about the same as molded plastic, perhaps slightly heavier depending on the wood. Turned wood or plastic are almost always heavier because they have more material in the ends. One notable exception is the Invince-a-Bell. The Invince-a-Bell is not turned and even though it has a narrow profile end, the material is very dense. Know your dog’s preferences.
Weight and available sizes may dictate your choice of material. FWIW, plastic dumbbells clean up easier in my experience (especially grass marks) and the bars can be lightly sanded to minimize tooth marks (gnurled bars also camouflage tooth marks). I have never had a plastic dumbbell break. I have had numerous wooden, especially old-style, dumbbells break on impact.
Putting it all together
Now that you have basic dimensions and know if your dog is a snagger or scooper, you need to look at available sizes and do a cost/benefit analysis. Most dogs can be fit without custom sizing. If your dimensions place your dumbbell way outside standard sizes, there may be something wrong with your measurements!
If in doubt, sketch out the dumbbell you’re thinking of ordering to scale and look at it in relation to your dog.
Some dogs will present special needs. One of my dogs was left-pawed and had broken his right canine tooth so the tooth was lopped just above the gumline. When he grabbed a smaller-barred dumbbell and spun to his left, the dumbbell would flip out of the right side of his mouth. A thicker-barred dumbbell completely solved that problem because it fit snugly. Another dog had an extremely full moustache and did not like the ends of the dumbbell to squish his moustache (perhaps his whiskers?)…so a longer bar than I would normally order was the choice for him. Dogs that are not crazy retrievers may benefit from the smaller, lighter end of your size range.
Trying out different styles of dumbbells at a club or trial can be very helpful. For dogs that aren’t natural retrievers, making the dumbbell as comfortable a fit as possible can go a long way towards making it fun.