For youthful gundogs, the happiest days of their lives are their schooldays. The Eton or Sandhurst of dog training will certainly be expensive for the owner but, it is hoped, will produce one of the best workers in the field. Above all, from the dog’s perspective, it will be excellent fun.This, at least, is the opinion of gundog trainers. They take enormous pride in their pupils, whether the young dogs have had the full “boarding school” experience for four or six months or just a few “crammer sessions” in the rabbit pen.
As for the owner, there is hardly a better moment on a shooting day than a comment from a fellow gun, “Nice dog you’ve got there. You must be proud of him.” To such a remark, the reply is likely to be, “They did a great job with him at Buccleuch,” or wherever else. They might be anywhere from Wiltshire to Perthshire, but the good gundog schools are well known and have as much prestige in the dog world as Harrow or Winchester in the human.
Edward Martin, a trainer in the Borders, tells me, “We work with folk who are able to afford to send their dog away for formal training. They are mostly labrador owners for pegwork, as these clients have larger disposable incomes. The best and most efficient guns come to us for a puppy from the right line of breeding , then take the dog away to humanise it and let it grow up, coming back to us at about 10 months old, when it is able to take the intensive nature of training.”
And how much will it cost, you might ask. Martin enlightens us. “This will vary hugely – from a keeper charging very little, to a top-class facility and skilful establishment charging no less than £100 weekly.” He continues, “The kind of people who decide to use a professional trainer are mostly successful businessmen, wanting a dog to match their lives. A course of training with us would be four months, so shorter than with many trainers but equally intensive.”
NEW DOG, OLD TRICKS
Busy people send their dogs to boarding school. Alex and Sam Thorneycroft-Taylor from Languedoc Gundogs on the Dorset-Wiltshire border say, “Most owners will start their training with fortnightly sessions, then once they’re confident that it’s going well, they’ll go once a month. But some feel that due to family or work commitments, they haven’t the time to put in the initial ‘full on’ training, so will go for residential training, whereby their dog comes to stay with us for intense training and any techniques used are passed on to the owner when they collect their dog.”
David Lisett manages the Duke of Buccleuch’s famous kennels near Thornhill, Dumfriesshire, home of field trial winners in both labrador and spaniel classes. It is agreed by fellow professionals that his courses combine the virtues of a good public school and Oxbridge. As he says, “Every gundog handler will need training advice at some point, simply because each dog is different. Every dog trained is a new experience and there will always be something un-expected to deal with. It’s better to learn the easy way to resolve problems than to take the hard route and run the risk of ruining a dog with mistakes.”
Lisett, who recently returned from a series of training sessions in the USA, continues, “At what stage people come to us depends on the client, and the reasons are as varied as dogs’ temperaments. They come for the fun, to find out how to avoid mistakes they’ve made with a previous dog, and even to enjoy the facilities and surroundings. How long they stay depends on the course. We offer three basic outlines: a two-to three-day course such as we’ve delivered in the USA and Italy, a day with six dogs and handlers who are taught as a group, and – the most effective option – the one-day Complete Training session, which costs £60 per day. This covers training from puppy to finished dog. It concentrates on the handlers, showing them how to read a dog’s temperament, how to behave towards a dog, how to change on the instant from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ dog and how to train psychologically not physically. It also teaches set training techniques so the dog can always finish the day with a success, even when things haven’t been going so well. Our group training days are booking up a year in advance.”
The enthusiasm for David Lisett’s “dog whisperer” courses can be judged from the fact that clients have brought their teams of spaniels by road right across America for a few hours in his company.
EVERY DOG IS DIFFERENT
Gary McCarthy of MAP Working Gundogs, Heswall in the Wirral, is a man with strong opinions and excellent insight into the background of training. “Typically,” he says, “the shooting man or woman sees a very good labrador – well-trained, well-behaved, retrieving with ease – and they think that their own eight-week-old puppy should be able to do all of the above. They therefore find out where the local gundog school is based and sign up.” He continues, “Spaniels are something else, though. The typical scenario is this: they see a lovely cocker or springer and want one. They are told to get a working dog with a docked tail, so off they go and buy a ‘mad as a box of frogs’ spaniel. When they realise, too late, that they have bought a ‘crashing through undergrowth, won’t come back, impossible to keep still, spinning, hunting’ type of dog, they cry for help from a professional.”
McCarthy explains, “You cannot get a fully trained gundog by attending a school hall get-together every second Thursday. You need a lot of different ground, long grass, water, woodland and ditches, and the introduction of starting pistols and dummy launchers in order to train dogs and handlers properly. Trainers need to explain to owners termin-ology such as ‘runners’, ‘wind direction’, ‘keeping your dog in the area’, ‘the stop and hunt whistle’ and so on.
“In many cases, a professional trainer will be able to correct faults with the dog or handler that the handler could not correct himself,” McCarthy goes on. “But most amateurs expect far too much far too soon, and a lot of the faults that I’m expected to correct have been caused by incorrect handling in the first place. An amateur handler will also focus on the dog’s own strengths and ignore the weaknesses until its too late, which is when they come to a professional. In some cases, the damage caused by inappropriate training is so severe that there’s no hope for the dog to ever become a high-quality working dog. Every dog is different, and many people who think that they have a gundog have, in fact, just got a dog that is a gundog breed.”
SCHOOL IS FUN
Some people choose to take their new puppy to a professional and start training straight away. On this subject, McCarthy advises, “Socialising a puppy early on is crucial, but most amateur handlers think that a 10-week-old puppy that’s just had its second jabs can attend training classes
immediately. In my experience, this isn’t appropriate as the puppy is still too young; the most basic, light training should not commence until 18 to 20 weeks. My motto is, ‘I will show you how to train your dog; I don’t train your dog for you.’” He adds a warning, “In training clubs which are affiliated to the Kennel Club and hold working tests, a young dog will often perform quite well to the odd gunshot and pick up the occasional award in Puppy and Novice tests. The owner will then take them picking-up, with multiple shots going off and birds dropping everywhere. It will send the dog potty.”
At Mordor Gundogs in Perthshire, Charlie Thorburn says,”The majority of dogs we train are to be used as peg dogs, although we do train a fair amount of all-round dogs and some specifically for beating. Dogs come in for training from six to 18 months, unless someone is buying one of our pups when it is fully-trained. Last year I trained dogs for a variety of people all over the world, from a postman in Dundee to a Russian oligarch. I generally find that those who want a dog for a serious amount of shooting will send their dog to school. Those who want to do a little bit here and there will attend classes in village halls. They will improve the dog but its potential is limited. Dogs need to have time spent on them most days. People who do group classes generally do it as a social thing, not to get a result – a light-hearted hobby.”
One of Thorburn’s pet hates is people who, when they decide they want a dog, buy the first puppy they hear about. He explains the problem, “They don’t know the family or anything about them. They don’t consider that they will have this pup for 12 to 14 years, and yet they spend more time choosing a magazine in the newsagent. The opposite are those who make the effort to meet the dogs as well as the family, and then book a pup off a bitch that they actually like and know. They’re happy to wait for their perfect puppy. These people tend to book their new dog in for its training at the puppy stage when it’s six to eight months old. We base our business on producing family working dogs. They must be just as happy in a house with children as in a pond with ducks. We are not ‘hard’ on the dogs. Most dogs that come here want to stay – they have much more fun with us!”
What would it be like to own a first-class gundog? To find out, spend an hour or two
with Emma Ford’s dogs at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. “We are different from your typical gundog school,” she says, “in that people don’t come to us with their own dog for tuition. Just like The British School of Falconry, where novices handle our trained hawks, guests learn to handle one of our fully trained gundogs. It’s the first gundog school of its kind in the world. We have 10 fully trained labradors – some of them field trial winners – and we teach guests basic commands while the dogs work for them. Gundogs generally work for their owner or handler, but not for a stranger, but here they do. It’s been one of the best projects we’ve ever done. We open the world of gundog handling to a new audience.” Session prices start at £70.