When to start training a pup is the million-dollar question. Janet Menzies believes that putting in the groundwork at one of the gundog puppy schools will pay dividends in the field later on

Gundog puppy schools can be a great way to get a young pup up to scratch, but the best gundogs will have started young. Take Janet Menzies advice on how basic, early training will make all the difference in the field.

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The hardest question I am ever asked about training gundogs is: “When?” People want to know when they should start the young pup with its basic obedience training or when they should introduce live game. Most of all they want to know when they can take the dog shooting. Everybody complains about how notoriously coy trainers are about naming the day when it comes to a young dog’s key stages.

Mostly, I stick up for the professionals at the gundog puppy schools. So much depends on the dog’s aptitude. One of mine is due to run in a novice trial soon, and he’s just had his first birthday – his close relative has also just competed for the first time, and she’s twice his age. But two extremes recently presented themselves which made me realise that novice handlers do need a ballpark figure of what goals they should be achieving when. A lady was telling me about the family’s first springer pup, and when I sheepishly admitted to some knowledge in the area, she asked me about training, explaining: “He’s going to be trained to the gun, but we’ve been told to wait until he is two years old before we start.”It depends what you mean by “start training”, but obviously two years old is too late to start specific gundog training. If you intend to use your dog in the shooting field, you must train with that in mind from the day you get the puppy home.

The other extreme was the shooting acquaintance who complained his springer bitch was gun-shy when he was out hedgerow-bashing with her. It transpired she was only six months old – far too young to be shot over in that way. At that age a dog should be hearing the gun fired occasionally and, if he is a mature, quick learner, may be having dummies “shot” for him, or a rabbit – but not full-scale rough-shooting.


Professional trainers at gundog puppy schools tend to assume that even first-timers will have a knowledge of the common-sense parameters of what to expect from a youngster at various ages, but from my experience this isn’t always the case. It pays to think in terms of key stages. Aim to achieve the targets for those stages in a natural progression, rather than at specific ages. Some stages they will fly through at an earlier age than expected, only to get stuck on the next lesson at gundog puppy school and have to be “kept down” a month or two. Start teaching early play-learning to your pup as soon as he is weaned and toddling about at home (in practice eight to 10 weeks old). Getting him to know his name; using the feed bowl to teach “sit”(or “hup”); and encouraging him to come to you when asked by his name are all lessons that are learnt in a play context rather than in gundog puppy schools. We tend to overlook the importance of these exercises, but remember that even advanced gundog work is little more than a combination of the dog sitting/stopping when asked and coming/returning when called.

Even if you did little more than this for the next four months of the dog’s life, but got them perfect, you would be nearer to a trained gundog than you think. Much of the dog’s later training at gundog puppy schools centres around getting it to obey these basics in a range of scenarios. As your pup gets stronger and bolder, start introducing little retrieving games – still insisting on those first basic commands. Don’t overdo it, even if it is pup’s favourite game. You can begin hand and whistle commands to back up your voice almost immediately. It’s like teaching a child a foreign language – easily picked up if introduced at an early age.


Spend the next two or three months messing around with these basics in all sorts of places and situations, and gradually add in a few extras such as the lead, heeling and eventually staying. Aim to have the pup confident on this full repertoire by the time it is five months old. The next six months will be spent on the more demanding tasks at gundog puppy schools of teaching hunting, steadiness, handling and gun awareness. It is hard to predict how long this “secondary school” stage of training will take. Some youngsters will pick up retrieving lessons easily at gundog puppy schools but find it hard to be steady. Others will take steadiness on board but not hunt well.

This is the time when you must adjust to the dog rather than having age-related goals in mind. Just plod steadily through the aspects you need to achieve, and hope that by the time it is around 11 months or a year old, the youngster is ready to be introduced to training in controlled live-game and shooting situations. This graduation stage from gundog puppy schools, leading up to work in the field, is often quicker than expected if the foundations were thorough, and most young dogs will be ready to start going shooting at around 14 to 16 months.


  • At weaning – teach name, come , and sit
  • Early puppyhood – teach verbal commands, support with hand gestures/whistle
  • Six months (approx) – add retrieving and staying but keep at play level
  • Eight months (approx) – insist on obedience, begin simulated fieldwork exercises
  • First birthday – full field training including rabbit pen, shot and game
  • Eighteen months – first shooting season in the field, don’t let the youngster get too involved; keep pressure off and backtrack if necessary
  • Two years – beginning to mature, expect more