There's no doubt that in the wrong hands an electric collar can be cruel, but then so can a stick or a boot. In the right hands, it's a proven lifesaver.
Observing a top trainer handling a dog on to a distant bird with nothing more than an imperceptible movement of the body or a quiet pip from the whistle never fails to impress. It’s a bit like watching Roger Federer finesse a backhand down the line or Lee Westwood hit the green in a drive from the tee. Wonderful to see, but you know you could never do it yourself, however hard you tried. Great handlers, like great tennis players and great golfers, have a special gift.
Of course, we can try and emulate them. Many top trainers offer one-to-one tuition. Most people go along with their dog, hoping that the dog is going to learn something, but this is rarely the case. The trainer will be teaching you, the owner, how to handle your dog, not the dog itself. However, if you absorb the advice and practise what you have been taught, then the chances are that you and your dog will become a far more accomplished partnership in the shooting field.
There was a time when most would-be handlers gathered all their knowledge from reading books. Peter Moxon’s classic Gundogs: Training and Field Trials was first published in 1952 and remains in print to this day. Dated it may be – it hardly mentions the HPR (hunter, pointer, retriever) breeds – but it’s a book that has inspired many successful handlers, and if you follow its advice, you won’t go far wrong. There is a host of more recent books to choose from. One I particularly like is Training the Working Retriever, as its author, Anthea Lawrence, is a sympathetic trainer who shows that dogs work best with praise and reward, not punishment.
Watching a dog training DVD is another way of learning to train your own dog to a high standard. DVDs have the great advantage over the old VHS tapes in that you can find a precise point in a film and return to it and rewatch it. You can choose a DVD that concentrates on your own breed, be it labrador, spaniel or HPR, but don’t forget that the basic techniques are the same whatever the breed.
It’s easy to be lulled into thinking that the top handlers have dogs that never go wrong, but they do. A recent winner of the Cocker Championship went AWOL for several hours at a trial earlier in the season of its victory, a reminder that there’s a fine line between keeping a hard hunting dog under control and losing that invisible thread that connects dog to handler. Don’t forget, either, that almost all the top handlers discard and sell on dogs that don’t make the grade, whereas most of us have to make the best of a dog that doubles as the family pet.
However, when things go wrong dog training, modern technology can help. A friend of mine had a home-bred springer bitch that he sent away to be dog trained professionally. She returned well versed in all the disciplines required, but as she got older she became unreliable, twice leading my pal off on a wild chase as she pursued pheasants, hare and deer, all the time ignoring the whistle. More hours of intensive training were devoted to her, but she still remained untrustworthy despite being delightful in every other respect.
The cure came with an electric training collar of the type banned in Wales, and which the Kennel Club would like to see outlawed in the rest of the UK. The spaniel received three mild shocks each time she ignored her handler. This was enough to cure her errant behaviour, and she hasn’t had to wear the collar since. There’s no doubt that in the wrong hands an electric collar can be cruel, but then so can a stick or a boot. In the right hands, it’s a proven lifesaver.
Modern electric collars are sophisticated and with most you can adjust the severity of the shock – on the lowest setting it’s just a tingle. With many dogs, even the lowest setting is enough to make the sinner stop and return to its handler. However, if the thought of a shock collar upsets you, there are highly effective alternatives. The Jetcare Pro, for example, works on a similar principle but instead of administering a shock, gives the dog a cold spray. It can be operated at up to 300 metres with the remote control, and the spray is sufficient to give most dogs a surprise that will stop them misbehaving.
Dogs that bark incessantly in their kennels can be a real nuisance for both owners and neighbours, but anti-bark collars will quickly cure this. As soon as the dog wearing the collar barks, it receives a spray. Most dogs are clever enough to associate the bark with the spray and keep their mouths shut. Several anti-bark collars use citronella but I much prefer an odourless gas spray as most dogs detest the smell of citronella.
Finally, if you have a spaniel that likes to hunt in the next county, the ultimate accessory is the Retrieva Collar, best described as a sat nav for dogs. The collar plots the animal’s whereabouts precisely on an OS map on your mobile phone, the internet or a special hand-held receiver. No more whistling at the end of the drive – you will know exactly where the errant dog is, and in which direction it’s heading.
Quiller Press publishes a wide range of dog-training books, including Gundogs: Training and Field Trials and Training the Working Retriever; tel 01939 261616.
Paul French Video produces a wide range of training DVDs for everybody; tel 01778 341255.
Several companies sell electric training collars, including Pac Dog; tel 0800 028 4325.
Retrieva Collars are sold by Retrieva Tracking; tel 01422 877796.