Gundog breeders – usually ones who are trying to sell you a puppy – will always tell you that there are no clever ways of selecting the best pup in a litter. At eight weeks old it’s all chance and you are best off simply choosing the one you like most. But this is true only up to a point.
Certainly pups change hugely between eight weeks and eight months; one that was
backward at weaning can make great strides and become a champion. And, occasionally, a good-looking, bouncy young pup can turn out to have a deal-breaking fault when it eventually starts serious training.

Once in a while, though, a pup that has all the signs of true class makes an appearance. When this happens, remember to forget the myth about young puppies being all the same. Some puppies are very definitely more equal than others, and it’s important to recognise the marks of greatness early on, so you don’t get caught out when it comes to training your gifted gundog.

This can be surprisingly difficult. We are all so used to our dogs being just average or, indeed, having faults of varying degrees of horridness, that’s it hard to change our training mindset away from problem solving to rapid progression. I’m always banging on about how to stop your youngster running in or how to put a bit of drive into his hunting, but I actually write very little about what to do when the puppy seems to know it all already.

What do you do when, having introduced the stop whistle for the first time ever, the pup instantly stops and sits precisely where you asked and then looks at you attentively, waiting for the next command? Or what about the first time you send him on a difficult blind retrieve and he zooms out with arrow-like straightness and is back at your feet with it before you’ve even put the whistle in your mouth?

Obviously, it comes in the category of problems we’d all like to have, but it can present a training challenge, especially for novice handlers who may begin to suspect that their puppy is better at the job than they are. With bright, switched-on pups who have plenty of class in their breeding, every lesson is easy. All too soon you start feeling like a guru from a martial arts film: “Go, young Wigeon, go out into the world, for I can teach you no more.” And, of course, in the back of your mind, you are always questioning whether all this brilliance is, in fact, just your being an adoring owner.

First of all, run through the basic, unbiased checks listed in the box overleaf, which will give you early-warning signs that you have a precocious pup. If you weaned the litter, was he the first one to learn to eat from the bowl? Future champions tend to have very smooth early puppyhoods. They eat well and don’t get any little puppy health problems. They usually get on very well with the rest of the litter. More tellingly, they will naturally be looked to by the other pups as litter-leader, often without our “top pup” actually showing many signs of overt dominance. As it grows up the special pup will constantly be the first of the litter to make little breakthroughs – the first to trot, to pick something up, to get where it’s not meant to be. New environments won’t prove to be a challenge.

Once you have the pup at home you will find he adapts exceptionally rapidly to his new situation. When he’s on his first walks he will naturally and fearlessly run into little bits of “cover” such as flower-beds. He will pick things up and carry them around and he will be good at solving little problems such as how to climb or carry, without help from you. At the same time, he will be alert, receptive and responsive to your interactions with him, at whatever level. Early socialising and lessons are designed to put all this into the pup, but some have innate poise and self-possession.

The late Keith Erlandson’s cocker spaniel, FTCh Speckle of Ardoon, won three consecutive Championships in the early Seventies (a time when springers and cockers competed in the same stakes), and wrote this about her: “I wonder how many know the feeling of having a racehorse… or a trial dog in its early stages, as yet unproven but which experience tells them is a phenomenal animal.” Speckle became a Field Trial Champion at 17 months – an age when most youngsters are only just entering the field. Current top trainer Simon Tyers won the 2007 Cocker Spaniel Championship with FTCh Timsgarry Barlow when the dog was a mere 19 months old. Both trainers said that these dogs seemed already to know what was required right from the outset, with Simon describing his young champion as being “more
or less self-training”.

No dog is genuinely self-training, so what do you do when faced with the responsibility of a bright youngster constantly gazing at you with the words: “That was easy, what next, boss?” in its eyes? The obvious first step is to avoid making mistakes. Don’t take it for granted that the pup will be obedient as well as good. If your pup is learning its lessons quickly, make sure it is also learning them thoroughly, and insist on 100% consistency.

The temptation is to move on to new exercise after new exercise, without having a revision stage to check that previous lessons have really stuck. Get into the habit of pyramid training, where you run through each of the previous exercises before adding on the next one. When you have taught the pup to come, ask him to come to you before you teach the next exercise. Then you might teach him to sit and stay. After that you call him in to you and sit and stay him before adding on a retrieve. In this way you build the exercises naturally into a finished programme, each time making sure that you haven’t “lost” a command along the way.

This works really well with bright dogs, who move on quickly into all-round simulated fieldwork exercises. The dimmer dog might need to continue with just one exercise at a time for longer, which would bore a special pup quite easily. Try to steer a course between under-stimulating your good youngster and letting him move ahead too quickly. Trial and error is a simple way to find out if you are going too fast. Push him a little bit with a new training environment or a new challenge but be ready to take a step back again if he seems overfaced.

If he really does take it all in his stride and continues to make you look good even as you start working with game in the field, you may very well have the dog of a lifetime. Enjoy and value him, of course, but try also to avoid wasting his talents. Join a few gundog trialling clubs. You never know, your dog of a lifetime might just also be the dog of his generation.

Find out if your gundog puppy is born to greatness…