Shoot days and field trials have been deleted from the calendar but that’s no reason to allow your gundog training to lose focus, says Janet Menzies
After a tricky on-again-off-again shooting season, don’t let your gundog training lose focus. Janet Menzies offers her tips on gundog training at home, to ensure your shoot day companion is still at their best next season.
The worst gundog crimes can happen to the best of us. They are also simple to fix with small adjustments to your training. Read gundog behaviour: top 10 gundog crimes.
GUNDOG TRAINING AT HOME
Dogs don’t do distancing, social or otherwise. So our gundogs must be baffled by the on-again-off-again shooting season that has wound its way to a confused close. We can hardly blame them or ourselves if dog work has become a bit wayward under the strain. For those who rely on regular days on the peg, or picking-up or beating to keep their dogs happy, fit and on the whistle, working and training feels just about impossible.
Professional trainers and field-trial competitors have been hard hit, with the loss of the various national championships and only a few trials fitted in during periods when lockdown was lifted. Fortunately, they know how to be inventive and adaptable with their training programmes. One successful trials man used to train his dog on a local trading estate, using the lanes between the units to get his dog’s outruns ramrod straight. Another Welsh-based trainer regularly recruited seagulls on the beach to improve his dog’s steadiness. So most of the professionals see solutions where we normal dog-owners lose the plot. Leading spaniel trainer Ian Openshaw has always maintained that, in any case, the typical driven shoot ruins a dog’s steadiness, discipline and precision. So maybe we are better off being forced to do something a bit different.
The next question is what to do – and how to do it. When it’s no longer a matter of just chucking Bertie into the back of the vehicle and heading off for the local shoot, what’s the alternative? Jon Bailey sits on the Kennel Club’s field trials committee and had a desperate time trying to juggle dates and fixtures before giving up completely on the 2021 Cocker Spaniel Championship. But, he told me: “Even though it’s been impossible trying to do meetings with people, the dog side of things carries on. As professional spaniel handlers, most of our training is done separately from shooting. For example, we wouldn’t be working a competition dog on a driven shoot. So the training element hasn’t been that much different.”
The message from the professionals is that we should see this as an opportunity and although they are too polite to say it, what they really mean is that this is our chance to spend some time getting the dog back on the whistle and putting a stop to all those desperately shaming sins that seem to keep happening on any given Saturday from September to January.
The first and, yes, more or less the only rule of off-season dog training is to be absolutely clear and distinct about whether the dog is out training or just being taken on a walk. Loss of focus is the biggest mistake made by beginners, and during this period of on-off sport, it is vital to maintain it. Whenever you set off with your dog, ask yourself the question: what is the purpose of this outing? Do I want to do some training? Are we just having a bit of exercise? Or is this a family walk with the dog including himself in the bubble? If you are just having a wander and not planning to train, leave the whistle behind. If you take your whistle on an ordinary walk, the moment will come when you use it and the dog will disobey it. And because you are just out relaxing, you won’t notice and you won’t insist, and just like that your dog is off the whistle and it will be hard to get him back to 100% whistle discipline.
Only ever use your whistle if you are in a position to enforce it and intend to do so. By not taking it at all, you avoid those embarrassing situations of repeated pipping while the dog informs you that he is social distancing himself from you, and you have actually trained him to disobey the whistle. Instead, whenever you put that whistle round your neck, have a plan in mind of what you are going to do. There are so many different aspects of dog work that can benefit massively from training without live shooting.
Teaching steadiness is much easier if you have more than one dog. Have your dogs hunting along and allow one to ‘find’ a dummy or ball that you have planted, or even a real rabbit if you have access to rabbits. But don’t let that dog be the one to have the retrieve; instead, send the other dog. Team up with a dog-handling friend so that you can extend this exercise. Have your friend fire a shot while you throw or hide a dummy. Don’t send any of the dogs but do the retrieve yourself. Or send the dog that is furthest away – whether yours or your friend’s dog. Or leave the dummy where it is and both of you and all the dogs walk on. Then send one of the dogs back while the others sit and wait. Bailey explains: “When we are training for trialling on rabbits in the off season, we are constantly swapping which dog gets the retrieve – regardless of which dog flushed it. This lets the dog know that even when it has flushed game or marked a fall, it must stay sat up, because it might not be sent out on the retrieve.”
Pickers-up should always incorporate this into their training. One of the worst things to watch on a driven shoot is two dogs setting off on the same retrieve. Full-time picker-up Mike Wilson works a team of up to a dozen cocker spaniels and has them each sitting on a sixpence waiting for the command – in fact, they sit exactly anywhere and on anything he asks, making for some charming photo opportunities. You can try sitting your dog up on a bale or you can get purpose-made place boards (for more information on place boards, visit rytexgundogs.co.uk).
Driven shooting is the biggest test of a dog’s retrieving education, yet many of us just leave it to chance, with the excuse, “Oh, he’ll get better with experience on the shoot.” Unfortunately, if he wasn’t great on day one of the season, by the end of January things will have gone further downhill. So here is a genuine opportunity to do some work on retrieving without the pressure of a real shoot day. If you have had a chance to watch top trainers teaching retrieving, you may be surprised to notice that they don’t use dummy launchers or throw sticks – in fact, they rarely throw a seen retrieve at all. From an early age, the dog will be working most of the time on memory retrieves or genuinely blind retrieves.
Openshaw says: “A dog doesn’t learn anything from retrieving a dummy or a bird that it sees fall out in the open. You might as well go and pick up those yourself.”
When setting up a retrieving exercise, have a clear idea in mind what it is that you want your dog to learn from it. Is this teaching him to use his nose on a blind retrieve of a bird that may have fallen somewhere difficult? Or, perhaps, you want him to develop the habit of remembering a mark for a long time – useful on big driven days. Maybe he needs to watch your hand signals and listen to you carefully if you need to handle him on a retrieve. There are different exercises for each of these.
With your young dog, start off in a straight lane with hedges or walls either side. Walk along with him at heel and let him see you drop a dummy by your foot on the other side from the one he is heeling. Don’t let him pick it, but keep walking about 50 metres up the lane. Then sit him up and send him back to fetch the dummy. While he is running out, secretly drop a second dummy behind you. When he returns, take the first dummy from him. At this point, if he is clever, he will spot the second dummy. A quieter dog might not notice it. Don’t let him have the second dummy, but walk to heel back to where the first dummy was. Then sit him up and send him back for the second dummy. This teaches your youngster to go out in straight lines, as well as helping him to understand that he can trust you that there will be a retrieve.
There are so many variations on this simple exercise. You can make sure one or other dummy is really well hidden. Or you can stop your dog on his way out and tell him to leave and instead send him for the other dummy. As the dog progresses you can leave the lane and use a corner of a field or the garden. Don’t let him see you hide the dummy in a corner. Sit him up along the field edge about 50 metres from the dummy and send him out. Based on the lane exercise he will know to go out; then, gradually, you can make this more difficult by sitting the dog in the middle of the field, without help from an edge. It should make no difference to him, and as long as you always leave the dummy in the corner it will make success inevitable.
The next stage along with these scenarios is to add a ‘distraction’. This aims to simulate the general chaos prevailing on most shoot days. The principle is simple. On any of the exercises, throw a dummy or roll a tennis ball as the dog is on the way out on a retrieve. If he attempts to get it, stop him, tell him to leave and then send him on for the original retrieve. Distraction work combines steadiness and retrieving in one exercise. The scenarios are flexible. You can work in the triangle again, but this time throwing a dummy seen followed by another seen, before sending the dog back for the first – using hand signals and body language to communicate that he should go for the original dummy. Then you can add in a rolling tennis ball as a distraction either on the outrun or the return.
Use your imagination to combine all these different exercises so that the dog really has to concentrate on you and your handling and commands – which is exactly what you want on a busy shoot day. Remember to sit your dog up at the beginning and end of each exercise, after he has returned with a retrieve, and during the distraction work. Of course, these exercises will become difficult if you find your dog doesn’t stop and sit immediately on the whistle – which takes us back to where we came in. The first, and only, rule of dog club is obey the whistle.
REMEMBER THESE DOS AND DON’TS
Do: maintain your own focus. It’s easy to get into bad habits if the distinction between work and play is blurred for both you and your dog.
Do: be adaptable. Think creatively to create training opportunities that mimic shooting; you can get plenty of ideas from social media dog-training groups.
Do: insist on 100% obedience. If you are training, you’re training, and you must make sure your dog knows he can’t get away with any sloppiness.
Don’t: change the rules. Your dog doesn’t know about lockdown, so keep to your normal routines.
Don’t: waste your whistle. If you aren’t training but are just heading out for a casual walk, don’t even take your whistle and then your dog won’t get an opportunity to disobey it.
Don’t: give up. That goes for the whole situation. Your dog won’t give up and he will be ready to cheer you up no matter what.
A brand new, updated, edition of Janet Menzies’ Training the Working Spaniel has just been published by Quiller Publishing, alongside her chart-topping The Cocker Spaniel, a number one bestseller last Christmas. Both are available direct from quillerpublishing.com or from other online booksellers.