You may have lost the battle to keep that cute puppy in the kennel but that doesn’t mean he can’t be transformed into a good, albeit part-time, gundog, as David Tomlinson explains
Most gundogs are, in fact, part-time workers. The rest of their time is spent as a family companion and pet, but there is no reason that this will make them less proficient in the field. David Tomlinson offers his advice on how to train and maintain a pet gundog.
For more on gundog training, should we use treats while training? David Tomlinson chews over this divisive question in training with treats: chewing over rewards.
HOW TO TRAIN A PET GUNDOG
No doubt most people start with the best of intentions. The decision is made to get a proper gundog, one that will sit obediently at the peg, walk to heel off the lead, retrieve on command and recall instantly on the first pip of the whistle. We have all seen these paragons, rare though they are, and the one factor they all have in common is that they live outdoors in kennels. After much research a suitable litter of labradors is found with a proper working pedigree, a puppy is chosen and, at eight weeks, a delightful and demanding youngster comes home for the first time.
Though the kennel has been prepared it doesn’t take long before all the female members of the family protest that the puppy looks lonely and forlorn, and that it’s cruel to leave it in the kennel. The man of the house disagrees on principle but everyone knows that he is bluffing, so the puppy moves into the kitchen, never to set foot in the kennel again. The latter wasn’t, however, a waste of money, as it’s great for storing bicycles.
Though we may be reluctant to admit it, most of us with what we claim are ‘proper’ working gundogs have pets that enjoy the odd day out shooting, whether it’s twice a week or once a fortnight. If we worked as often as they do our bank balances would be in a sorry state. However, though their employment in the shooting field may only be part time, they play an important role as family dogs and companions, even though there are times when they are hard to shift from their favourite sofa.
I once did a census of the dogs on a shoot; the results were interesting and probably typical of most. All but one of the guns’ dogs – eight labradors and two cockers – were indoor dogs. All the beaters’ dogs lived indoors and just two of the pickers-up claimed to kennel their dogs, but they did have rather a lot of them. However, I once met a retired couple who picked up almost every day of the week. They shared their bungalow with no fewer than 21 golden retrievers, so numbers seem to be no bar to dogs living indoors.
The experts will tell you that a dog that lives in a kennel is invariably a far more responsive pupil than one that lives indoors. It regards any excursion out of the kennel and in your company as a treat and as a result soaks up instruction like a sponge soaks up water. In contrast, the indoor dog is so familiar with you that it sees no real reason to take much notice when out training and fails to respond to the whistle because it is busy with a very interesting and important smell.
The truth, of course, is somewhere between the two. Not all kennel dogs come out wanting to learn and there’s no good reason why an indoor dog shouldn’t be responsive and quick to train. I always remember Andrew and Fiona Robinson telling me that the first cocker they made up to be a field-trial champion was an indoor spaniel and all the better for being so. The Robinsons’ Whaupley kennel in North Yorkshire has since made up another four FTChs and gained field-trial awards and wins with more than 38 other cockers in the UK. They still maintain that even top trialling dogs don’t have to be kept in kennels.
Even if your dog is going to be a working pet, or even a pet worker, there are rules that should be followed. Do buy a puppy from working lines. This doesn’t mean that a show-bred labrador or golden retriever, for example, can’t be trained to the gun, but it’s likely to be much harder work teaching it. Though most show-bred dogs do retain the working instinct, rekindling it can be difficult, while their conformation is seldom as suited for work as their more lithe and athletic working cousins.
It doesn’t make any difference whether a puppy is destined to be a pet or a worker or a combination of both, as initial training is much the same. Socialisation with humans, other dogs and other animals is the initial priority, along with such simple training as sitting on command. If you can teach your puppy to not only sit but stay sitting, you are halfway to having a steady gundog.
Children love playing with puppies as much as puppies like playing with children, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, there are a few simple rules that must be obeyed. Never, ever, let you children engage in a tug of war with your dog or else you might well find yourself involved in a similar tussle over a retrieved pheasant. Retrieving games are also best avoided, as they can prevent your dog from ever becoming steady. House training is imperative for an indoor dog but not one that lives in a kennel, but it’s always a mistake not to housetrain as there are times when even a kennel dog must be brought inside.
Just because a dog is going to be principally a pet doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be sent off for professional training. It’s a little like sending your children away to boarding school, but a lot cheaper. You are certain to encounter resistance from family members to such a plan and there may be no reason to do so if younger members of the family promise to help with the training. If you do decide to send the dog away, discuss carefully with the trainer how long it should be for. Most will tell you that a month isn’t nearly long enough, but depending on the dog it might well be sufficient for it to learn the basic disciplines for its future (part-time) career.
If the tuition is to be at home, make sure that you stick to a firm daily regime. Most training is two steps forward and one step backwards, so you have to be prepared for setbacks. Also, make sure that all family members give the same words of instruction or the same pips on the whistle. Clever dogs might well be able to adjust to different handlers but it makes life easier for everyone, and especially the dog, if all the instructions are identical.
There is no shortage of excellent books and DVDs on training. I have sat and watched training DVDs with my dogs but, sadly, they never seem to take it all in. I have found that books are best, at least for me. Strongly recommended is a trio of paperbacks by Lez Graham: The Pet Gundog Puppy; The Pet Gundog; and The Advanced Pet Gundog. Graham, training her own pet gundog, noticed that most books on gundog training take the subject so seriously that they fail to consider that the canine pupil may also be a pet. Her approach is radically different but proves that you can have an excellent gundog that still snuggles next to you on the sofa after a hard day in the field.