You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – or can you? Few of us like being told we can’t do something, so faced with the platitude, the immediate response is to wonder whether it can be done, and how you might go about teaching your old gundog some new tricks. The ease with which a mature dog picks up new bad habits with each succeeding season leads me to believe he could just as well learn some good ones. But, in practice, introducing anything new turns out to be a thorny issue.
First of all you have to ask yourself whether an old handler (that is, you), can indeed teach a new trick. Sadly the answer is all too often, no. Presuming the dog was reasonably well-trained and obedient in the first place, you must ask yourself why he is now identifiably an older dog in need of new tricks. How did the decline from paragon of peg-dog virtue to crafty old dodger set in? When did he start running-in, and why does he still do it? How did he get into the habit of mouthing birds? If he’s always done that, even when he was an innocent young pup with no greater desire than to please the boss, you just have an untrained gundog and it’s certainly too late to start training him now. But if there were halcyon days when a raised eyebrow was enough to “hup” him, then there is every chance of re-training success if you are persistent.
Before you start, make sure that there is no physical or health reason why your older dog’s performance has dropped off. I will never forgive myself for the way I first discovered my old champion bitch had gone deaf. She wasn’t responding to my whistle, so I charged up to her, shouting imprecations, but the instant I touched her she was as startled as a gazelle (even if an elderly, rather overweight one). She hadn’t heard me coming, much less the whistle. After that I only worked her on shoots she knew well, where she continued to hoover up runners and lost birds as efficiently as ever, without any direction from me. Arthritis, diabetes and several other health problems can also impair an older dog’s working ability, so check with your vet first.
The next requirement is from you. Let’s face it, if your dog knew his stuff to begin with, you need to take some responsibility for the fact that he has been allowed to forget it all in the past half-dozen seasons… is it as many as that already? How did we get to the stage where you have to run up and grab a retrieve from him before he starts mouthing it? The cries, “He never used to do that,” and “He’s never done that before,” are constant forlorn refrains on the shooting field.
So take a really stern look at your dog and yourself. Identify honestly what new behaviours you both need to learn. Perhaps you would like your dog to respond more quickly to commands. You should ask yourself why he’s not sufficiently engaged with you. Do you pay him enough attention? Or are you satisfied if he’s somewhere around and comes back eventually? Have you got into the bad habit of repeating commands over and over again, even when the dog is ignoring them? Over and over again… over and over again… no wonder the dog has stopped listening. The next time you give your dog a command or say his name, just count how many times you repeat yourself. Out shooting once I heard one gun call his dog nine times, including the phrase “good boy” between each repetition.
Before your dog can learn the trick of instant obedience, you have to unlearn your old trick of not doing anything about his disobedience. If you normally rely heavily on verbal commands, get into the habit of using your whistle. Give the dog one verbal command to come, then pip your whistle. If you don’t get an immediate response, dash out to him, grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him to you, while pipping the whistle. If you have never done this before, you will be amazed at the transformation in your dog to one who really sits up and takes notice when you command.
Whistle signals are much more precise than verbal commands. They are black and white. Either you pipped him or you didn’t. Many of us chat to our dogs to encourage them, but the whistle is there for one reason only. During the summer I never use a whistle while exercising my trained dogs. I know I’m going to be too relaxed to do something about it if they disobey, so I avoid getting into the situation in the first place. When August comes and they hear the whistle for the first time in ages, the dogs know it means business.
Just getting the message across to the older dog that after all these slack seasons you finally mean business is often more than half the process of teaching new behaviours – although of course it does demand that you do mean business, and only you can answer that question.
There are lots of new tricks you can use to break your dog’s bad habits. Older dogs often hold on to the retrieve instead of offering it to you. Work on this with dummies in the summer. As soon as he brings one dummy to you, throw another out so that he has to let go of the first in order to fetch it. Some experienced dogs go to the other extreme, chucking the retrieve at you while on their way to get the next. To counteract this, use the whistle to pip the dog to you. Sit him down, then heel him a few paces away from the action before sending him out again – and avoid giving him more than a couple of retrieves at a time.
Steadiness on the peg shouldn’t be a new trick, but somehow every season your dog will try to persuade you that it is not only new but impossible. Don’t take your new, younger dog out on the peg with the senior dog. Competition will set in for retrieves, inevitably leading to running-in. Instead, make a virtue of the fact that you now have two dogs by alternating them between drives. The older dog won’t get so tired and the younger dog won’t be so overexcited. Avoid using a corkscrew – it’s like expecting an aspirin to mend a broken leg. A more effective solution can be tried on a shoot where you know everyone. Warn them that you are about to take action. Let a friend shoot the drive for you, but stand with him with your dog as if you were shooting. As soon as the dog runs-in, descend on him and give him the telling off of his life while dragging him back to the peg. After this your dog is unlikely to repeat the offence. Of course, you get punished for having let things get to this stage by becoming the day’s cabaret act. It would be understandable if you just left the dog in the vehicle during the drive.
New tricks for old dogs
Old trick The dog has got into the habit of running-in from the peg and usually has to be tied to a corkscrew.
New trick If you have two dogs on your peg they will compete, which can be a cause of running-in, so have only one on the peg. If this doesn’t cure it, ask a friend to shoot a drive for you but stand at the peg as normal with your dog. When he moves to run-in you can stop him at once, which will come as a great shock to the dog. Do this once or twice per shooting day until things improve.
Old trick The dog’s delivery of the bird to you has got sloppy over the years, to the point where you have to go and get it from him.
New trick Work on retrieving over the summer using a rabbit-skin dummy or cold game (frozen during the season). Throw a retrieve and as soon as the dog has picked it, run off quickly away from him, which will encourage him to chase you and bring the retrieve up to hand. An alternative stratagem is to send him on a blind retrieve and hide while he picks it so that he has to find you (use your whistle to help him locate you).
Old trick Your ageing dog doesn’t respond to the whistle like he used to.
New trick Old dogs genuinely go deaf, so before doling out any punishment for disobedience give him a hearing test. Does he wake up the instant you come in each morning? Can you creep up behind him and surprise him? You can still work a deaf dog satisfactorily, especially if you taught him plenty of hand signals as a pup. Use all your hand signals and body language and give him commands only when he is looking at you. Only work him on familiar shoots, so that if he does lose you he’s not completely lost.
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