In theory, you can train a gundog by using a manual. In practice, the dog's behaviour won't be textbook. Be patient and creative with your teaching, suggests Janet Menzies

Gundog training theory and the reality are two very separate concepts. Janet Menzies offers reassurance that no gundog is textbook and suggests how to ‘troubleshoot’ the training problems your manual didn’t allow for.

Sitting is the most basic command but it is fundamental to all good dog work. The training manuals aren’t always honest with how difficult it can be to make your pup sit. Take Janet Menzies’ advice, read how to get your gundog to sit.


Owning the third best cocker in the country is turning out to be less the ego trip I had hoped and more of an opportunity for people to tease mercilessly if said cocker puts a paw wrong, which even she is prone to do. Such occasions have reminded me very forcibly of the gaping chasm lying between gundog training theory and its reality.

According to the books, your well-bred pup is meant to come home and quickly learn its obedience lessons. It then moves on to work in the field, where it continues to be steady and perform as laid down in the closing chapters of the training manual. Among all the books I have read concerning gundog training theory, only The Hundred and One Dalmations comes close to capturing the true scenes of chaos that occur during puppy training – and I gather the work is actually meant to be a children’s story.

Famous trainers make all their theories sound not only plausible but utterly functional. Yet when you try to put them into practice with your first pup, somehow the instructions don’’t seem to bear any relation to what you have in front of you. It is as frustrating as trying to get your new digital camera going by following a menu that has only got to English via Korean, Spanish and Swahili. Indeed, many of the more field trialling-orientated books don’t even include a quick start guide at all, and assume that your puppy already has sitting, heeling and staying pre-installed.


I will never my forget my disappointment when, with manual in one hand and feed bowl held high in the other, I first commanded a cocker pup to “hup”. The pup immediately looked up at the bowl, exactly as described in the users’ guide, but hup didn’t follow, and there was no troubleshooting section. When things don’’t go according to the book at such an early stage, it makes it impossible to follow the rest of the instructions. It feels as though there is something missing – a lost page or a phrase that didn’t translate. The missing link is actually experience; once you have muddled through the training of your first few pups you can re-read the books and they make perfect sense.

The problem is breaking through that catch-22 where you don’t have the practical knowledge to apply successfully what is in the book, and no amount of reading it can give you the experience you need. Luckily, most gundogs nowadays are so well bred that they seem to come with an operating system almost as simple as Windows – just go on clicking to see what happens and it all works in the end.

With the hup command, for example, I just kept saying “hup” to my pup and waving my hand or a toy vaguely about in the air above its head, and it got the message after a while. Even just giving the command the instant your pup sits naturally will eventually set up an association, so that it learns the meaning of the command. Pet-dog trainers suggest actually pushing the dog into the sitting position while giving your command, and this probably works well on the less wriggly pup.


Contrary to the impression you may get from a training manual, you can be quite flexible about how you teach a command. Keep trying and you will find something that works for you and your pup. Don’’t panic, be patient – if you are consistent and persistent things will get better.

In the early stages, though, each new lesson feels a lot more complicated than the books imply. Lead work and heeling is one area especially where I think trainers should be more open about what a nightmare process it can be. The usual instruction reads something like this: “Have your pup trotting beside you on the lead. Keep the lead on but let it drop loosely over his back and continue on.” The theory is that the youngster will not notice that he is effectively no longer on the lead, and hey presto! You have achieved heeling.

The reality is rather more like this: “Have your pup dancing around on the lead at all angles like a fish on a line. Keep the lead on but let it drop loosely over his back and immediately rush to catch him as he takes off for the nearest flower-bed.” I have yet to come across a pup that didn’t know instantly whether it was on or off the lead and, equally swiftly, work out the implications.


In fairness to the experts, they don’t have space to write about the hours and hours of patient lead work you may have to put in to get your pup to be quiet and switched-off when it is on the lead. Some of the very best working dogs never really get it. At one of the major field trial championships I noticed that almost without exception the top dogs were giving their handlers a hard time while on the lead waiting for their turn.

But this is where that missing link of experience comes in. What makes lead and heel work teachable is that the dog is bonded to you in the first place. To an expert this goes without saying, to such an extent that very few of the books mention it. Your dog should always be slightly more interested in you than in anything else that is going on. It is really noticeable when watching the top handlers that their dogs only ever take their eyes off them in order to perform a task – and even then they always have an ear open.

So, make sure you are the most important thing in your pup’’s life from the start. When you begin the lead work and heeling lessons, retain that interest throughout. Keep changing direction and pace while walking him on the lead so that he must follow you. If he is strong and you are fit, you can do short jogs together on the lead. When working without the lead, try the favourite toy trick again. Obedience trainers usually keep treats in their hand to get the dog focusing there. But try not to bribe your dog too much. For a gundog the real reward is to know that he has pleased you in his work.


Sitting and staying are also much easier to teach if the youngster is concentrating on you. Again, the books tend to imply that it is a simple matter to sit the dog up, walk away from it and then walk back to it. In practice a soft dog will follow you and a hot dog will head for that flower-bed again. With a follower, walk in a tiny circle round him and then gradually spiral your circle outwards so that he can sit there and know that you aren’’t actually leaving him behind. With a flower-bed hunter, don’’t tell him off (ultimately you will prefer him hunting to sitting), but go and get him and drag him back to where it all started. After a time he will get the message. When he does it right, his reward is to be told to go and hunt that flower-bed.

The amount of time you’’ll spend retrieving your pup from misdemeanours is something that is often omitted from gundog training manuals – I suppose they don’t want to put you off. Usually they admonish you, correctly, not to punish your dog upon his return but to chastise him at the exact moment and scene of the crime. What they don’’t tell you is that this means running like a lunatic over rough terrain so that you can catch him in time to tell him off. It is the untold secret of gundog training: get in there, and get in fast. And now you know it, so do it.


Lead Work and check-cords

The Book says: lead work teaches a dog to heel, and check-cords (extra long leads) help steadiness training.

Experience suggests: intelligent, keen gundogs always know the difference between being on and off the lead. When teaching heeling, hold a young pup’s favourite toy and keep his attention on you. Change direction frequently. If you are desperate, have a pocket full of dog treats to keep him with you. If he’s too clever for the check-cord, be ready to run to the dog whenever necessary.

Coming to command

The Book says: if the dog came when called as a pup everything else will follow easily.

Experience suggests: even the most biddable youngster goes through a phase of testing you out. You can usually get a dog which is reluctant to return to follow you if you run away from him. Make sure you know why a dog isn’t returning -– punishing a nervous dog never helps.


The Book says: if you can get the dog looking up, he’’ll sit down.

Experience suggests: pups don’t need to sit down in order to look up. You may have to push him into position while giving the command. Also give the command any time the dog happens to sit.


The Book says: use a rolled-up newspaper and always punish where the crime occurred.

Experience suggests: if only life were that simple. Forget fancy props, the quickest way to get on top of misbehaviour is to run as fast as possible to the dog and scruff it.