Everyone wants that perfect picking-up or peg dog, but training gundog puppies is only one piece of the puzzle, says Eve Jones
Eve Jones talks to the experts to find out the secret to training gundog puppies – from choosing the right puppy, to settling them in at home and the patience needed to begin teaching field skills.
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TRAINING GUNDOG PUPPIES
On a certain drive, on a certain shoot, a desperate Gun was panicking. Taxi? Taxi! TAXI! Alas, his taxi could not be hailed. This particular speeding, salivating Taxi was in fact a young labrador, freshly introduced into the field and blissfully unaware of his owner’s pleas to return its quarry. Perhaps when his owner wittily christened him, he had observed the old saying, ‘a labrador is born half-trained and a spaniel dies half-trained’. In reality, it is as easy to recall as many a rogue lab as an oversprightly spaniel terrorising the field, the product of half-training, or perhaps of half-trained handlers.
So, if you’ve decided to bring a gundog puppy into the fold, how is best to begin? How do you steer their formative first months to avoid future canine catastrophe? For any dog destined for the sporting field, be it to flush, pick-up or as a peg dog, its potential for success, or failure, is determined from the outset. Acceptable gundog behaviour cannot be left to chance.
While behavioural training for both dog and handler must start the minute a puppy finds its new home, potential problems can begin even before they are born. According to Dogs Trust, the puppy boom sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic saw an estimated extra 1.5 million dogs acquired over 2019 and 2020. Kennel Club research reported a quarter of new owners admitted buying a puppy with little research, and a fifth conceded they didn’t know whether their puppy would suit their lifestyle coming out of the pandemic. “Lots of novice dog owners have bought ‘Ferrari’ dog breeds,” notes gundog trainer Mark Taylor. “They’ve not quite done the right research, and now the dogs are becoming teenagers, they ‘drive’ very fast in the countryside and have no brakes or steering.”
Buying a dog with good genetic lines should also help alleviate potential health defects. Consider tests for eyes and hip and elbow dysplasia in the puppy’s breeding lines to give you the best chance of a working dog that is fit for purpose for the longest time.
When choosing which puppy to buy, there are several considerations, points out gundog trainer Andy Brown. First, choose a suitable puppy for your lifestyle, “not the first that’s randomly available”. Seek word-of-mouth recommendations from shooting people. “It’s no guarantee but a good place to start,” he says. “Look for a suitable dog through breeders, ask plenty of questions, check the parents’ history and physically see them both. If you can’t see the sire, walk away.”
When you are satisfied you are buying the right puppy, prepare to transition him home smoothly. Find out what your puppy is fed and when, and have a crate prepared. Bring your puppy home in the day so it can familiarise itself with its new surroundings. Then, importantly, ‘puppify’ your house. Introduce other dogs carefully, ensuring they are supervised. Make the surroundings safe, with child locks if necessary. Ensure door handles are strong enough that a dog can’t open them. Brown recently heard of a dog mimicking its owner by opening two doors, then he escaped and went shooting. “He came back with the keeper at the end of the day,” he recalls.
Once your puppy is settled, how do you begin preparing it for a working life? The first six months of a gundog puppy’s education should be learning basic life skills: to meet and greet other puppies politely, to recall away from other dogs and to focus on their owner in the presence of other dogs and in the countryside. Taylor explains how, for a young puppy intended for the field, retrieving and hunting need to be nurtured from a young age, too. He uses a game-based style of training. “As soon as you get them home, they can begin chasing things and bringing them back. It’s not formal at all. Little and often, five minutes here, no more than maybe 20 minutes – puppies up to four or five months old should be sleeping 16 to 18 hours each day. Until they’re three months of age, it should just be playing. Enjoy learning with them, with you as a key part,” he says.
A common problem with training puppies is unrealistic expectations of how quickly they can learn and develop the required skills. “It’s important that training is structured and works at a pace the puppy can cope with,” says Taylor. By rushing training, you create a dog with weaknesses in skills essential for the field. Brown frequently sees problems from owners who don’t focus on the basics of heelwork, recall and forming a relationship. He teaches handlers to focus on the foundations and “consistently condition” their dogs. “From 12 to 14 weeks, I’ve got my puppy and it follows me anyway because it’s still young. I say ‘get close’ and I give it a treat – there’s my recall. When the dog comes back to me, I stroke it, I touch it, I encourage engagement. Then I use the ‘toot, toot’ whistle for hunting; ‘this way, this way’ for teaching to quarter. Puppy begins to understand what the whistle command means. By the time that dog’s a year old, it understands and I haven’t got an issue with recall.”
Developing a relationship with your dog is key. Taylor agrees: “Dogs form emotional attachments with the person who trains them. So, if one owner was out at work all week and their partner spent time doing all the training, when the other one takes the dog shooting, if the dog is trained, it will respond but not as well.” Which is where sending gundogs away is flawed, explains Brown. “I don’t believe in training someone else’s dog. It won’t work for the owner. You can’t train a dog in a short space of time.”
One shoot host sees a spectrum of suitability and behaviour. “A very smart Gun turned up once with a whippet. There was plenty of interest in the unusual peg dog, but he allowed it to spend the day gorging every bird it found. Another Gun brings a labrador who is a serial decapitator, while a regular picker-up’s spaniel is known to share his thoughts on the quality of shooting. When there isn’t enough to retrieve, he pees in the cartridge bags,” he recalls.
Success is ultimately in the preparation. Time put into understanding your particular gundog’s behaviour and learning pattern from a young age will reap rewards in the field. Specialised gundog training with the dog you intend to work is invaluable. “If you’ve got a Ferrari, go to a Ferrari dealer,” says Taylor. “In the countryside, a working cocker won’t do the same as he does in a village hall and the family pet dog trainer will not understand its mechanics.”
TEACHING FIELD SKILLS
Play with an old tea towel with a knot, a tennis ball, anything puppy will run after, grab hold of and bring back. The reward for bringing it back and giving it up is that they get another chase.
Avoid ‘goalkeeping’. Lunging to snatch the item back from a puppy creates problems. First, the dog thinks when it brings the toy back, the fun stops, so next time it won’t. Secondly, it learns how long your reach is and dances just beyond it, enjoying the new game when you run after them shouting.
Allow the dog to chase you, but never reach out and try to snatch the object. If they won’t give it back, swap it. Have a second toy in your pocket, and as soon as the puppy brings one back mischievously, pull the second out, so they drop the first. Their reward is to chase the second.
Introduce different textures, shapes and sizes of retrieve objects early. This will normalise game.
Spaniels will naturally quarter, but in the field it is under the control of a whistle. From a young puppy age, you can start to teach that a ‘pip, pip’ on the turn whistle is indicative of a reward, whether that’s a dummy or their dinner that’s been sprinkled in the grass.
The handler begins stationary and throws food from opposite arm to opposite side, like bowling a ball underarm. With the right arm throwing to the left side, you are turning your body as you throw. The puppy runs out after the food. As the puppy looks up for the next bit, blow ‘pip, pip’ on the whistle, turn the opposite shoulder and throw left to right, so the puppy runs across in front of you. The handler is stationary but can soon build up a nice momentum with the puppy running left and right.
Asking to retrieve, heel, recall, run around, hunt and so on are ‘on’ behaviours. It’s important that the dog learns that they can switch off, too. Being able to settle in exciting
scenarios, around other dogs and in the countryside is vital preparation for a shoot day. The simplest way to begin to teach this is by changing your body language in some way. Try sitting down on a bench or relaxing your posture. When the puppy looks away, that gets rewarded with a low-key ear scratch. Maybe the puppy then decides to sit down, as nothing’s happening. So that gets rewarded. This can progress until the puppy lies down, working out that there’s nothing going on, so they can relax.