Many brave dog handlers suffered to bring you these tips, so don’t take them lightly.
If they appear blindingly obvious, that’s because they are.
What is even more obvious to everybody watching you and your dog falling out and falling apart, is that you are not doing them.
Do them today and every day, and you will have a better dog.
1. BE MASTERFUL
Never, ever repeat a command if you are sure the dog understood it the first time.
It is the first rule of dog, but on every shoot across the country it’s ignored on a daily basis. Exmoor labrador lady, Jan Brown, has captained pickers-up on record breaking pheasant days, and also co-ordinates the Labrador Rescue Trust’s activities in the region, so she has experienced the best and the worst of the dog/handler relationship.
She stresses: “If a dog disobeys a command it has been taught, then you must take action immediately to enforce that command. Don’t just stand there feebly repeating the command over and over again. You are giving the dog the message the command is meaningless and doesn’t have to be obeyed.”
Repeating a command destroys your dog’s respect for you. Stop doing it. Now.
2. GO BACK TO BASICS
The one thing all professional dog handlers stress is the importance of basic training.
The guru of the retriever world, John Halstead of Drakeshead Labradors, warns: “If a dog goes wrong it is usually because the basics have not been right. The basic training is the foundation you build on, but the catch is doing it is boring and repetitious.”
Springer spaniel champion, Ian Openshaw of Rytex Kennels, agrees: “Amateurs don’t get the basics done properly because nobody wants to do the boring bits.”
So grit your teeth and get that dummy out now. It’s no excuse saying things are OK, because OK is not good enough.
OK is halfway to disaster.
John Halstead explains: “Working a dog is like walking a tightrope – you must do something about the very first sign of a wobble; if you wait you will fall off.”
The good news is just one refresher at home, so long as it is perfect, will pay dividends on return to the field.
3. PUT YOUR SLIP ON
Whenever you are not actually working your dog you should put it on the lead
We are talking leads, not lingerie – although a lot of gundog slipleads see less use than a pair of Christmas suspenders.
Observes John Halstead: “When you arrive at a shoot the form is to let your dog out quietly for a moment and then put him away again, or on the lead, while you are socialising – but how often do you see a gang of dogs rushing wildly around getting into trouble while their owners are passing the hip flask?”
When it’s off the lead your dog thinks it’s working and looks to you for instruction and your undivided attention. If all you are doing is scoffing cake and chatting with a mate, even the best dog will feel insecure and eventually wander off and get itself into trouble.
Get into the habit of putting that sliplead on after the cover is worked through or you have the last retrieve and you will be amazed at the difference when you and the dog are working.
4. LEARN TO WHISTLE
Weird and wonderful use of the whistle is one of the worst habits you can get into.
There are only three basic whistle commands: stop, come, and turn.
Spaniel trials judge and trainer, Jonathan Bailey, says: “I’ve noticed people who come to me for lessons let a dog get away with all sorts on the whistle command. They will blow a recall but they don’t bother to insist the dog comes all the way back before they let it go on hunting again, so it gets into the habit of not coming back.”
If you make sure your dog is 100% on the whistle you hardly need to speak, which looks extremely stylish. Just keep practicing those three commands. Be precise when you use them.
5. ONE DOG, ONE MASTER
If you are determined to have a great dog in the shooting field, then its role as a family pet must be limited.
A dog that is played with, yelled at, ignored or allowed to get away with murder by spouse and offspring cannot be expected to turn itself into a model as soon as it puts paw in cover.
One shooting couple had a lovely ex-trials lab for their first dog. On its first day the dog appeared with a retrieve. From opposite ends of the shooting line came the joyful shouts of husband and wife. The dog looked first one way, then the other, like a Tim Henman fan watching a long rally.
After a while it dropped the pheasant and pushed off.
Decide who is going to give the dog its orders and stick to your decision.
6. CALM DOWN
Some handlers will panic if their dog ignores them and try every command they know. Don’t move on to another command unless your dog has obeyed the previous.
Soon they have gone through their command vocabulary and start to panic as the dog, equally confused, runs round in ever-increasing circles.
Jonathan Bailey has a simple cure: “Insist the dog does exactly what you want it to do and don’t give it another command until it has. If everything is going pear-shaped, get it sitting looking at you while you both take a deep breath and then start again.”
This advice relies on you knowing what you want in the first place.
7. FOOD IS YOUR FRIEND
Use food in your training regime, it can do wonders for obedience.
Picker-up, Malcolm Hicks, works his team of labs on driven days, where it is clear they adore him – or is it the food?
He explains: “When I am training the youngsters I use feed-time to get them on my side. Most people know about holding the bowl up above the dog’s head to teach it the sit command, but you can extend this in lots of ways. I sometimes put the bowl down on the other side of an obstacle to get them used to jumping.”
If the dog is still listening to its boss even when its head is filled with thoughts of food, it will do the same when its head is filled with thoughts of pheasant. Try it at feeding time now.
8. AVOID ROUGH DOGS
Venetia Hugh Smith, the doyenne of the golden retriever world, demonstrated this valuable tip on a partridge day. A good hostess, she circulated among the guns during the day – that is until she found herself chatting to a gun whose peg was occupied by an over excited and vociferous cocker spaniel. Before her two immaculate golden retrievers could be corrupted, she made an excuse and retired gracefully. With dogs as with children, bad habits spread like measles.
9. Watch The Experts
There’s a lot of nonsense talked on shoots about how trialling dogs are only any good for trialling. But once you have seen the canine elite in action you will be converted. Wolfen Hall in Lancashire regularly has picking-up teams almost entirely composed of the dog handling cr? de la cr?. Watching their dog-work adds a new dimension to the day’s shoot. If you can get yourself an invitation to watch or shoot on a retriever or spaniel trial, take it. If not, buy a video or invest in a private lesson with a professional trainer.
You need the experience of shooting over a dog that is truly working with you, as opposed to just larking around, in order to realise why you should bother with the other nine rules. Meeting eyes with your doggy mate as he waits expectantly to do your bidding is one of life’s big kicks.
10. Stop! Don’t Shoot!
If you have successfully put into practice the nine commandments above, you may well end up in the enviable ? and dangerous ? position of having a dog with a good reputation. This is where you must exercise Job-like discipline, as your mates egg you on to work the dog for them, either hunting longer and longer at a stretch or retrieving evermore stag-like runners. All experienced handlers agree this is the time to hold back.
Yorkshire based spaniel trials judge, Paul Dyson, remembers: “I was helping a lad with a really promising dog and he joined a rough shooting syndicate
to give it a bit of work – but before long, he’d forgotten all about training.”
Malcolm Hicks gives a similar warning: “If you are lucky and the basic training has gone well, the temptation is to rush off and take the dog out shooting with you, but you must take it slowly.” Above all, if things are going a bit wrong, don’t just continue to take the dog shooting and hope for the best. You must bite the bullet and leave the dog at home until the basics are back in shape again. Some of the best shooting dogs achieve mythic status – their reputation precedes them, but the celebrity dog itself is rarely seen in the field!