The problem: Steady to ground game
No matter what you plan to do with your gundog in the future, it should be steady to all ground game and that includes deer as well as rabbits and hares. In my part of the world (Oxfordshire) we have a lot of muntjac and these can be very tempting for a dog. The danger is that game, hares especially, can take a dog a long way from the handler and apart from perhaps spoiling other drives, there is always the fear that the dog could end up chasing it across a road.
Handlers that have problems with dogs chasing ground game quite often think that is the problem, in fact the real issue is that the dog has not been properly trained on the stop whistle. The dog must respond to the whistle command no matter what the dog is doing.
Training your dog in a rabbit pen can be a great way of not only getting a spaniel to hunt, but also to steady the dog to ground game. However some dogs do get wise to the fact that you are constantly watching them and that the situation is somewhat manufactured.
Quite often when out in the shooting field there can be a significant period of time between finds and flushes and it is all too easy to lose concentration. Failing to read the change in your dog’s body action can mean that he will have made the flush and be chasing it before you have even realised. It is far easier to stop a dog before it runs in than trying to stop it once it is moving.
It is surprising how many novice handlers start hunting their dogs and forget to put their whistle in their mouths. If the dog has a quick find and flush and does chase it, by the time they have found the whistle, put it in their mouths and blown the stop, the dog will be in full flow and heading for the horizon. Be prepared!
As I’ve already mentioned, quite often the root cause of dogs chasing ground game, whether it is in a rabbit pen or in the shooting field, is not the fact that they are chasing, it is that the stop whistle has not been fully ingrained in the dog. Quite simply, if you – as the handler – blow that stop whistle the dog should stop what it is doing, sit and look at you for a command. There is no doubt that a rabbit or a hare running away from the dog is very tempting but with careful and consistent training most dogs can be taught to be steady.
“My spaniel is making good progress in his training, but how can I make sure he will be steady to ground game when we are in the shooting field? I am happy that he responds to the stop whistle properly (most of the time), but he has chased a hare while out training in a local field and I am worried that this will become a habit.”
It is always worth going back to basics when you have encountered a problem. Steadiness and the stop whistle are two components of your dog’s training that will need constant tweaking and refreshing, especially after a shooting season. I like to use rabbit skin balls or dummies because these can be a bit more tempting for the dog, especially if it does tend to chase rabbits. In the first instance sit the dog up and throw the ball or dummy out in front of the dog, put your body in front and slightly to one side just to block the dog in case it does move. Once you are happy that your dog is totally steady to thrown dummies while sitting still, you can then brush up on the stop whistle. You should have introduced this command during the dog's basic training but, again, it does not harm to remind the dog what a long single blast on the whistle means. Combine the whistle command with a hand signal and to get the dog really sharp throw out a dummy at the same time but don’t let him pick it up because this may encourage him to run in. Once you have re-enforced the dog’s steadiness when he is sitting, you can then move on to getting him to stop when he is moving, this is a bit more difficult. You want to find a flat piece of ground, a playing field is ideal. Get the dog hunting about and when he is least expecting it throw out a dummy in front of him and at the same time blow the stop whistle. For this exercise, a black and white dummy can work well as the contrasting colours are visible to the dog and also very tempting. Be ready to make sure the dog does not get hold of the dummy as it will be self-rewarding itself for running in. Once you are completely happy that the previous lessons are fully embedded in the dog, you can move on to steadying him further in a small pen, the type used for partridges are ideal. To start with only sit the dog down and walk the birds around him, keep a careful eye on the dog to make sure he doesn’t move, you really are putting a lot of pressure on the dog at this time so keep these sessions short. The final stage is the rabbit pen, if possible the pen needs to be of a good size so it replicates a natural setting as much as possible. Also you don’t want too many rabbits in the pen because ideally you want the dog to work for the finds. At this stage, be ever ready with the stop whistle – as soon as the dog has a find and flush make sure you give the stop command. Be aware that it is rarely the first rabbit that the dog will chase, but it may well be the one after that as by then the dog’s senses will have been heightened and you may well find that he goes “up a gear”. If he gets overexcited finish the session and leave it for another day.
Temptations Ground game can be very tempting for a dog