Can you build drive and de­sire in a soft dog, or are dogs sim­ply born with nat­u­ral abil­ity or not? Ryan Kay ques­tions the per­ceived wis­dom on this much-de­bated topic

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It’s a lovely time of year to be out train­ing and the only an­noy­ing thing around us are the emerg­ing sting­ing net­tles that seem to pop up ev­ery­where and ir­ri­tate the paws of my busy spaniels. Char­lie in par­tic­u­lar has been busy, though more so with breeding. We’ve been un­der­tak­ing reg­u­lar trips to the lab for frozen se­men col­lec­tion, ready for ex­port or for our own use later on. I’m a lit­tle new to this sort of thing, and it ap­peared the owner of said se­men col­lec­tion busi­ness felt that an ini­ti­a­tion was in or­der for me…

Lat­est col­lec­tion done, I bumped into a friend who was also there us­ing the com­pany’s ser­vices. We got talk­ing in the car park and sub­se­quently popped back in­side for a cup of tea and a chat with the owner. My friend placed his bitch on the ta­ble ready for a trans-cer­vi­cal ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion. Now my friend is a reg­u­lar here and I can only pre­sume he was in on ‘the act’, as he asked me to sup­port the head-end of his bitch whilst he held the mid­dle and the lab owner started the process at the op­po­site end, guid­ing a catheter through the cervix, so he could place the se­men di­rectly into the uterus. I was quite fas­ci­nated by it all and hav­ing been in­vited ear­lier by the owner to look through a mi­cro­scope to wit­ness the dif­fer­ence be­tween healthy and un­healthy se­men, I was some­what taken in, which may ex­plain my naivety in what hap­pened next… this is me lin­ing up my de­fence!

“Quick, grab one of those lit­tle plas­tic bags Ryan,” said the owner. “Quick as you can now!”

Scram­bling for a small trans­par­ent bag on the side, I was all fin­gers and thumbs try­ing to open it.

“Now, hold it over the bitch’s nose… quickly now!” I did this with­out ques­tion!

“Now hold it there and catch any se­men that comes out!”

Well, I’m not go­ing to let on just how long I held the bag there at the poor dog’s nose, but the gig­gles from the nearby lab as­sis­tant gave the game up be­fore I started to shout pro­fan­i­ties. Oh yes, we all laughed!

Last month I touched on the sub­ject of dif­fer­ent dog per­son­al­i­ties, and how some very driven com­peti­tors in field tri­als only have room for a dog that dis­plays a cer­tain dis­po­si­tion. I un­der­stand this. Or at least I un­der­stand what type of dog they want and why they want that type. It’s usu­ally a hard-type dog that fits the bill – and in­vari­ably one that can take a hard-hand. You see there’s time and in­deed money when it comes to com­pet­ing at the top for some com­peti­tors, and a dog that doesn’t fit into, or han­dle a par­tic­u­lar way of train­ing, will of­ten be moved on and sold. But I think this ‘treat­ing ev­ery dog the same’ method is a shame and some­times a lit­tle short-sighted.

A hard per­son­al­ity can of­ten be ac­com­pa­nied by drive and a nat­u­ral de­sire to hunt or get on with the re­trieve. I, too, like to see nat­u­ral abil­ity and a de­sire to get on with the task with­out too much in­ter­fer­ence, but I don’t al­ways think that it has to come with a hard per­son­al­ity. Those that have trained some of the HPR breeds to a high stan­dard will know what I’m talk­ing about, as a more sym­pa­thetic ap­proach is of­ten needed to bring out the best in some of th­ese breeds. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t be­lieve in try­ing to put some­thing in that’s not there; con­tin­ual ex­po­sure to game just to get a young dog go­ing is then not nat­u­ral abil­ity.

A young spaniel that comes to life on ‘scenty’ ground for the first or sec­ond time is an ex­cit­ing thing to watch. When that fire is lit in­side the dog – and the DNA from years of se­lec­tive breeding is be­ing sum­moned to show it­self – that is a plea­sure to wit­ness. So as I’ve said be­fore, if the breeding is there, then we shouldn’t have to worry about the hunt­ing and in­stead put the con­trol in be­fore­hand.

So back to the dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. I have a hard-headed dog here in Char­lie... he re­ally is very hard-headed! Any ‘old school’ trainer could have trained him. A test­ing sort, but he’ll hunt any cover, any­where. Per­fect for a se­ri­ous tri­aller – he’ll trans­fer to any­one within mo­ments… so long as he’s be­ing hunted, he’s happy. He’d for­get me in a day! That does slightly up­set me, be­cause I

love him. But he’s not too both­ered, and ba­si­cally says: “Get me out, hunt me hard and put me away.” And that’s where he stays; in his man cave, al­beit with soft fur­nish­ings and heat­ing!

Now I also have some very soft and sen­si­tive dogs here – Dam­son, a daugh­ter of Char­lie, and Molly, our Hun­gar­ian vizsla. Molly achieved great suc­cess in her time tri­alling and had nat­u­ral hunt­ing abil­ity. When the time came to be ex­posed to gamey ground, she in­stantly re­sponded. How­ever, un­til that point, my ap­proach with her was com­pletely dif­fer­ent to Char­lie’s. Yes the ob­jec­tive was the same, con­trol first etc… but the method­ol­ogy and how I went about achiev­ing that ob­jec­tive re­quired much more pa­tience and time; a dif­fer­ent way of train­ing. You could say that’s more to do with the breed, but I dare say that Dam­son will also need a dif­fer­ent ap­proach too, per­haps more time to grow up and a gen­tler in­tro­duc­tion to cover for ex­am­ple. Yet, when it comes to the day she’s ex­posed to a lot of scent, I have ev­ery con­fi­dence that the DNA will be sum­moned.

An ex­pe­ri­enced tri­alling friend of mine, when talk­ing about his own-bred dogs, says that al­though they haven’t all got the speed re­quired to make them into Field Trial cham­pi­ons, he’s never had a dog that wouldn’t hunt!

So do we all want hard dogs?

I men­tioned short-sight­ed­ness ear­lier and those who write-off the soft dogs. I vis­ited the same tri­alling friend ear­lier in the year and he hap­pens to have a very soft cocker in­deed. In fact he is pos­si­bly the soft­est cocker I’ve seen. I love him. Now the trainer is an hon­est man with good in­ten­tions and I don’t be­lieve he’d come across a dog so soft be­fore, but he’s not one for giv­ing up on a dog and in­deed wants any dog to be the best it can be. So soft was the dog, that it wouldn’t han­dle onto a re­trieve. In­stead it of­ten shut down for fear of be­ing told off (and by told off, I mean a slightly deeper tone of voice was enough for this dog). A big man stop­ping the dog out on a re­trieve with his hand in the air was body lan­guage that this dog wouldn’t ac­cept; so a dif­fer­ent ap­proach was re­quired. Tak­ing a step back, he de­cided to take the young cocker pick­ing-up to see if it would boost its con­fi­dence. It did! In-fact the re­sults were ex­cel­lent – with 50-plus re­trieves un­der its belt, the lit­tle dog had built up enough ex­pe­ri­ence and con­fi­dence to re­alise that be­ing han­dled onto a re­trieve meant his owner would help him find the bird. The ex­po­sure brought out the ex­pected tal­ent to take a line on scent and it did so with poise! I also wit­nessed his nat­u­ral line-tak­ing abil­ity when he picked up an award at a rab­bit trial last sea­son.

Let the other lot get on with it

My point is, the ma­jor­ity of us have a dog for life and as I said last month, that dis­pos­able ap­proach – if it doesn’t fit into a sin­gle-minded way of train­ing, then get rid – is sim­ply not an op­tion. So I say: read the books, go to train­ing classes, watch the DVDs and lis­ten to the ad­vice, but be pre­pared that if your dog doesn’t fit into those sched­ules, you may need to change what you do, but please don’t write the dog off just be­cause it’s dif­fer­ent. Re­mem­ber, they all de­velop and take things in at dif­fer­ent ages. I imag­ine I may come un­der fire for this opin­ion, as some folk may take it that I’m ad­vo­cat­ing breeding from any­thing, but I’m not. There are plenty of other things to con­sider when it comes to breeding. Plus you can al­ways try to com­ple­ment the na­ture of what you have by choos­ing what you want to mate it with. For in­stance, I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily choose Char­lie for a hard-headed bitch – we could end up with dogs that go over the top and we can’t hold on to. So my think­ing is, so long as you get to the same end goal it doesn’t mat­ter what per­son­al­ity your dog has. Be­sides, if all dogs had the same per­son­al­ity things would be pretty bor­ing. How­ever you train, for me, it’s all about keep­ing that tail wag­ging!

‘When that fire is lit in­side the dog – and the DNA from years of se­lec­tive breeding comes to life – it’s a plea­sure to wit­ness’

Some dogs, like Ryan’s Hun­gar­ian vizsla, need a gen­tler touch Char­lie’s hap­pi­est when he’s hunt­ing ...

Some­times a more sym­pa­thetic ap­proach is needed to bring out the best in the HPR breeds

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