VERY FETCH­ING: When re­triev­ing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Us­ing your spaniels solely for re­triev­ing du­ties is fine, if that’s what you want to do, but, as Ryan Kay ex­plains, prob­lems can arise if you sub­se­quently want to start hunt­ing with them

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Spaniels have al­ways been pop­u­lar when it comes to re­triev­ing du­ties and, more so now than ever, there seems to be a real de­mand for spaniels used purely as re­triev­ers. By that, I mean cock­ers em­ployed as peg dogs or springers ap­pointed as part of the pick­ing-up team. It seems a grow­ing fash­ion.

Now, please don’t mis­un­der­stand me. Spaniels are ex­cel­lent re­triev­ers and, if trained cor­rectly, they can ri­val, or even bet­ter, many good Labradors. In­deed, there are sev­eral pick­ing-up teams I know that use spaniels only, some of which also in­clude Clum­bers. And that’s ab­so­lutely fine. Why wouldn’t spaniels be high up there on the list when choos­ing a breed for pick­ing-up du­ties? Springers and cock­ers are among the most ver­sa­tile of gun­dogs and prove to be ex­tremely adept at tak­ing run­ners and re­triev­ing wounded game through tough cover.

I per­son­ally love to see a good re­triev­ing dog. Who doesn’t? Wit­ness­ing a lengthy re­trieve or a dog work­ing on run­ning or wounded game be­fore fi­nally pick­ing it for the bag is what it’s all about.

Isn’t it? Well, al­most. Ac­tu­ally, hunt­ing is what re­ally gets me an­i­mated. And if your in­volve­ment in shoot­ing in­volves find­ing the game in the first place, well, for me, hunt­ing re­ally is what it’s all about.

If I’m hon­est, I pre­fer to teach hunt­ing. And the vast ma­jor­ity of my cus­tomers seem to want a dog that will be hunt­ing for the most part of its job. Gen­er­ally, beat­ing or rough shoot­ing is the main ob­jec­tive. So why then, do we some­times get caught up in re­triev­ing as the prin­ci­pal fo­cus?

A spaniel in the field wants a job, and if it doesn’t get to use its pri­mary func­tion of hunt­ing, it’ll take re­triev­ing in­stead – us­ing all its en­ergy and fo­cus on bring­ing back that dummy or game. And, again, that’s ab­so­lutely fine.

How­ever, prob­lems can arise when we have a sea­soned and some­what con­di­tioned re­triev­ing spaniel that is then re­quired to hunt. And by hunt, I don’t mean some­thing that just runs around fast in front of you, I mean some­thing that re­ally hunts ef­fec­tively and un­der­stands what it’s ac­tu­ally look­ing for.

Over­do­ing the re­trieves

By do­ing con­stant mun­dane re­trieves with a spaniel, the dog can start to be­come con­di­tioned to the task. Now, con­di­tion­ing isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, for ex­am­ple, re­vert­ing to hunt­ing train­ing – if you blow your stop whis­tle ev­ery time your dog flushes a bird, it’ll soon start to sit au­to­mat­i­cally to the whirring of wings.

I have a cer­tain spaniel that, al­though she’s all grown up, willll some­times feel the need to have a lit­tle run at seag­ulls sat on a beach (I’m ok with it). She then pops her bum down the in­stant they take off and fly away, and looks at me to be re­leased from the spot. That’s good con­di­tion­ing!

Now hard­wired, she sim­ply can’t help it. And to be hon­est, I quite like that lit­tle bit of mis­chief she some­times dis­plays when run­ning to put them up – it shows she’s still young at heart.

Now, what about if the hard­wired bit was re­triev­ing. Is that good con­di­tion­ing? Ini­tially, I’d say yes, it’s good, if that’s your thing, and pro­vid­ing you want it to be your only thing! Un­for­tu­nately, it can leave some real work to be done if you then want to start hunt­ing.

I’ve seen many spaniels in a fixed state – mad for dum­mies. They have in­cred­i­ble eye con­tact, know­ing that all the fun will start with the per­son’s hands and what’s hid­ing in their dummy bag! To­tally fix­ated and poised, rigid with an­tic­i­pa­tion. Yet when it then comes to hunt­ing for the first time and we want the dog to switch its over­bid­dable state and di­rect its at­ten­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground in front of it and the han­dler, the re­triev­ing con­di­tion­ing can prove to be ru­ina­tion, as the dog strug­gles to take its eyes off the han­dler.

And if that dog’s busy look­ing at you, it’s not busy hunt­ing. When hunt­ing, the ideal is an ef­fi­cient check-in as the dog turns or crosses in front of you. Just the cor­ner of the near­est eye – not both eyes locked onto the han­dler’s, which is of­ten fol­lowed by an ex­u­ber­ant re­turn­ing bounce from a young dog.

So, that over-con­di­tion­ing can cause a prob­lem. I’ve seen it with HPRs also. Many HPRs also show that ver­sa­til­ity and make ex­cel­lent re­triev­ers, but again, let’s not for­get that their pri­mary func­tion, like the spaniel, is hunt­ing. Hunt­ing is orig­i­nally what both these sub-groups

were bred for. The re­triev­ing as­pect was sec­ondary. Af­ter all, if they don’t find it in the first place, there won’t even be a re­trieve.

In many cases with spaniels, where too many re­trieves have been set up for a dog over the years, we see a lack of en­thu­si­asm and drive from the dog, as what was once a fast out run and a swift re­turn, starts to slow down… usu­ally with a re­turn­ing trot for the last part of the se­quence. And, in some ex­treme cases, I’ve seen dogs clamp down and growl be­fore even­tu­ally giv­ing the dummy up. This is caused by in­nu­mer­able bor­ing re­trieves and the guard­ing in­stinct be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ac­ti­vated.

I put this prob­lem down, in part, to the han­dler for not stay­ing fo­cused on their end goal, which usu­ally in­volves their dog be­ing re­quired to hunt – be it beat­ing, rough shoot­ing or even Work­ing Tests and tri­alling, and some of it down to lack of avail­able train­ing for many spaniel and HPR own­ers.

Some years ago, I was in­vited as a guest trainer to take a mixed class of spaniels and HPRs. The or­gan­is­ers gave me the brief, which con­sisted of me teach­ing ba­sic hunt­ing. Great, I thought, as all the class wanted to go beat­ing or shoot over their dogs even­tu­ally.

“Oh, but you’ll have to do some re­triev­ing at the end,” said the or­gan­is­ers. “Why?” “Be­cause they’ll all sulk if they don’t get their re­trieves in,” came the re­ply.

I think re­triev­ing is the com­fort zone for many – a sure-fire way to get pleas­ing re­sults and an in­ter­nal ac­knowl­edge­ment that you’ve worked hard and some­thing is go­ing right. In­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion – let’s face it, every­body loves it!

Suc­cumb­ing to temp­ta­tion

At the be­gin­ning of May, we hosted the last of our four spring train­ing days at the New­burgh Pri­ory Es­tate in North York­shire. Seem­ingly, ev­ery other trainer teaches re­triev­ing, so as I said be­fore, I tend to fo­cus on hunt­ing. And as the 6,000 acres of fab­u­lous ter­rain of­fers some out­stand­ing hunt­ing ground, I’d be crazy not to.

On the last two dates, I’d also de­cided to min­gle in some re­triev­ing sce­nar­ios (keeps ev­ery­one happy) as we went along, and to be hon­est it worked re­ally well, es­pe­cially as the hot weather in May meant re­strict­ing the hunt­ing ac­tiv­ity so as not to ex­haust the dogs.

But it al­ways sur­prises me how many dogs strug­gle with close re­trieves. So many peo­ple are ob­sessed with 100-yard-plus mem­ory or blind re­trieves, and again peo­ple for­get what they want their dog to be able to do as a fin­ished item. Rough shoot­ing/ walk­ing-up will gen­er­ally pro­vide re­trieves no fur­ther than 40 yards away, with many drop­ping just 15-20 yards out.

Hunt­ing just in­side the edge of a wood, with a shot fired and a dummy thrown 15 yards out on the open field of­ten seems to find many dogs out – even though it sounds sim­ple enough and is a sit­u­a­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive of rough shoot­ing.

I’ve seen the same tricky sce­nario in Field Tri­als, as the dog has to ven­ture away from cover and, should it need stop­ping and di­rect­ing, it finds it dif­fi­cult, look­ing back into the wood for the han­dler.

These are the kind of sce­nar­ios we prac­tised at New­burgh and it just feels a more nat­u­ral and or­ganic sit­u­a­tion for a spaniel or HPR to be un­der­tak­ing. There’s a purist feel and the dogs re­ally flour­ished as they ad­justed to both tasks of hunt­ing one minute and re­triev­ing the next; you could tell they were sim­ply lov­ing it.

I fin­ished the days with a well-de­served dip in the ir­ri­ga­tion ponds. Learn­ing from my guest trainer ap­point­ment some years ago, we fin­ished on some re­triev­ing.

Dogs were lined up and sent in­di­vid­u­ally for a dummy on the wa­ter. With the hunt­ing part of the day now fin­ished, we were now firmly back in the han­dlers ‘re­triev­ing’ com­fort zone.

And to wholly sat­isfy ev­ery­one’s in­ner re­triev­ing de­sire, I turned every­body round on the track and pro­pelled dum­mies from a launcher onto an open rolling field of win­ter wheat. Oh, how the han­dler’s faces lit up. Yippee! Bloody re­triev­ing! To be hon­est, I quite en­joyed it too.

The han­dler en­cour­ages her dog to hunt

Happy han­dlers make happy gun­dogs!

En­joy­ing some re­trieves with the dummy launcher at the end of the day

Cool­ing down with some wa­ter re­trieves

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