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
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