GUNDOGS

As the game sea­son kicks off, Howard Kirby re­vis­its the ba­sic com­mands that all gundogs need in or­der to be suc­cess­ful in the field and en­cour­ages us to look for per­fec­tion ev­ery time

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

Gun­dog train­ing is a thriv­ing, for­ward-think­ing and evolv­ing sport. It’s highly com­pet­i­tive and as train­ers we all want to be the best we can be. This ar­ti­cle is all about en­cour­ag­ing you to aim high. It’s re­ally im­por­tant when train­ing a dog that you go all out to en­sure that you learn to do ev­ery­thing prop­erly. If, through a lack of un­der­stand­ing, you do things that con­fuse your dog, the part­ner­ship that you are look­ing to achieve is likely to un­der­per­form.

Here at Mul­len­scote, we reg­u­larly sit down as a team and re­view what we see in the train­ing field. Our role is to train train­ers to school their dogs, so we need to pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the ac­tions of the han­dlers as well as the dogs, the two be­ing in­trin­si­cally linked. In early train­ing, the han­dler is the most in­flu­en­tial el­e­ment of the part­ner­ship. If things don’t go well, it’s not un­com­mon for the dog’s be­hav­iour to take over and start to have a sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on the di­rec­tion of train­ing. Do­ing our up­most to teach han­dlers how to en­cour­age de­sir­able be­hav­iour and how to avoid things that will be prob­lem­atic is an es­sen­tial part of our role. The prob­lem for first-time dog own­ers is that you need to have a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of the way your dog thinks, learns and func­tions from the out­set.

It’s not un­com­mon to hear peo­ple say, “ohh, ev­ery one messes up their first dog”. While this state­ment is of­ten said tongue in cheek, there are far too many dogs (not just gundogs) that have been re­ally messed up by well-mean­ing own­ers. Imag­ine what hap­pens to the poor dogs that end up in the hands of less kind own­ers. Please don’t mis­un­der­stand me, I cer­tainly don’t think that I fully un­der­stand dogs and have never made mis­takes. In fact, it’s the con­stant learn­ing process that makes dog train­ing so ex­cit­ing.

A com­mon train­ing prob­lem is that of get­ting han­dlers to set them­selves stan­dards and to ad­here to them. Some­times it’s lazi­ness, but more of­ten than not it’s just that the han­dler isn’t aware that they are not fo­cus­ing on the fine de­tail and not re­ally achiev­ing stan­dards that will be es­sen­tial to pro­duce a well-trained gun­dog.

So! What I’m go­ing to do is to make a list of the be­hav­iours we need to teach our dogs. The list will start at the be­gin­ning and then layer up in pro­gres­sive or­der. I al­ways like to as­sume that you are do­ing your up­most to see your­self and be­have like an apex preda­tor. The way you con­duct your­self, the in­struc­tions, re­wards and oc­ca­sional corrections that you of­fer your dog must be clear and, most im­por­tantly, make sense to the dog.

Don’t for­get that the best hunt­ing part­ner­ships are formed when a dog un­der­stands that its mas­ter will help it to get prey in its mouth. This ad­vanced part­ner­ship will see a dog choos­ing to take in­struc­tion from its han­dler will­ingly.

Come, Sit and Watch

From the out­set, we need to teach our pup­pies to come, sit and watch us. These be­hav­iours are best taught us­ing a tar­get sys­tem, such as a place board or hoop. It’s es­sen­tial that we es­tab­lish these be­hav­iours cor­rectly; we need the dog to re­spond in­stantly to the re­call and to come sit and look up at us. The dog should be sat be­tween your feet look­ing straight up at you and main­tain­ing eye con­tact; slowly but surely teach the dog to hold this po­si­tion, main­tain­ing eye con­tact for longer and longer pe­ri­ods of time.

It’s not un­com­mon for novice han­dlers to in­ad­ver­tently al­low the dog to take a re­ward and leave this po­si­tion. We want the dog to learn to sit and stay main­tain­ing a fo­cus for as long as pos­si­ble. Use reg­u­lar re­wards to teach the puppy to stay fo­cused, and slowly re­duce the fre­quency of re­wards as the puppy’s fo­cus grows.

The Sit and Stay

Teach­ing a young­ster the Sit and Stay is ba­si­cally an ex­ten­sion of the Sit and Watch. Slowly but surely, take gen­tle steps back­wards away from the puppy, re­turn­ing quickly to re­ward. It’s es­sen­tial at this early stage that you progress slowly, as our aim is to teach the puppy to stay ex­actly where he is. He needs to learn that he must not leave the Sit po­si­tion.

We are try­ing to avoid the need for cor­rec­tion. If you rush the puppy at this early stage, he will in­evitably leave the tar­get area. If you per­sist in do­ing this, you will cre­ate a prob­lem that needs cor­rec­tion to re­solve it. As the puppy gains in con­fi­dence and steadi­ness, you can move fur­ther away and start to move around the pup. Even­tu­ally, we will need to train the dog to sit and stay while there are a num­ber of very high level dis­trac­tions hap­pen­ing around it – there’s nowhere tougher than the shoot­ing field. We can start to drop dum­mies as dis­trac­tions and use ten­nis balls to cre­ate move­ment.

I would rec­om­mend the use of food re­wards to keep this el­e­ment of train­ing in­ter­est­ing for the puppy. Once we start to throw dum­mies and ten­nis balls around the dog, we can, of course, send the dog for a re­trieve as a re­ward for his steadi­ness.

There are al­ways dif­fer­ences of opin­ions when train­ing dogs, but I am quite happy, de­lighted in fact, when a lit­tle dog spins on its bot­tom to fol­low you around when left on the Sit Stay, as it means that it’s stay­ing in con­tact and in­ter­ested in what you are do­ing.

The pur­pose of the Sit Stay is to en­cour­age calm, fo­cused steadi­ness, mean­ing the dog stays ex­actly where it is and chooses not to move. We need to be very clear in our minds that we are look­ing to pro­duce a dog which sits steady in the shoot­ing field. If we do not teach this be­hav­iour thor­oughly and ac­cu­rately at foun­da­tion level, it will in­evitably lead to is­sues later.

The re­call

Our dogs need to be in­stantly re­spon­sive to whis­tle and ver­bal com­mands. I reg­u­larly see han­dlers that have re­sorted to is­su­ing mul­ti­ple ver­bal or whis­tle com­mands to get their dog to come to them. Clearly, we need to change this.

Novice han­dlers some­times blur the lines be­tween for­mal train­ing and gen­eral ex­er­cise. If you choose to ac­cept poor lev­els of obe­di­ence when ex­er­cis­ing or walk­ing, then you will have prob­lems in the train­ing and shoot­ing field. We need first to teach, then in­sist on ab­so­lute obe­di­ence in all of our in­ter­ac­tions with our dogs.

When train­ing a young dog, en­sure you choose your mo­ment wisely. Choose to re­call at a point in time when you are sure the dog will re­act to your re­call com­mand. Re­call­ing your dog when he is most un­likely to re­spond will in­evitably lead to disobe­di­ence in gen­eral.

Key to this ex­er­cise is that you man­age the dog’s en­vi­ron­ment so that you are able to choose when and when not to give com­mands.

Prac­tise the re­call com­mand ei­ther ver­bally or on the whis­tle while the dog is close to you; your phys­i­cal pres­ence and en­ergy are likely to pro­duce a much greater re­sponse. In the event that the dog chooses to dis­obey your re­call, you are now in a strong po­si­tion to vo­calise your dis­ap­proval and move to­wards the dog. If you have es­tab­lished a clear and con­cise line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the dog, it will be left in no doubt that you are un­happy with its lack of re­sponse. Im­me­di­ately af­ter cor­rec­tion, you should en­sure that it is quickly fol­lowed up with gen­tle but clear in­struc­tion. If you have done this cor­rectly, in this in­stance, the dog will now be mov­ing to­ward you, so it is es­sen­tial that you re­ward this de­sir­able be­hav­iour.

As we look to send the dog fur­ther and fur­ther away from us, ei­ther to hunt or re­trieve, we will need to en­sure that we do not al­low obe­di­ence to slip. You will hear it said time and time again, but if ba­sic obe­di­ence has been taught prop­erly at close range, then the dog will choose to re­spond.

Af­ter hav­ing lifted a re­trieve, don’t al­low the dog to sniff, hunt or scent mark. In­sist on a straight­line re­turn. The dog should bring the dummy straight to you, de­liv­er­ing to hand. Don’t al­low the dog to run past, run around, show­boat or turn its back on you while de­liv­er­ing. Once the dummy has come to hand, in­sist the dog ei­ther sits or takes it­self to the fin­ish po­si­tion at heel.

The Stop whis­tle

With co­op­er­a­tion in mind, the dog must stop in­stantly to the first blow of our stop whis­tle. Any­thing less will not re­sult in suc­cess. From tiny, teach a young puppy to stop in­stantly and ac­cu­rately on a blow of a whis­tle. Again, the use of tar­get train­ing can as­sist in the ac­cu­racy and pre­ci­sion we re­quire at this level. Food re­wards or a re­trieve are per­fect for re­ward­ing a dog for a prompt re­sponse.

Teach­ing your dog that he will re­ceive a re­ward for sit­ting in­stantly to the whis­tle will al­ways give you the best re­sults. Train­ing your dog to un­der­stand that some­thing pos­i­tive will hap­pen if he stops when he hears the whis­tle will al­ways help you in the shoot­ing field. There will be oc­ca­sions when a young dog chooses to dis­obey the Stop whis­tle. Once again, if you have schooled your dog prop­erly to un­der­stand when you are cross with him, it will be straight­for­ward to cor­rect any form of disobe­di­ence.

Send Away and di­rec­tional com­mands

When send­ing our dogs for a re­trieve, we want them to go in the di­rec­tion we send them. It will re­quire a lot of prac­tice to teach our dogs to take a straight line and hold it as they run out away from us. This straight line will need to be a con­di­tioned re­sponse. The use of marks, mem­o­ries and blind re­trieves along clearly marked path­ways will help to build the dog’s con­fi­dence to take and hold the line. Clearly de­fined hunt­ing ar­eas and marker poles can as­sist in help­ing to build this con­fi­dence. Train for suc­cess, don’t let the dog fail.

If you reg­u­larly train alone, use the mem­ory re­trieve to a marker pole or clearly de­fined hunt­ing area to en­sure your dog gives power, pace, en­thu­si­asm and con­fi­dence as he makes his out run. Once the dog is run­ning with con­fi­dence to the hunt­ing area, use a mem­ory blind to make progress to­wards a full blind re­trieve.

Do not un­der­es­ti­mate how dif­fi­cult it is to teach your dog to take a line on a blind re­trieve. A com­bi­na­tion of con­di­tion­ing and con­fi­dence will be re­quired for the dog to trust you when tak­ing this line. Teach­ing a re­triever to do this will re­quire an enor­mous amount of time, pa­tience and skill. Teach­ing one of the hunt­ing breeds, for ex­am­ple spaniels or HPRs, will of­ten be more dif­fi­cult be­cause of the dog’s nat­u­ral de­sire and our train­ing to teach the dog to hunt. Here at Mul­len­scote, we limit the amount of hunt­ing that young dogs do and in­stead go to great lengths to en­sure the dog has a good ba­sic un­der­stand­ing as a re­triever.

If you set up re­trieves that are too dif­fi­cult for the young dog, it will very quickly adopt the strat­egy of hunt­ing big and wide to achieve its aim. This is a fault which we must not al­low the dog to de­velop. We need to teach the dog to get to, and then hold, an area, work­ing it with his nose un­til he is suc­cess­ful in find­ing the re­trieve. Again, the use of a tar­get hunt­ing area or marker pole will en­cour­age this be­hav­iour. The dog’s long-term suc­cess is in your hands.

As said above, hard-hunt­ing dogs, if un­able to find a dummy, will cast wider and wider in their ef­forts to be suc­cess­ful, while less con­fi­dent dogs will quickly lose en­thu­si­asm and start to show a lack-lus­tre ap­proach to re­triev­ing. An early in­di­ca­tion of this go­ing wrong will be for you to see a dog run out to the fall, make a poor ef­fort of hunt­ing for the dummy and then quickly re­turn to the han­dler. It’s re­ally im­por­tant that you recog­nise this and do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to en­sure the dog is suc­cess­ful in his re­trieves.

Ap­ply the same ba­sic tech­niques to di­rec­tional re­trieves: left, right, backs and re­call re­trieves all re­quire ab­so­lute trust and co­op­er­a­tion from the dog. Clearly, a full un­der­stand­ing of our com­mands and sig­nals are re­quired be­fore the dog will of­fer you his trust and co­op­er­a­tion.

There is so much for us to learn if we are to be suc­cess­ful in train­ing a dog. Work hard, do your home­work and, if pre­sented with an op­por­tu­nity to work with some­one at the top of their game, lis­ten hard!

Come, Sit and Watch: the puppy should be sat be­tween your feet, look­ing straight up and main­tain­ing eye con­tact

Sit Stay: a tar­get hoop or board can help you teach this com­mand to your dog

Send Away: he should take a straight, con­fi­dent line, so don’t make it too hard or he may lose con­fi­dence and give up

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