Starting training with your Gun Dog
March – Starting Training with your Gun Dog
- Basic gundog training kit
- Steadiness, recall & obedience
- Basics in Training
Before you ever set foot onto the shooting field with a gun dog there are a number of things to consider and have in place. Your dog should be able to retrieve well, walk nicely at heel when you require him to, be calm, obedient, steady and posses a strong recall habit. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of basic obedience and solid compliance in sit-stay, steadiness, whistle stop and recall. These simple behaviours commonly overlooked or rushed in training, are the real foundations of good gun dog work. If these basics are thoroughly established they will last a working dogs lifetime. After all, a house built on solid foundations and with timely routine maintenance will stand a century or more. The same concepts apply to gun dog training. Skip or rush the basics and it will all go wrong sooner rather than later! After all, controlling a less than well trained dog whilst covey after covey of Partridges whizz over your peg and archangel Pheasants tip their wings in mocking salute is a far from enjoyable experience. I can easily imagine it spoiling your whole shooting experience as you wrestle with getting your eye in, keeping your dog under control and seeing your shot to kill ratio climb steadily in the wrong direction!
Where do you start then? The simple answer is…. at the beginning. You might have chosen your dog based on what you wish to do with it in the field. For example, if you like to walk up a few hedges and fields with a gun and a dog that will hunt, flush, retrieve, go beating or sit occasionally at a peg then a Spaniel might suit. You might even choose one of the hunt, point retrieve breeds (HPR). If you want a dog to solely sit patiently at a peg whilst you shoot, undertake a bit of ‘Picking up’ or if ambitious, take part in working tests and field trials then a Labrador or other retriever breed will be the choice. More than likely it will be a pet first and an occasional gun dog second. This means that your dog will just as likely live inside with the family and therefore you will have to take this into account when you plan your training schedule.
There are a few basic pieces of kit that you will need before you commence your more formal training lessons. A good quality rope slip lead and a gundog whistle on a lanyard are essential for future work to control and command a dog at distance. My preferred choice is an Acme plastic gundog whistle with a pitch of 210.5, although some trainers like to use a 211.5 which is a slightly lower tone. I find the higher pitch has more urgency about it and works for my dogs. Another key item will be a training dummy to practice retrieving; there are a magnitude of different sizes, textures and shapes on the market and again I have a personal preference. I find the Working Dog Company range really useful and of great benefit to both inexperienced and experienced dogs. The shape and feel teach the dog from the outset to open their gape, pick and carry correctly. However, there are many things that a dog can get used to retrieving. Anything can be used that is harmless and the dog will not mind carrying, eventually though it is advisable to train with a purpose made dummy.
I am assuming that your dog has grown just beyond the Puppy Stage and is around 7 months or older. It will be able to sit when told, recognise its name, come when asked and walk reasonably well on a lead. It would also show signs of wanting to chase after a ball, dummy or other toy, pick it up and when called return to you.
Walking with a dog should always be a pleasurable experience with no pulling, tugging or wandering off. It should be under control, attentive and walk at heel reliably on and off the lead.
This all sounds good but how do I get my dog to walk like that? If your dog constantly pulls on the lead and drags you around then quite clearly he thinks it’s his walk and all you need to do is follow. Without realising it you have allowed him to get away with this behaviour. There needs to be a line drawn in the sand from this day forward, if you really want to make changes then this is what you need to do. Start as you mean to go on, the walk routine starts the moment you decide it is time to go out. Call your dog to you and make him sit. Without fuss or excitement slip his lead over his head and around his neck. If he jumps up, gets excited and bounces around, stop what you are doing and ask the dog to sit. Only when he is in a calm and settled state do you move to the door and ask him to heel, he should be told to sit before the door is opened. When you open the door if he makes a rush for it ahead of you pull him back and close the door. Get him to sit, again only a calm settled dog will be rewarded with going out. This exercise may take several attempts to get right but perseverance and consistency will pay off. This exercise can be equally applied to getting the dog out of the car. He should be able to stay in his place with the rear door open while you put boots on and only jump out when given his cue.
Decide which side you prefer him to walk on and before moving off have him sitting calmly with his head adjacent to your knee, my preference is my left knee. I give my left thigh a light tap, say heel and walk off expecting the dog to follow in the correct position. If he lags, goes out to my left to sniff an object or rushes forward I stop immediately. Ease him back to the correct position and when in the right place reaffirm the word heel. Do not call out heel when he is in the wrong place and drag him back in position, all this teaches him is that heel means a yank on the neck and a drag back to the handlers’ side! He will not learn where heel is if he is not taught. Keep doing this for as long as it takes to be able to walk a few yards, for a bad heeler expect it to take 15 to 20 minutes to walk only 40 or 50 yards. The dog has to learn that he will go nowhere if he does not walk in the heel position. You have to be consistent in this approach and keep repeating the exercise. In time and with repeated practice you should be able to get your dog to walk nicely at heel both on and off the lead.
Once he is walking reliably at heel it is time to practice sit and stays. My method is as follows: Walk the dog along for 20 yards or so, stop, give a short pip on the whistle, raise one hand in a policeman’s halt sign and tell the dog to sit. The dog should sit without hesitation. If he looks confused place one hand under his chin the other on his rump. Lift his head up whilst gently easing his rump down, whistle pip and command sit with a hand signal. In time you will be able to drop the word command and he will sit to the sound of the whistle and hand signal. Tell him to stay and with hand raised take a step or two back away from him. Hold that position for a count of 5 then return and praise the sit stay. Keep practicing this and as he learns, extend both duration and distance remembering to reinforce the whistle sit from the furthest point you stand facing him. This will have an important bearing for future directional work so keep it in your routine. In time as you both get more confident with this exercise you can sit him up, walk away 20 or 30 yards then walk around him in a big circle keeping him sat where he is. He should not move other than swivel his head around to watch you. If he does try to get up correct him and reinforce the whistle sit. If he gets up and walks away place him back where he should be and reinforce the stay and sit whistle command. Again this needs lots of repetition and consistency but it will pay off over time.
Do not use the previous exercise to practice the recall or else you may teach him to anticipate it and ‘run in’ straight to you. Running in is an unwanted habit on the shooting field and we do not want to start rehearsing bad habits. Instead walk him up a way at heel off lead and sit him up. Walk back a short distance the way you have come, turn and face him and raise one hand a give a whistle sit signal. Then at the same time crouch down with arms outstretched in welcome, call his name and give several short pips on the whistle. As he comes running towards you look happy and welcoming and encourage him to come in close to your body. Praise a good response then walk him at heel, sit him up and praise again. Keep practicing this exercise keeping distances short at first and as he develops this exercise extend the distance. Do not be worried to take a step back if he finds this difficult. Once he is consistently returning mix it up with a sit stay exercise. At first only recall once in every 4 or 5 sit stays, you need to keep him thinking and not learning to anticipate a command. If he does then just go back to the beginning and start again. Remember, make haste slowly, it is these basics that often get rushed before they are properly established and lead to future problems.
It will be an advantage to wear the whistle as much as possible and use it to practice sitting as well as recalling, whether indoors or out. I have often used feed time to great advantage when introducing the whistle to the dogs, both to come and to sit.
These simple but effective exercises will improve overall obedience if practiced diligently. They will raise your confidence as a handler and help considerably with future advanced handling.
Next month we will be covering; introducing the whistle, first lessons in retrieving and developing the retrieve to include water work.
Ian has 2 Labradors and a Cocker Spaniel and Picks Up on 5 Shoots during the Shooting season. He is a founder Director of the Working Dog Company and runs a Gun Dog Training School from his North Hertfordshire base. For more advice call Ian on 01462 450830 or see www.workingdogcompany.co.uk