Advice for introducing your dog to the shooting field
There's much to consider when introducing your dog to the shooting field, says Ben Randall as he highlights the potential sticking points many fail to prepare for.
(PHOTOGRAPH: BOB ATKINS)
This is it, your dog’s very first day in the shooting field. Endless hours of training, infinite amounts of patience and effort, and many a high and low, all now coming to a point. You’ve worked tirelessly on steadiness, heelwork, retrieving and recall exercises. You’ve varied your training, kept it fun and positive, and, crucially, you’ve established a strong working relationship with your dog. But now is when the real challenges present themselves – especially if your dog’s introduction to the field isn’t handled correctly.
We know to ration retrieves, start small and build up to the busier days, and be consistent with our dogs; but are you sure you’ve taken everything into consideration when it comes to your gundog’s debut in the shooting field? The truth of the matter is that many factors are overlooked at this crucial milestone – simple things which need not cause issue. Here we’ll take a closer look at a few which seem to crop up regularly in the beating line, at the peg, or whilst picking-up...
Your dog should be used to gunshot by now, but how about a brightly coloured piece of plastic waving and cracking, or a stick tapping loudly in woodland?
I’ve seen many a dog become disconcerted by this in the beating line as it’s simply something they’ve never come across before. Add to this the many other distractions, and your dog’s focus can soon switch from you, your commands and the job at hand, to all that’s going on around you.
Different types of game
So you’ve honed your dog’s retrieving with balls and dummies before gradually introducing fur and feather, then working with cold game and, eventually, warm game. But have you practised retrieving with different types of game? Has your dog ever encountered ducks, pigeons, rabbits and hares?
Bear in mind that your dog might not pick unfamiliar quarry quite so readily. If you find this to be the case, pick whatever it is yourself, rub your hand scent on it and try your dog again when you have a spare minute.
Flapping and pricked birds are another thing to consider, and very different for a dog used to picking dummies and birds that do not move. I’d recommend leaving these for the older, more experienced dogs to pick until you are confident you have full control and that your dog is retrieving dead birds, amidst all the distractions, without any problems.
Multiple whistles and commands
It’s quite likely that a fellow Gun, beater or picker-up will be using a whistle with the same pitch as your own, and many people use very similar whistle commands for their dogs, i.e. one single longish blast for ‘stop’, and repeated pips for recall. This can be very confusing for a dog that has grown accustomed to listening for one single whistle whilst working.
I’d suggest training in groups so your dog gets used to this before its first proper day out. And when that first day arrives, keep far enough away from others with whistles of a similar pitch to avoid confusion. Then, only once you are confident that your dog is working well on the whistle and is responding to your every command, you can start working in closer proximity to others.
Elevenses, lunches, snacks; there’s a lot of temptation for dogs which have not been taught table manners at home. Some dogs tend not to be interested in food, whereas others are prolific scavengers. Needless to say, it can be very embarrassing should your dog decide to get stuck into a fellow beater’s pack-up or steal a snack from the hand of a fellow Gun.
You can use meal times to practice patience – sit your dog up and let him or her watch you eat. Praise him for staying put but do not reward him with food. And remember, by keeping your young dog on a lead or in its box at the end of a drive, you always know where it is and what it is doing.
A few shots from a starter pistol at a distance does not constitute a proper introduction to gunshot, yet I come across many handlers who fail to prepare their dogs for the sound of a busy drive. Bear in mind that even on a small day the Guns might fire 50 shots during a drive, which is enough to push any dog not properly familiarised with loud bangs to a state of overexcitement or, worse, gun-shyness.
As with the many other aspects of its training, your dog should have been introduced to gunshot gradually, with progress made in increments. Distance to the source of the shot should only be reduced if the dog shows no signs of uncertainty or distress. Once this has been achieved, clay shooting grounds are good places to visit to familiarise your dog with the sound of lots of shooting, and will prepare you well for what will likely be encountered on a driven day.
Roads and cars
How many near misses have you seen on a shoot day involving vehicles and dogs that are off the lead? It’s a factor many overlook, and nine times out of 10 it is a fault of the owner’s rather than the dog’s. I strongly advise against working your dogs near roads, and recommend keeping them on a lead whenever you are in the vicinity of roads on which you are likely to encounter traffic.
Bear in mind that the vehicles carrying the Guns, beaters and pickers-up will all be moving about at the end of the drive, too.
The gunbus or beaters’ wagon
Gunbuses and beaters’ wagons come in all shapes and sizes, and you might find your dog reluctant to join you in them come the end of the drive.
Steep steps and a confined space packed with lots of people and other dogs can prove intimidating. Introduce your dog to the day’s transport at the start of the day, when they are empty, and try not to be the last person to board if you can help it.
The handler’s mentality
This, I believe, has a much greater effect on a young dog’s performance than often realised.
It’s natural to be nervous when taking a dog out for the first time; after all, a lot of hard work and time has been invested to reach this point. But if you are over-anxious, your dog will pick up on it quite quickly.
I find that the more relaxed and confident I am, the better my dogs will work and the more responsive to my commands they will be. You must trust your dog, and he or she must trust you.
In the same vein, I tend to find that dogs soon realise if your focus has shifted elsewhere. This is why I would always recommend leaving your gun at home for the first few outings with your new shooting companion. Our own adrenaline and excitement levels increase when we are at the peg with a gun in our hands and there are birds powering over our heads, and you should be aiming for a calm, relaxed introduction to the shooting field for your gundog.
Last but not least, you must be in a position to correct your dog if it disobeys a command. Just as you have done during the countless hours of training, you must remain consistent in your approach. Wrongdoings or lapses in behaviour, no matter how small, must be addressed. Any bad habits tend to be magnified in the presence of the many distractions on a driven day’s shooting. Give your dog an inch and it will take a yard, and before you know it, you will no longer have an agreeable shooting companion.