Getting ready for the real thing – from 12 to 18 months
In the fourth of his five-part series, Ben Randall shares his advice on introducing your dog to live game.
In the last instalment of this series, we focused particularly on heel work and retrieving, so by the time your gundog reaches 12-18 months, you should have all the foundations in place to advance your training programme in readiness for the shooting field.
Blinds using cold game
Again, as with the memory retrieves (covered last time) and close blinds, I continue using the retrieving lanes to assist the dog's direction and reaffirm the importance of straight-line handling. I use a .410 and place cold game along the lanes, either firing the shotgun or using a starting pistol. I then line the dog up and cast her out.
By this stage she has learnt to believe me and continues with speed and pace and picks the first bird. She is then lined up again and re-sent for the longer blind. If she does go wrong, she must be recalled and start again.
Once my dogs are totally confident at this I try stopping them on the way to the bird and if my training has been followed correctly, the dog should stop, turn and wait for a backhand signal or redirection or recall. This is where your control and the dog's trust will be tested. By sending the dog out and then stopping it when the bird is in full view, then giving the ‘leave' command and calling her back to you (or directing her in a different direction for another bird), will give you a greater level of control with picking-up when there are multiple birds on the ground.
As an understanding of obedience and patience has already been established through food training and advanced food training (i.e. allowing some dogs to eat while others sit, watch and wait calmly), I progress this to multiple birds landing around my young dogs with shots fired. Once the dog is steady, I as pack leader will pick the birds myself. This obedience and restraint can be further instilled by allowing the dog to approach a fallen bird before issuing the ‘leave' command, followed by the recall command and then once again picking the birds yourself.
All my dogs, when picking-up – either on the peg or rough shooting – should see and mark a shot bird but be thinking: ‘It may be mine, however it may not. If I sit calm, dad may let me have it or he may direct me to another bird or recall me in.'
Unfortunately many dogs see a bird shot and think: ‘I'm definitely having it, it's just a matter of time.' This is the expectation of a spoilt dog that will invariably become too hot to control in the shooting field.
As we did in the earlier stages with food, I often reaffirm this principle of hierarchy by sending other dogs for shot birds whilst making my youngsters sit and watch.
Controlled game training
Once I have established all of the commands and therefore have the foundations in place, I will start to introduce my young dogs to live game. This can be done by simply walking them at heel whilst feeding the ducks or chickens, or by speaking to a local gamekeeper about helping with feeding the poults or dogging the birds back to the pens.
I must emphasise that, like everything else we have done so far, this must be done in a calm, controlled training routine. I personally don't let my dogs ever chase game, right from their very first introduction to live quarry. If they do chase game and are allowed to get away with it, it is something they will never forget. Remember, instinct dictates that a dog's five goals in life are to find it, chase it, catch it, kill it and eat it.
I walk them towards the birds, rabbits etc. and use the well established ‘leave' command and continue walking. If the foundations are fully established, then ‘leave', ‘heel' and recall should all be obeyed.
If I am happy my young dog is listening and is calm, I will sit it and walk the game past, not allowing the dog to move. Again, the less the young dog has at this stage, the better.
Hunting with spaniels
With shooting dogs, I try to get all my foundations fully into place because of the dog's five goals. I start hunting my young dogs into the wind in rough grass, using tennis balls and dummies to teach them the ‘hi-lost' command.
Every time they scent the retrieve, the ‘hi-lost' (hunt there) command is issued, thus establishing an association with this command and finding something good in that area with your assistance. This establishes teamwork between dog and handler.
Free hunting and free play is a common mistake. I don't allow this often at all until I have the total control I need. A dog should be turned with one or two pips of the whistle and a hand signal whilst hunting a quartering pattern from left-to-right. I find that because the foundation recall with short continuous pips is already in place, the two pips to turn comes very naturally.
If a dog starts to pull on (ignore the pips of the whistle and continue to follow a scent), it is usually an indication that you have done something wrong – i.e. not established the commands thoroughly enough, allowed the young dog too much free range or introduced him/her to game too early or in an uncontrolled manner.
I find going back to re-establishing the foundations is the best way to overcome any issues that may arise (see parts two and three of this series in Fieldsports autumn and winter 2012 issues). Also, if your dog does pull on scent, then silently run up behind it and pop it on the lead, give a little tug and use the ‘leave' command followed by the turn pips and start again.
Because the dog is approached silently, thus surprising it, it will soon learn not to ignore you. Very soon, he will keep half an eye on you at all times. I then allow him to work near me at first, and with my close proximity, he is less likely to pull on.
Finding live game whilst hunting will be your next challenge. Once they find it, the foundations will again be tested. With a single blast on the whistle, ask them to ‘sit', ‘leave' and then recall. Settle them down and continue hunting. If a problem persists, then finding a professional with a controlled game pen would help, firstly getting professional advice and secondly finding game regularly in a controlled manner.
By the time my dog reaches 18 months, I would like it to have experienced everything that we have covered thus far over the last four articles. The key things I expect from a dog at this stage include:
■ Good controlled heel, on and off the lead.
■ Sitting and staying with calmness and patience and a total focus and belief in you.
■ Completing blind retrieves with complete confidence in the commands that you issue.
■ Relaxed with, and undistracted by, all types of cold game.
■ Very good control with the stop whistle, recall whistle and ‘leave' command.