Re-lining the brakes
It is in a dog's nature to push the boundaries every now and then, says Fieldfare. So it's necessary to ensure that their steadiness is maintained
Think of it as being like a length of elastic that gets stretched and stretched, often to breaking point, by the excitements of the season. However good the link between dog and handler - and there is no more critical element than steadiness - work in the field puts it under strain. And even the most trustworthy dogs can come to feel that they know best when a bird has been hit: and once they start managing themselves you no longer have an agreeable shooting companion.To have a dog that does not need to be tethered in any way, and yet does not retrieve or hunt until bidden should be every Gun's ambition. And that's because it's not a wild or fanciful one. There is no mystery to steadiness and, whether you are training a young dog or reminding an older one whose standards have slipped, the strategy is broadly similar and a few key principles will see you home and dry.
All dogs, and especially working bred gundogs perhaps, have an instinct to chase something that is moving, capture it if possible and carry it off to some location of their own choosing. Steadiness training is all about substituting for that sequence another which has the dog waiting to be to be told to retrieve before bringing the game tenderly to hand.
Going against the dog's natural inclinations and achieving that virtuous sequence involves breaking it down into its constituent parts and making various triggers like the sound of a shot, or the sight of something flying or moving, a signal to do nothing. Retrievers, in particular, need to appreciate that they are really pleasing you by sitting quietly, taking an interest but not acting on any stimuli.
The first move, then, is to get a dog that will sit promptly on command and not move until permitted. Sit and stay become, as it were, as near equivalent as makes no difference. You will then, as you re-assert the sit command, be able to throw a dummy or tennis ball behind you and, with a raised hand to emphasise the point, keep the dog sitting and congratulate it before collecting what you have thrown yourself. Praise again.
Work on that until you can confidently throw things in front between yourself and the dog and, before long, you will be able to throw dummies around the dog effectively simulating a drive where birds fall around the peg. At this stage a bang or two will add to the realism and emphasise the disassociation we want to achieve between hearing shots and retrieving. Again, collect everything you have thrown yourself and praise the dog: not in a token, but in a fulsome way. It should be in no doubt that it is doing the right thing and pleasing you by doing nothing.
Where does retrieving come in all this you may ask? The best thing by far is if you can just hunt the dog away from the area where you threw things and have it find a ball you have previously hidden upwind, or one you surreptitiously drop whilst the dog is working. Again, praise for success needs to be really positive. All the time you will be emphasising the 'sit' command so that eventually, if the dog is running free and you throw something at the same time as you issue the command it is the latter rather than the instinct to chase which is acted on. You can then move on to calling the dog back to you and throwing something else before sending it for the original retrieve. Everything you do is acting to underline the fact that the dog must follow your instructions rather than its own inclinations: and if it does that praise is assured. Its acting correctly is never taken for granted.
With a little imagination you can vary the elements of the sequence to keep the process interesting and stop developing expectations which turn out to be correct about what is going to happen next. In fact, if there is one principle which is a key to achieving steadiness in any breed of gundog, it is that if you ever get the sense that the dog is anticipating something you must do the opposite. Don't, for instance, get into the habit of giving your dog longer retrieves to collect and shorter ones which you collect yourself to instil steadiness. Because it won't be long before your dog works out that a longer throw is for it and it takes off in anticipation of being sent.
Think about what you are trying to achieve or re-train rather than doing it by automatic pilot and you won't go far wrong. Always stay one step ahead of the dog: accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative and you can have a shooting companion to be proud of. The Holy Grail of steadiness is a process which takes a little while and which involves putting various elements together, but it is achievable.
How much is enough?
So how much time should you give to your training sessions? 'Little and often' are the watchwords. So, building a reminder into every day and keeping it interesting is far more beneficial than spending 45 minutes at such drills every three or four days. Indeed, provided the point of it all is clear and the dog is really congratulated for doing the right thing, then a couple of times a day with a day off now and again would be fine.
I don't reckon to make this sort of thing the subject of a special training session. It's easy enough to build it into the dog's daily exercise: you just need to take a few tennis balls with you.