Top 10 gundog training mistakes
Gundog expert Ben Randall highlights the training mistakes we should be careful to avoid.
1. Too much freedom
Too much freedom before you have established basic control (recall, sit and stay) can result in a dog that is inclined to hunt without you, and do as it pleases.
Example: Many owners exercise their dogs by walking in straight lines and allowing the dog to run on in front. If a gundog is allowed to do this often, it will think that it has to entertain itself every time it is let off the lead – i.e. pick up a scent and pursue it, with no regard for any command from its owner. And this desire will increase tenfold if it catches something.
Instead: Base exercise around a fun training session. Start with sit, stays, heelwork and long recalls, and then, eventually, encourage your dog to hunt for tennis balls in thick grass around your feet, or retrieve in controlled, confined areas. Make yourself the centre of attention, so that the dog associates you with fun – it will pay more attention to you as a result.
Mixed messages confuse a dog and can damage the relationship between dog and owner.
Example: One day out of four, if your dog moves a yard from where it was told to sit and stay, you let it do so with no correction. Which is right, which is wrong?
Instead: Establish the rules from day one and ensure that anybody who has anything to do with the dog follows them, too. It is little good trying to teach your dog to stay while you throw a dummy, if somebody else in your family is throwing 30 balls a day for the dog to fetch as and when it wishes. Have the whole family attend training sessions occasionally. This way, everyone will be singing from the same hymn sheet.
3. Fools rush in
It is imperative that training is done in increments and very gradually. The dog should understand an exercise completely before moving on to the next. Take your time.
Example: The owner has been practising heelwork on the lead in the garden, using a boundary fence to help keep the dog close. After a week, the lead comes off and the dog is expected to do the same in a new environment where distractions are rife. A huge leap in what is being asked of the dog, and a lack of success is the result.
Instead: The steps made in training should not be noticeably different from one another. Small changes are easier for a dog to grasp. For heelwork, for example, ensure the dog is walking on the lead perfectly, before then dangling the lead in front of its face, and starting heelwork off the lead in a confined environment with minimal distractions. Gradually increase the distances walked and the distractions present once the dog has perfected the previous stage.
4. Treating every dog the same
Dogs are not robots. Like humans, they all have different personalities and characters, and learn things at different speeds. What works for one dog might not work for another.
Example: For a very bold, outgoing dog with a lot of drive, steadiness will be a priority from an early age and will need to be ingrained before much retrieving and hunting is done. Take the same approach with a shy dog that is a little cautious and you might just discourage it from hunting altogether.
Instead: Be flexible with your training approach and tailor it to the individual dog, constantly monitoring what is and isn’t working. Focus more on a dog’s weaknesses rather than its strengths.
5. Unclear commands
Your dog can’t carry out what you are asking of it if it doesn’t know what that command is. Right from the off, establish the commands – voice and whistle – that will be used, and stick to them.
Example: How many times have you heard somebody on a shoot day ask their dog to ‘sit’, ‘hup’, or ‘come here and stay next to me a minute’, all within the space of the same drive. The dog has no idea what any of these commands mean.
Instead: Pick one command for ‘sit’, one for ‘come’ and one for ‘heel’ and thread these through the rest of your training, including your whistle commands. Be aware of the tone of voice you use, too. Simple, short, easy to understand commands are key. And make sure the dog is looking at you before you give a hand signal of any sort.
6. Loud and excessive handling
Dogs have very good hearing – you don’t need to shout. Quiet, calm commands, that are not repeated or over-used, are often a sign of a good handler.
Example: Dogs listen not only to words but also tone and volume when you give a command. If the dog is used to being told loudly to ‘sit’ when just a yard away from you – voice or whistle – it will expect the same volume and tone of command when it is 30 yards away. Loud commands in the training paddock translate to bellowing in the shooting field.
Instead: Stay calm, and use quiet but clear commands when in close proximity to your dog – from puppyhood. This way, the dog will notice when you change your tone. If you ask your dog to do something once and it has definitely heard you and chooses not to do it, then calmly take the dog back to where it was when you gave the command and issue the command again, ensuring that your dog obeys.
7. Getting stressed
If we don’t find something enjoyable, where is the incentive to keep doing it? The same holds true for dogs. Training should be relaxed and enjoyable, both for you and for your dog.
Example: Patience is key when training any dog. Losing your rag and shouting during a training session if things aren’t going right will only make matters worse and weaken the bond between dog and handler. Dogs can sense if you are uptight and stressed and this will have a detrimental effect on training sessions.
Instead: If you’re stressed, do not even attempt to train your dog. Only commence a training session when you are relaxed, and make sure your dog is enjoying it! Each session should be planned so that weaker areas from the previous sessions are addressed.
8. frequent failure
If a dog begins failing on a regular basis in its training, it will start to lose confidence.
Example: Trying to direct a dog that is not yet confident at working in cover, to a blind retrieve in thick cover with unfavourable wind. The dog gets fed-up of not succeeding and quickly loses confidence in its own ability, and hence loses its enthusiasm to enter cover in the future.
Instead: Always keep training fun and finish on a positive note. Set up situations in training which almost ensure that the dog will succeed. If the dog doesn’t succeed, show it how to do what is being asked at a simpler level.
9. Too much repetition
Whilst it is vital that a dog absolutely understands each lesson in its training, too much of the same thing in a short space of time can dampen enthusiasm.
Example: A thrown, marked retrieve in an open area is a very straightforward exercise for most dogs once they have learned the basics. By throwing such retrieves too often, the exercise becomes boring, and the dog less enthusiastic.
Instead: Keep things varied and interesting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the difficulty of the training must increase. Use different shaped and sized dummies for retrieving, pick dummies yourself most of the time and try calling your dog away from them. Work in different types of light cover.
Never rest on your laurels. Once a top sportsman reaches a certain level, do they stop training? Of course not. The same goes for your dog.
Example: You’ve put in the hard work, and your dog is the perfect companion in the field. Steady, enthusiastic and efficient. Job done. Once the season is over, the training sessions become less and less frequent until they almost cease completely. Your consistency with your dog begins to slip. Before you know it, bad habits start creeping in.
Instead: Continue with training and try some new exercises to keep things fresh. Work on weaknesses noted during the season, and plan your training sessions accordingly.