Highlighting the five most common gundog training mistakes and how to avoid them.
Author Ben Randall
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.