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It’s rare to make it through the shooting season without encountering at least a few poorly behaved gundogs, but some bad habits crop up more than others. Field Editor Ben Randall considers the most common issues and how to prevent or resolve them via gundog training methods.
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Whining dogs are common, and can be very frustrating for both the dog’s handler and fellow Guns, pickers-up, beaters and keepers. Dogs that whine on the peg can be distracting and take away from the experience somewhat. The same goes for those that bark and whine when stood behind the Guns picking-up, or when in the dog-box in the car.
Generally, dogs whine when they are desperate to get to something; the problem stems from impatience. In gundog training, the aim is to teach the dog that if it sits patiently and relaxes, it will eventually be rewarded. Here are some tactics to try to stop a dog from whining:
If your dog does begin to whine or make a noise on a shoot day, don’t ignore the problem in the hope that it will go away - it’s only likely to get worse.
Go back to the very basics and refrain from taking the dog out shooting again until it has shown that it can cope with excitement during your gundog training exercises. Return to a controlled environment and work through patience exercises with food, dummies and game, only progressing when rock-steady (and quiet!) at each stage. The dog must learn to trust you and believe that it will be rewarded if it remains calm and quiet.
Gundogs hunting of their own accord is one of the single biggest problems I see in the shooting field. It is a typical symptom of a dog having more belief in itself than in its owner.
The key to preventing this issue lies in developing a trusting relationship so the dog wants to stay near you, as it has learned that it finds more and has more fun when it does.
In gundog puppy training, don’t allow the dog to hunt freely or stray far away from you, and always base hunting around an exercise that is controlled by you. You might encourage the dog to hunt around your feet, for example, where you will drop tennis balls or dummies when the dog is not looking.
The key to resolving this issue is similar to the solution for a dog that runs in, stays quiet, and chases down a dog that hunts on and ignores the whistle:
We’ve all seen the swapping of retrieves happen; a dog drops one bird and picks up another, often several times, before either abandoning the task altogether or returning to the handler with at least something.
This scenario is relatively easy to simulate back at home during your next gundog training session by following these steps:
There are a few simple gundog training tricks you can try to reduce the likelihood that your dog will swap birds when sent for a retrieve:
Running in is where a dog decides to take off and retrieve, hunt or flush game without the handler’s say so. This indicates that the gundog has more belief in itself than in its handler. I often refer to them as spoiled dogs - those which have grown used to getting their own way and doing as they please.
To prevent a gundog from running in, solid foundation of patience training is crucial. By the time a dog goes out shooting, it should know that it must wait before being sent for a retrieve or to hunt.
For your first half a dozen days out in the field, don’t send a young dog to retrieve birds it has seen fall from the sky, but rather place a bird yourself and send the dog for that as a reward for its patience. This reiterates the fact that the reward comes from you and therefore builds the dog’s confidence in you. After a few days of this, you can then progress to sending the dog for birds it did see fall but cannot see in plain sight on the ground - always keep the dog guessing.
The worst thing you can do if your dog runs in is to start calling its name and whistling over and over again. If you do this, the dog will also learn to ignore your commands, and will grow used to returning to you once it has had its fun. Instead, you should:
A lack of focus can be a frustrating trait, as the dog seems interested in almost everything but you, its owner. A dog that pays little attention to you is not ready for the distractions that will be encountered in the shooting field.
Regular gundog training exercises throughout the spring and summer months can help to remind the dog that if it pays attention, it will be rewarded with retrieves, or food at mealtimes. Too many people overlook the value of regular gundog training outside of the shooting season, expecting their dogs to be switched on and alert to their every command after months of ‘walks’ where they are left to entertain themselves.
To help improve your dog’s focus if they are paying little attention to you on a shoot day but constantly have their eyes on game, other dogs or people, do not let the dog investigate the other distractions. Instead, keep the dog on a lead and at the end of the drive let it watch you place the birds that you will then send it to retrieve. You must re-establish yourself as the centre of attention. Everything that is fun should come from you to win your dog’s dedicated focus.
It’s a familiar situation: “it’s over there, in that rough bit of grass between the two oak trees,” you are told. You send your dog back to the spot, stop it, then give the hunt command, and it charges off on another line completely, looking for a different bird. This is where we need a dog that will ‘hold’ (hunt within) a particular area.
Firstly, your dog must be good on the stop whistle. This can be practised at your dog’s mealtimes, on the way to dummies or balls, or just throughout your gundog training sessions. It’s important to always make sure the dog sits promptly upon the command.
You should try as much as you can to use the hunt command after the stop whistle/command as this acts as a reward for the dog’s obedience. When combined with a well-placed dummy or ball, this is a great way of building the dog’s belief that if it listens to you, stops when you tell it to, and hunts in the area around which you have stopped it, it will find something.
Of course, the size of the area you want your gundog to ‘hold’ will vary depending on the environment and the nature of the cover, and whether you are picking-up, rough shooting, or competing in a field trial.
If a dog is leaving the area, we need to remind it why it should stay and hunt around that spot. To do this:
Not only can poor behaviour around other dogs be embarrassing, but it can be distressing and sometimes even dangerous. On a shoot day, a range of dogs of all breeds and temperaments often come together, so it’s important that they get along and concentrate on the job at hand rather than on one another.
To prevent poor behaviour around other dogs, socialisation with a range of dogs needs to form part of your gundog puppy training. But I can’t stress the importance of socialising your dog with well-behaved dogs enough.
My pups will socialise with my older, trained dogs, but I do not recommend puppy classes where 20 out-of-control pups are simply allowed to run amok, out of control. This, if anything, encourages excitement around other dogs. I recommend introducing a young gundog to other dogs in a calm and controlled environment.
On a shoot day, you can avoid any issues that arise by following a few simple steps. Using a lead when getting your dog out of the car so that it cannot charge up to other dogs is one example. Another is not allowing your dog to run around with others between drives or at elevenses - these are simple measures that are often ignored.
These gundog training techniques should help to improve the behaviour of excitable dogs. For aggressive dogs, I’d recommend visiting a professional dog trainer. Aggression needs immediate attention if it is not to develop into a serious issue.
At Gundog Journal, you’ll find a wide range of articles on gundog training, whether you’re looking for advice on gundog puppy training, how much you should expect to pay for a gundog, or how to handle an ageing gundog.
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The UK's only dedicated Gun Dog magazine
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