Gundogs: the seven sins
It’s rare to make it through the shooting season without encountering at least a few poorly behaved gundogs, but some bad habits and issues crop up more than others. Ben Randall considers the most common problems and how to prevent or resolve them.
1 Whining and making noise
This is a common issue, and one that 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.
Prevention: Generally, dogs whine when they are desperate to get to something; the problem stems from impatience.
From a young age, a dog must be taught to stay calm and relaxed around other animals, people, game and food, and generally switch off in the presence of distractions. As a young dog grows older, a whole array of exercises which simulate the temptations likely to be encountered on a shoot day can be incorporated into its training. Pups can be taught to wait whilst other dogs eat at mealtimes, for example. Or we can make the dog sit and watch as other dogs run past it to retrieve dummies. The aim is to teach the dog that if it sits patiently and relaxes, it will eventually be rewarded.
Solution: If your dog begins whining or making noise on a shoot day, do not ignore the problem in the hope that it will go away – it will invariably only get worse.
Go back to the very basics and refrain from taking the dog out shooting again until it has showed that it can cope with excitement in its training. 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.
2 Hunting on their own accord
This is one of the single biggest problems I see among gundogs in the shooting field. It is a typical symptom of a dog having more belief in itself than in its owner.
Prevention: 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.
Don’t allow a dog to hunt freely or stray far away from you as a youngster, 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.
Solution: Similar to the solution for a dog that runs in, stay quiet and chase down a dog that hunts on and ignores the whistle. You will surprise the dog when you arrive next to it. Put the dog on the lead, give the recall command again, and take it back to where you were when you recalled it. Consistency is key here – you must do this every time the dog ignores you.
3 Swapping retrieves
We’ve all seen this happen before; 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.
Prevention: This scenario is relatively easy to simulate back at home during training.
At mealtimes, teach your young puppy to eat its food and then come straight to you. Then you can introduce a second bowl of food, and allow the dog to eat from one bowl but stop it from going straight to the next – encouraging it to return to you instead, before being sent to the second bowl as a reward.
Translated to dummies, this encourages a dog to return to you as quickly as possible and makes it think ‘the sooner I pick the bird and return with it, the sooner I will be sent to find another’.
Solution: There are a few simple things you can do to reduce the likelihood that your dog will swap birds when sent for a retrieve. Firstly, when it picks up a bird, recall the dog rather than relying on it coming to you instinctively. Secondly, to begin with, only send your dog to retrieve single birds that are not near other birds which may prove tempting. You could go and collect one of a close pair of birds yourself, then send the dog for the other as a reward for being patient.
4 Running in
Running in (where a dog decides to take off and retrieve, hunt or flush game without the handler’s say so) indicates that the dog has more belief in itself than its handler. I often refer to them as spoilt dogs – those which have grown used to getting their own way and doing as they please.
Prevention: Again, a 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 as a result 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.
Solution: 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, unload your gun, put it back in its slip and chase the dog down silently. The dog will not expect you to arrive at its heels so out of the blue, and will learn that any repeat of such behaviour will not be tolerated. Put your dog on a lead and keep it on the lead for the remainder of the day. Then get to work in the training paddock to teach the dog that you decide when or what he or she retrieves.
5 A lack of focus
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.
Prevention: Regular training exercises throughout the spring and summer months 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 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.
Solution: If your dog is paying little attention to you on a shoot day but constantly has its 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.
6 Failing to hold an area
We’ve all been there. “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 an another line completely, looking for a different bird. This is where we need a dog that will ‘hold’ (hunt within) a particular area.
Prevention: 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 randomly whilst training. 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 and, when combined with a well-placed dummy or ball, 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.
Solution: Of course, the size of the area you want your dog to ‘hold’ will vary dependent 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. Take your dog back to where it was when you first blew the stop whistle, throw a few balls/dummies/birds in the area so he sees them fall, then go back to your original position, blow the stop whistle again, and issue the hunt command. And remember to always be precise with your hunt command, only using it when the dog is very close to where you have marked the bird fall.
7 Poor behaviour around other dogs
Not only can this be embarrassing, but it can be distressing and even dangerous. On a shoot day, a range of dogs of all breeds and temperaments often come together – it is important that they get along and concentrate on the job at hand rather than on one another.
Prevention: Socialisation with a range of dogs and other animals from a young age is crucial. But socialise your dog with well-behaved dogs – I can’t stress the importance of this 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 your young dog to other dogs in a calm and controlled environment .
On a shoot day, you can avoid issues arising 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 etc. – simple measures that are often ignored.
Solution: For excitable dogs, see above. 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.