Nothing like the real thing
When your dog is ready to make the transition from dummy to game, the precautionary principle is crucial, says Fieldfare.
There's surely no more pivotal moment in the career of any young gundog. And yet, for all the preparation we put into basic obedience, hunting and retrieving, we're likely to let the picking of game take its natural course. After all, we reason, if anything should come naturally this should.
And so it can. But often, unforeseen difficulties arise and that's why we ought - more than ever in relation to this aspect of training - to keep in mind a phrase that we're most likely to associate with environmental politics. 'The precautionary principle' sits perfectly alongside that other phrase which should be uppermost in any trainer's mind, namely, 'eternal vigilance'.
You can expect any gundog to move up a gear or two when they get onto the real thing. The novelty of the occasion is exciting, fascinating and challenging in equal measure, and that's a mix that can easily lead to a dog 'doing its own thing' or, at the very least, something other than what you were fondly hoping for. So it's worth doing everything you can to make this momentous stage in your dog's education as low key and matter-of-fact as you can. What you'll be aiming for is a seamless transition from a world of retrieving balls, canvas dummies or whatever to one where feather and fur are the focus of attention. A transition where all the things you've been working on - a quick and clean pick up and a speedy return with a nice high delivery - stay resolutely in place as this new and potentially disruptive element is introduced.
Fortunately 'or whatever' adds up to quite a lot: in the sense that, with a little imagination, there's plenty that can be done to ease the transition. And remember, moreover, that moving on to the real thing does not mean abandoning the building blocks that got you to the promised land of work on game. Work on dummies and game come in tandem during the transitional phase: and thereafter for that matter. So what can be done to ensure a 'nothing unusual is happening' reaction to the first encounter with game?
Fundamental, of course, are all the basics. So, with brutal honesty ask yourself the question: 'Does my dog pick things cleanly and have only the desire to get them back to me as quickly as possible?' Anything other than a positive response will probably mean that any shortcomings will be amplified when the excitements of game present themselves.
Even if you have answered with a confident 'yes' bear in mind that dogs can vary enormously in their initial reaction to the novel. Everything from the naturally bold dog which has drive to spare and copes with whatever comes its way, to the diffident one that seems to need reassurance and encouragement before feeling at ease with what is wanted, is possible. Bear in mind as well that such contrasts, marked though they can be, say little or nothing about how effective the dog will be as a working gundog in the long run. But they do mean that assessing carefully where your dog sits on that spectrum of possibility is important, because it will have a bearing on the strategy you need to adopt. And, even if you are confident that you have a dog that will just do it naturally, that 'precautionary principle' suggests that a little preparation makes good sense.
Your dog is much more likely to take picking game in its stride if it has encountered things like it before. You can, for instance, prepare it for carrying something that does not come neatly packaged by putting a dummy in an old shooting sock and having a tennis ball at either end so that it moves about as it's being carried. Other possibilities will present themselves. Indeed, if you are so inclined, these days you can buy dead fowl trainers, of American provenance, which have a hard free-swinging head which helps a dog to become accustomed to balancing and carrying an 'untidy' retrieve.
For your dog's first experience of the real thing you will want to minimise anything which might prompt fussiness or apprehension. So, prepare your dog for the experience by adding the element of fur or feather to your training beforehand. This can be done by wrapping a rabbit skin around your dummy or securing pheasant wings to it by means of strong rubber bands. Thus familiarised, you are now ready to progress to the retrieving of cold game. Whilst woodpigeon are likely to be the most readily available, a word of caution is needed, because their feathers are very loose and a young dog can easily find itself with a mouthful, which will lead it to shake its head and forget what it is supposed to be doing. So, if you are going to use pigeon take the precaution of binding the wings to the body with a couple of rubber bands and don't be tempted to use the same bird more than two or three times.
All the time we are aiming to maximise the chance that what is effectively a new and incredibly exciting stage in our dog's experience, is accomplished with as little fuss as possible. When some effort has been put into preparing a dog for work in the field, eager anticipation can make it hard to resist getting on to the real thing as quickly as possible. But if ever there was a time for making haste slowly this most important transition in your young dog's education is surely it.
Everything we do seeks to build bridges: bridges between what the dog already knows and is confident about, and new experiences which, though they will become the world the dog loves most, initially have the potential to throw it out of kilter. Wild duck, for instance, are not good things for a young dog to begin on. They seem to be an acquired taste and, though dogs may come to be keener on them than any other game, few care much for them at first. And the same might be said of woodcock, snipe and corvids such as magpies and jays. So, stick to the tried and tested at the cold game stage and, if that goes well, it should be a short step to carrying warm game effectively.
If you have the sort of dog which is likely to be easily put off, you can adopt the same strategy with its first retrieve of a freshly shot bird, whether it's a partridge or a hen pheasant (leave cock birds until hens are being retrieved competently). Ensuring there is nothing to distract your dog from its task may mean that you have put your own scent on the bird and this will encourage it to lift it without any delay.