Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs

Nurturing respect

Fieldfare training

In order to get the most out of your gundog, your approach needs to be firm, fair and fun, says Fieldfare.

There's a natural progression of thought when it comes to the bedrock rules that should underpin our efforts to train a gundog. We need to think just as carefully about the attitude that we bring to the process. And when we do, we'll find that there are some beguiling misconceptions we ought to discount.

We can take a biblical route to the first of them. Corinthians Chapter 13 closes with the words “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Stirring and oft-quoted, and anyone who has tried to train a dog will know that faith and hope have to be part of the process along, ideally, with the sort of understanding that comes with charity.

Indeed, so particular are the implications of that special understanding that it's no surprise that we often translate ‘the greatest of these' as love. Look up the word ‘charity' in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and you'll find that it's principally about love of one's fellow-men. Or, more specifically, love, kindness and natural affection. That word ‘love' is insistent. But if you suppose that love is indeed the greatest thing when it comes to dog training you'd be making a mistake. A big one.

Trawl through a book of dog quotations and you'll see the misapprehension writ large. “Buy a pup,” says Rudyard Kippling, “and your money will buy love unflinching.”  Helen Exley, meanwhile, opines that “the average dog has one request to all humankind. Love me.” You can see what they are getting at. But there is far greater insight in Mark Twain's “Wealth may enable you to get a very fine dog: but it won't buy the wag of his tail.”

It's more insightful because it acknowledges that, however biddable and responsive your dog may naturally be, the sort of relationship that expresses itself in the wag of its tail has to be worked at. It doesn't just happen; it builds up over time. How responsive your youngster is to the more formal elements of a training programme will depend crucially on the sort of relationship you have established.

But is love the most important part of it? Love and affection are all very well, not least because they are essential preconditions for trust, which matters time and again when dog and Gun work together. For that reason, I like to think of love and affection as being like credit in the bank. They are something you can draw on when necessary and it's probably true that the greater the depths of your reserves as a partnership, the more you have to ‘spend'.

There is, however, another key element of trust and its importance is without parallel. Like love it has to be worked at. It has to be mutual or it is nothing. I refer to respect.

Let's return to that book of dog quotations. “A dog,” says Jane Swan, “believes you are what you think you are.” It would be hard to imagine anything more precisely wide of the mark. Just as money will not buy the wag of your dog's tail, your thinking you are the best trainer in Christendom will cut precious little ice if your dog's experiences of your efforts are at odds with your elevated self-perception.
Dogs are remarkably adept at that necessary art of bullshit detection. A relationship founded on puffed-up self-importance is quickly exposed as such.

Respect is all about mutual recognition, and that's what dog-training basics are about too. Call it the achievement of pack-leader status if you like, but as we shall see, we have to be careful because the term carries the risk of supposing that it is something that can simply be imposed.

To win respect in a relationship with your young gundog you need to be aware of its significance from day one. The building of a good general relationship with your pup can be the beginnings of winning the respect that you'll need later on. There is so much in the ancestry that you can build on. Mark Twain, in an insight that probably tells us more about ourselves than it does about dogs, said: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.” Dogs do want to be around humans and working bred dogs are especially keen to please.

We now appreciate that the processes of domestication, over a 100,000-year period, are at least as significant as the fact that dogs are 99.8 per cent genetically identical to wolves.  More than that, we also know now that the structure of wolf packs is more complex than the simple notion of pack-leader domination. Alpha wolves are, in fact, the decision makers. They are not necessarily the biggest or boldest. They, if you like, give ‘the law' and ensure that their mates live up to it. Being pack-leader means, above all, establishing respect. And the royal road to that is ensuring that a command issued is promptly obeyed.

So, if we are trying to do the same thing, what sort of precepts should guide us?  Interestingly, the OED entry for ‘charity' mentions, after its references to love, kindness and natural affection, two other qualities which matter enormously to effective dog training: fairness and equity. They are a pointer to the fact that consistency really matters.

Indeed, you can do worse than keep in mind the three Fs. The training process must be firm, fair and fun. Firm, first of all, because the dog must appreciate that if a command is issued it must be obeyed. That process is much facilitated if the dog sees the point of the command. And it's much more likely to see things that way if the whole process is consistent and proportionate - that is to say fair. The relationship has to be kept in constant repair, of course, and your dog will learn much more readily if the training process is enjoyable. So that's where fun comes in.

The big message is that the desirable pack-leader status can be achieved and sustained without any recourse to domination. Cesar Millan, in his new book Be the pack-leader, talks of 'calm assertiveness.' And that nicely captures the essence of the orientation that is most likely to succeed.

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