Planning your gundog training
Well-laid plans yield greater results, says Ben Randall, who explains the merits of a more considered approach to gundog training.
Making plans is an inherent part of being human. We plan – often subconsciously – almost everything we do. How many people can honestly say that they wake up in the morning and have no idea what they are going to do for the remainder of the day? Plans help us to keep an end goal in sight, they help us to prioritise, and they provide us with direction.
But there is a significant difference between ‘having a rough idea’ and planning effectively, and those who master the latter are far more likely to be successful in whatever it is they are planning for. The most successful businessmen are also those with the clearest idea of what they want to achieve and how they’re going to go about it. The same applies to elite sportsmen – they don’t follow carefully tailored training plans for fun. They follow a plan to yield greater results.
And so it often surprises me how little time and thought many people invest in planning their dog’s training sessions. This needn’t be time consuming, but can significantly improve the rate at which you and your dog progress significantly. Whether you are starting to train a pup, or going back to the drawing board with an older dog, well-laid plans help keep things from becoming boring, ensure weaknesses are addressed, prevent overtraining, and keep sessions positive and fun.
For the pup: It is essential that, before you start training a dog, you establish what you are working towards. This should have been considered carefully before choosing a pup, but there are still many owners out there who set out without a specific aim. Will your dog be mostly sat in a pigeon hide, or by your side at the peg? Or do you want a dog that will join you in the beating line, or behind the line of Guns with the pickers-up? Perhaps you want a dog for trialling? Each of these roles are different, and will determine the training approach taken.
For the older dog: It is important to make a note of any weaknesses or areas for improvement identified during the shooting season. Perhaps the dog has become a touch sloppy on the stop whistle, its heelwork has deteriorated, or it is pulling on a little far ahead when hunting. Be absolutely honest with yourself – which areas need the most work?
At the end of the season I give all of my dogs a month’s break from strenuous training. They do, however, continue with my foundation training which helps to reassert the basics.
‘Timescale’ may relate to one of two measurements: Where you want to be with your training by a certain date in the future, and the duration of individual sessions.
With an older dog, it stands to reason that you will want to iron out any faults before the next game season arrives. Whereas, with a youngster, there should be no time constraints and I’d advise against setting strict time goals. These can lead to rushed training and the dog not being given the time to understand an exercise properly. Be patient – it takes as long as it takes.
Duration of training sessions is largely subjective. For a young dog (under 12 months old), keep training sessions short. A couple of 5–10-minute sessions a day is ample for a young pup, and the emphasis should always be on keeping things fun.
The same applies to older dogs, too, although their training sessions can last for longer because they are more mature and they have greater attention spans. That said, I’m a huge advocate of shorter training sessions, regardless of age – why prolong training and risk it becoming boring for your dog? It’s a bit like when humans go to the gym – why go for two hours, work half-heartedly and grow to resent the lack of results in correlation to the time invested, when you can go for a well-planned, intense, 30-minute session and enjoy it? It’s all about getting the most bang for your buck.
(Photograph: Bob Atkins)
Breaking it down, then building it up
This applies to the older dog in particular. Once weaknesses have been identified, it is time to address them at a simple level. Don’t be afraid to go right back to basics and work through the stages incrementally, just as you would with a pup, ensuring the dog is performing each step perfectly before moving on. A dog that is straying from your side when walking to heel off the lead, for instance, should be reminded of how to walk to heel on the lead in a confined area, before gradually moving to more open spaces, and then repeating the process without the lead.
I tend to focus on one area at a time during a training session, and then incorporate this into a fun sequence at the end of the session. Continuing with heelwork as an example, I might walk a dog down a fence-line on the lead, past a hidden dummy, sit the dog up and send it back for the retrieve. This way the dog associates walking well to heel with the reward of being able to find and retrieve a dummy, whilst the variation helps to keep things interesting.
Always finish on a positive note
This point is crucial and is the cornerstone of all my training sessions, regardless of breed, age or aspirations. Begin training sessions with an exercise where the dog will succeed. This will set a positive, confident tone for the rest of the session. Then move on to address weaker areas. If the dog is struggling, simplify things and show the dog what to do. Getting wound up will get you nowhere.
And always finish sessions on a positive note, where the dog has succeeded and knows it has done well. This way the dog will associate training with fun, rather than a tedious, difficult and negative experience. Would you continue turning up to sports training sessions if you didn’t enjoy them?
Finally, remember to be flexible. Don’t be too regimental when training. Variables such as the weather, scenting conditions, unexpected time constraints and the dog’s progress and capabilities will mean that you must be prepared to adjust your plans where required. Believe me, it is well worth it in the long run.
Have you seen our new bookazine – The Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs?