Putting it into practise – from 6 to 12 months
In the third of his five-part series, gundog trainer of the year Ben Randall shares his advice on heel work and retrieving.
As you will have read in the autumn issue, your pup will now be steady to food and be capable of being sent towards the food and be stopped and recalled away every time. Once this food training has been firmly established, this should also be put into practise using a dummy.
Walking to heel
Heel work is something that has always been relatively straightforward with my dogs, firstly because of my pack leader training, and secondly because they all trust and believe in me. Everything good in their lives comes from me, so when I tap my leg and say “heel”, more often than not my young dogs just seem to stay close and have their eyes constantly focused on me.
If, however, you're having difficulty with heel work, it needs to be established on the lead. If you are walking from A to B with a dog persistently pulling towards B, you should constantly pull him back, changing direction every time the dog pulls and rewarding your dog if it then continues in the same direction. Therefore, you only allow your dogs to get to point B once they have walked to heel properly.
My dogs walk on my left, so I push my left leg in front of them (I call this the dog's space) and start walking. I also allow the dog to pull on in front, then with a snap on the lead say “heel” and walk in the opposite direction from the dog. This method is very effective and the dog quickly learns that they need to keep an eye on me because I'm not just walking in a straight line as they want to.
With this method, I soon find that the dog always has half an eye on me, waiting and watching for a change in direction or command. Once this is 100 per cent understood, wrap the lead around the dog's neck (don't fasten it), tap your leg and start walking. If this is successful, I take the lead off and dangle it in front of their face and repeat the process. If this does not work, it is usually as a result of rushing the previous stage – so be patient.
Establishing retrieving commands
At this stage, I start walking the pup out to a distance and sending him back for the food or dummy. I always use retrieving lanes to start with, such as paths or walkways in long grass, as this allows my pups to cast out in a straight and controlled line without having to negotiate other distractions.
Another advantage of using these retrieving lanes is that, as they are cut short, the pups can normally see the dummy when they are sent out, allowing them to increase the number of successful retrieves, which rapidly builds their confidence. Once the pup can do this, I move onto left and right signals, using my hands and the command “get out” at a close range and only my hand signals at a longer range.
Also start to move onto memory retrieves whilst using the retrieving lanes. This is my first stage in working towards a blind retrieve. The pup remembers there is something out there but has to think more for itself and, essentially, also starts to trust your guidance. Whilst walking away from the planted memory retrieve, the pup should be walking at heel looking at you the whole time, thinking when is my leader going to let me have it?
Once I am happy that the pup understands my retrieving commands and is working with speed and drive in straight lines out, left and right, I go directly to the same place as I have been doing the memory retrieves and place some blinds on the lane.
The first blind is positioned close, so that as I send them, if they become unsure on the “get out” command (or “get back” for my labradors), they tend to see the dummy and remember what to do. On the second blind they have more trust.
I continue this for about a week, employing the same left and right signals, and increasing the distance every day until I can have a blind 80-100 yards down the track. Once they have mastered this, following just the hand signals and command, I know the trust is building.
Introducing gunfire and game
I like to get my pups used to every type of retrieve, so once I have a keen retriever and all the basic commands have been established, I introduce the pups to their first feathers, initially using dummies with clipped wings attached.
Once I have a dog enthusiastic on retrieving these dummies, my young helpers at the kennels are called in for assistance. I get them to stand 50-60 yards away and throw a few feathered dummies to send the dogs to. If this goes well, then one of them fires the starting pistol as the dummy is thrown.
The pup should remain still due to previous training stages, and having been socialised and introduced to lots of people and sounds, such as bowls clanging at feed times etc. I then get the boys to fire the gun at a closer range.
Water work should only be introduced once the pup is eager to retrieve and wholly trusts the handler. I use small ditches primarily and then progress onto ponds and lakes when the dog is ready.
You should have now established the commands of: sitting, simple left and right commands, stopping on the way out, on recall, and outside with distractions, heel, seen retrieves, memory retrieves, simple straight blind retrieves, as well as introducing cold game, the shot and water retrieves.
Once your dog understands all these commands, I will progress you onto the next stage of development, before combining all this in readiness for their eventual introduction to the shooting field.
When dogs reach 6-8 months old, Ben recommends changing them onto a top quality adult food, with a lower protein and oil content such as the Kronch or Skinners ranges. This provides them with a high quality diet and calms them down, resulting in easier and more efficient training.