Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs

The bare necessities

If you're familiar with The Jungle Book - and who isn't? - you'll remember Phil Harris and Bruce Reitherman's words, as sung by Baloo Bear and Mowgli. Their advice is disarmingly simple. We should “Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities” which turn out to be “Old Mother Nature's recipes.”

Could that possibly apply to the training of gundogs? As the days lengthen and more opportunities to do some training with our shooting companions present themselves, it's certainly worth thinking about. Is it possible to distil the essence of ideas about gundog training into a set of easy to understand paradigms? Is there a bottom line - perhaps a few pithy and time-honoured truths, which, if kept constantly in mind, make it easier to get everything else to fall into place? I like to think so.
Going back to basics

Training a gundog involves a systematic progression and carefully managed transition from dummy to the real thing. Well-laid foundations - what the old books called ‘yard training' - are absolutely vital. So, whilst we must nurture the hunting instinct, we must also ensure that basic obedience - sit, stay, heel, recall and so on - is thoroughly bedded in before more ambitious things are attempted. The whole process has to be one of building mutual respect and experience. The successful training equation - and it's really worth noting - has to be: education plus application minus confusion.

The end goal

Firstly, it is important to have a clear idea of what we are aiming for. Gamefinding is of the utmost importance, and that's whether it is producing game for the Gun or putting it in the bag after it has been shot.  And, of course, the main concern of any shooter or picker-up must be to get wounded game collected and humanely despatched. A competent gundog is essential to that task.

With confidence comes success...

Nothing succeeds like success, and the aim in training must always be to gradually extend a dog's experience by steady increments. Confidence feeds on itself, so if something isn't working and you're in a hole, take the standard advice seriously: stop digging and take a step back.  If your dog seems confused about what you are asking of it, then some element of the preparation hasn't been thorough enough.  

And with confusion comes failure

Confusion is a word and an experience we want to banish, because, by eliminating confusion, training will almost certainly become a more enjoyable experience for you and your dog. And that really matters. Because if you are to enjoy success with your training and build mutual respect between you and your dog, it must not only be firm (that all important first rule), fair and proportionate in its approach to correction, but it must be fun as well. These three Fs really do matter.

Don't rush it

The temptation to rush ahead will always be there. But it must be resisted because, although certain skills are important, temperament and maturity are no less crucial qualities in an agreeable shooting companion; and they must be given time to develop. 

Some dogs, especially well-bred ones, may progress precociously in all respects and it is easy to be dragged along at too fast a pace. The safe thing is to assume that developing responsiveness, encouraging resourcefulness and, more important than anything else, building mutual trust and respect (the three Rs) is going to demand patience and attention to detail on your part. 

Respect, in particular, has to be carefully built from day one - it has to be earned because dogs are spectacularly indifferent to ascribed status.

Two key rules

From these general considerations follow two key rules of training. They apply to all the elements of the training process, but particularly to the early stages. 

Rule #1

Try, as far as is possible, never to issue a command unless you are in a position to make sure it is complied with. It is crucial to developing the sort of responsiveness we are looking for. After all, there's little chance of developing the right expectations in a dog if it is frequently bombarded with a confusing variety of commands that it is able to ignore with impunity. We want the dog's world to be one in which it responds immediately and unequivocally to certain sounds or signals; whatever form the command is taking.

Rule #2

Never set out to test your dog or over-extend it just for the sake of knowing its limits. Always be looking to set up training situations that maximise the chance of success whilst also extending your dog's experience.  

This rule comes into play as soon as you are starting to make progress with your training. It's all too easy to get fired-up with enthusiasm and find yourself trying to see, for instance, how far away you can get your dog to make a retrieve. But at long distances you are in no position to do anything if the dog doesn't respond promptly. 

Suppose, for instance, that you are in the early stages of directional training and working particularly on the ‘left' and ‘right' commands and signals. Sit your dog up with a hedge, wall or some other sort of barrier immediately behind so that the chance of its going back is eliminated. This is consistent, in fact, with another precept, which is best kept in mind at all times: KISS - Keep It Simple and Successful.

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