The real thing – from 18 months to fully trained
In the fifth and final part of this series, champion trainer Ben Randall advises on introducing your dog to the shooting field.
Are you ready to introduce your dog to the shooting field? Only if you are happy that all the foundations are in place, because if not, this is where the cracks will start to show.
At the start of the season, I personally like to go out with a small group of friends, so as not to jump right into the deep-end on a 300-bird day. A rough day with a limited number of dogs enables you to focus on yours without other naughty dogs getting in the way.
If I am happy that the hunting pattern is controlled and the dog is at one with me, I will only shoot the first bird if my dog is 100 per cent steady on the flush. I then pick it myself (showing myself as pack leader) and hunt him/her on (or, if a labrador, continue on at heel).
I then do the same with the second bird, ensuring that I am totally happy before sending the dog. I like to finish on a good note.
It's easy to shoot too many for a young dog if it's going well and this is how things can start to go wrong. If a few more birds are shot, get someone else to send their dog whilst yours sits and watches patiently, or tell him to leave it and direct him for a short blind retrieve you have put down, then pick the shot bird yourself.
With the day done, water and feed your dogs, and finally, head down to the pub to talk over the day with the rest of your fellow shooting partners. A very important stage!
After my first couple of days doing all of the above, I go back to training in readiness for the next shoot. Every dog needs to continue its training, even once experienced.
If the teamwork is progressing well, I like to attend a small driven shoot. I always explain to shoot owners or keepers that I am very happy to pick-up or beat for free in return for having the opportunity to train my young dog. Most will encourage this, as once you have a trained dog you will become a valued member of their team.
When picking-up, I stand way back behind the line and allow my dog to mark fallen birds. If a dozen or so birds are shot around us, I always keep the dog sitting and collect the birds myself. I then drop a bird next to the dog and use the ‘leave' command, before bringing the dog to heel and walking away. Once a good distance from the bird, and the drive is over and no other distractions are around, I send the dog back for the memory retrieve. This way, as explained in previous articles, your dog has now experienced patience on dummies, cold game and in the live shooting field on warm game. Your dog will sit and think: ‘I may or I may not have the bird, but if I sit calmly and do as I am told I may get something'. The key to this is that, once again, your dog has got a retrieve that has come from you, not a bird it has found for itself!
Join the beating line
If I am in the beating line, I begin with a calm and controlled walk with the dog on the lead and then, if going well, with both myself and the dog happy, I walk him to heel off the lead. Find some ground with light cover so that you can see your dog, which will enable you to cast them off hunting and get to them quickly if needed. Try to employ this practice early on in the drive and once happy walk your dog to heel. Remember, little is best.
When I get near to the flushing point, I sit my young dog, allowing him to watch the main flushes and enabling me to use the ‘leave' command for unshot game and practice the recall. If really confident once the bulk of the flush has dispersed, I hunt the dog onto the flush and practice all that I have taught it – to flush, sit, leave and recall, unless sent.
Once I have completed a month or two of these days with my young dog and everything is going to plan, I advance to the next level, which includes sending him for flapping birds/runners, multi retrieves with distractions, and all the things we have practised in the controlled foundation training.
Picking-up in a team
My young dogs are now ready to start earning their keep as part of a team of picking-up/beating dogs. Again, we have practised this and I continue to work on the patience training in between shoot days with their feed times, cold game etc. When the shoot day arrives, start off slowly, keeping the young dog on the lead until you get them away from the other dog owners so that you can focus purely on them.
With drives underway and birds falling, sit him within the team, only allowing him to have a select retrieve every so often. They will benefit far more from watching other dogs and waiting in their first shooting season. This will be of major benefit in future seasons, giving you both confidence in the heat of battle.
Off season training
Once the season is finished, I rest all my dogs for a month or two, however twice a day I continue food training – this continuing to establish myself as pack leader. I then start spring/summer training, which aims to develop and advance everything we have learnt. I always recommend my clients to come and use my controlled game pen, or alternatively, find a friendly keeper to allow them to find game and enhance training.
A common mistake I find is clients thinking that their dog will remember how to be steady and controlled on game after seven months off during the spring and summer months. Much like game Shots, they must practice their shooting during these months to maintain a high standard and aid getting back into the swing of things come the season.