Developing Hunting in Your Dog
It doesn’t matter what kind of gundog you are training, one of the most important functions of a shooting man’s dog is to find game for him to shoot. With that in mind we want a dog that will hunt the cover for live game, produce it within shooting distance, and be steady to the flush. Steadiness to flush is essential for safety, especially if the flush is a rabbit. No one wants their dog to get in the way of an ounce of lead. Also of course no matter what is flushed you may miss and a dog running out of control can easily disturb other game that you could have had a shot at later.
Retrievers as well as spaniels and the HPR breeds can be used for hunting up game, and many rough shooters I have known have preferred one as it tends to be a little slower than a spaniel. Of course hunting up is not always just for unshot game, a high percentage of the time when picking up on shoots a dog handler does not know exactly where game has fallen and has to sweep up when the drive and shooting is over. Even when I have been duck shooting on flight ponds in the early evening I have waited until the flight is over before going out and sweeping the ground with either my Spaniel or Labrador to find the birds. Whether it is finding unshot or shot game, the most effective way of doing this is to have a dog that works a good pattern and, using the wind correctly, misses no ground in his search.
So how do we get a gundog to work and quarter the ground correctly and efficiently? Initially with a young dog, you have to encourage him to run around in front of you in shortish cover, working a zigzag pattern across and into the wind. Although we need to take wind direction into account when quartering, it is difficult to teach a dog to do this. Some dogs do it naturally; others never seem to get the idea. But, if you work into the wind, the dog tends to keep closer and develops a more even pattern. Work in short cover and definitely nowhere that you can lose sight of your dog because you always want to keep in touch. The secret is not to walk too fast forward, but to take a very flat zigzag pattern at first.
With your dog in the sit position by your side facing into the wind and your whistle in your mouth ready, cast your dog to the right, and encourage him to go away from you with the command “Seek On”. You may have to move slightly in that direction at first also. As your dog moves away from you turn sharply in the opposite direction, give a ‘pip pip’ on the whistle to catch his attention and encourage him to go ahead of you again “Seek on”. Make sure that in those first steps you don’t walk over ground that hasn’t been worked. Usually you want him to keep close, so no more than fifteen yards maximum away from you to the side and only five yards when passing in front. The maximum killing distance of a shotgun is around the forty-yard mark, so if a bird or rabbit is flushed at fifteen yards you have time to react and fire before it reaches the maximum range. Dogs that can get a little distracted when they are hunting or lose a little control at a distance I keep even closer – inside the ‘control perimeter’. If your dog turns on the whistle, looks at you, sees you are walking forward and then comes across much too far ahead in front, try standing still as you blow the turn whistle. Watch now whether your dog turns more towards you, coming into your body as he quarters. If he doesn’t, give a recall whistle as he turns, stand still and bring him in close before casting him off using a flowing hand movement in the opposite direction. Do this regularly, so the dog goes out, turns, and works back towards your body before hunting out in the opposite direction. After a while the dog will realise that he is expected to cross close to you, and a much ‘flatter’ pattern will result.
Some dogs just love to hunt and will do so basically for nothing but in the majority of cases to keep them hunting and optimistic of finding something it is essential to ensure that they do have finds. With young dogs this can be a tennis ball or dummy that you drop close to you when they are not looking. If you drop them no more than five yards away from you the dog will come to realize that what he is looking for is near to you rather than far away and in this way work close. The moment the dog turns on the whistle, turn your body in the direction you want him to now run and use your arm to point and direct across the front of you and to the opposite side. If you encourage him to come close to you as he crosses he will now scent the dummy and find it. This also helps reinforce the recall of course, as when you do give a recall whistle he will learn that by coming in he finds his retrieve. Listening to your whistle spells success. In the early days you do not want to hunt your dog up for too long, and he will need as many finds as it takes to keep him optimistic and hunting in this period. If you see him tiring at any time, let him have a quick find and then stop for that lesson. Some dogs do require regular finds and others will hunt happily with hardly any – it is up to you to read and know your dog. Try as much as possible never to let your dog see you drop a dummy otherwise you will find that he will quickly learn to watch you and where you are dropping them rather than hunting. Sometimes it pays to go out and ‘seed’ the ground with dummies prior to taking him out and hunting over it.
Once your dog is working a neat and controlled pattern finding dummies, even cold game it needs to progress to working an effective pattern of ground which takes into account differing wind directions, scenting conditions and type of cover. This pattern should be such that nothing is left unchecked. Every tussock, bush, bramble patch, whatever has to be gone through and worked well. By strategically placing dummies for your dog to find in tussocks, bushes and places where game will hide he will quickly learn to check them out. Scent is often variable, so to ensure that no game is missed we are always working at creating a hunting pattern where your dog works all the cover and all the ground taking scenting conditions and the distance at which scent can be touched into account. Heavy rain, wet ground, tucked in rabbits and pheasants and poor scenting conditions demand dogs that cover, in fact run over, nearly every inch of ground. Even hunting a foot to one side of game in these conditions can mean your dog misses it. For some shooting men where they do not have a lot of game, the pattern and hunting ability of a dog can be the deciding factor that determines whether they come home with dinner or not.
To really get a dog hunting under controlled conditions one of the best places for this is a rabbit pen. Dogs that will not hunt or are a little lethargic can be given a good chase of rabbits to really get them going and then by gradual introduction of basic obedience learned outside the pen, keep them hunting, but under control. Obedience to the sit, turn and recall whistle becomes a necessity once they are enjoying the hunt and chase. But don’t be too tough on the dog at this time to reinforce these commands as sometimes being tough stops them hunting and even ignoring game. However, for the shooting dog and owners who are not always as experienced as some regular trainers, control is essential even to the extent that the dog looks a little ‘sticky’. There is no doubt that once the dog gets onto real game in the open, it will loosen up and unless the controls are well ingrained he will take advantage and often become a little ‘hard of hearing’ as he ‘hots up’.
When your dog is beginning to hunt and find for you, it is now time to introduce the sit to the flush while hunting and a ‘remote’ send. That is sending your dog not from your side but from the position the dog sat when he flushed the game. If a handler is not very careful when shooting, a dog will quickly learn that a flush and a shot is followed by ‘fetch!’ This together with the excitement of the hunting results in many dogs in the shooting field being unsteady. So now we begin to polish hunting and put more control on the dog by asking him to sit to the flush, sit to the shot, and sit to the whistle at a distance when hunting.