Training the Hunter’s Dog
As a hunting dog trainer I am told by hunting dog owners that they are ‘Just Hunters’ and all they want is a hunting dog, and not a trials or test dog? I got to thinking, what is an ordinary hunting dog? Ordinary relates to the type of hunting and work they are doing and it usually indicates that they want no ‘frills’ on the dog. It becomes ‘ordinary’ only because they are familiar with the type of work they want their dog to do. But if you really think about the hunter’s dog, the dogs are not ordinary they are specialists, they are skilled and precise workers – there is little that is ‘ordinary’ about it.
The dove dog specialises at watching that bird fall from the sky and then going out and picking the one that has just been shot. It also specialises at sitting quietly and patiently in a blind, not making any movement that would distract incoming birds. Similarly the duck hunters dog has to have these attributes but with the added skills of strong water work, traversing difficult waterways, ability to work in poor light, and especially being able to deal with diving ducks or large geese. It also has to have the ability to work among decoys either on the ground or in water. In a number of instances both the dove and duck dogs will not clearly see the fall of the bird when they are in a blind, and have to learn to locate the fall by other means than marking it down with their eyes.
On an upland shoot, a flushing dog such as a spaniel or retriever is expected to keep close, investigate every piece of cover and after a flush, is expected to wait until commanded to fetch or continue hunting if the bird was missed. With a pointer he is expected to hold his point until the handler is within shooting distance and gives the command to flush the birds or goes in a kicks them out himself. One of the most important jobs my dogs have had when picking up shot birds is ‘sweeping up’ for birds that no-one knows exactly where, or sometimes, ‘if’, they have fallen. Controlled quartering of the ground by a dog, hunting for dead and wounded birds, is an essential part and, in my experience, one of the most rewarding jobs of working a dog in the hunting field. Whatever hunting dog work we look at, each has to have a basic foundation of skills coupled with specialist ability. In addition to marking the fall, finding and retrieving birds; steadiness (not breaking), remaining calm and patient, and good manners is a very big issue. Lack of it results in the loss of a potentially good shoot day, bad tempers, a loss of pride, not being invited back to a shoot, and a sometimes a group of very frustrated hunters who have seen a potentially good hunt ruined by a dog.
If we go to the right breeding from proven hunting lines the ability to hunt and retrieve should be inherited. We need to develop these abilities as we train but many owners miss out essential stages in their obsession to create powerful drive and intensity in their dogs (birdiness) from the very early days usually through repetitive uncontrolled retrieving. This is done to such an extent that a powerful desire is created in our dogs to hunt and retrieve too early in their training making them very difficult for the ‘ordinary’ hunter to train and control. Professional and experienced trainers can usually build up the drive at a young age and then with their experience, introduce and develop control. For the everyday hunting man, or even the hunting man who takes over a dog trained in this manner, this type of dog can be ‘too much dog’. The foundation of a good hunting dog therefore has to be basic obedience and a step-by-step approach to the hunt and retrieve with control achieved at each stage.
Some pups display more of an interest in retrieving than others, but I am always amazed at how many owners are not able to recognize the multitude of opportunities that their puppy consistently presents to them. It’s a shame not to take advantage of this natural carrying instinct during the first few months of the pup’s life. When I start ‘play training’ with a young pup I have a preference for using a puppy bumper, a tennis ball, a knotted handkerchief or especially a ‘parcel’ of old smelly socks (they are very popular). Unless the pup is having problems I do not retrieve with anything else. If he is not interested in a particular retrieve ‘object’ then I find something that he is fond of carrying and use it as the ‘special’ retrieving ‘bumper’. Something else I do that might be helpful to encourage your pup to retrieve is, I put scent onto the retrieve object by spitting on it and rubbing the spittle into the fabric.
Initially, to not be overwhelming and to encourage a good return, crouch down low or sit on the floor with your legs outstretched. Have the pup by your side or between your legs, held lightly with your hands. Tease it with the bumper and throw it only a short distance – 3 or 4 yards. Little tugs of war with a small object can encourage the pup to hold and carry, but be careful not to do this too much as the dog may refuse to let go when you need it to. (I only play ‘tug’ with a dog that is not good at carrying and holding). When you throw the bumper immediately let the pup go saying the word ‘fetch’ to introduce the command. Then as soon as the pup becomes keen you can begin to restrain him gently for one to three seconds before allowing him to go for the retrieve introducing the beginnings of steadiness. Maintaining a crouched or sat position encourage your pup to come in close to your body with the bumper by tapping the inside of your thighs. Stroke under his chin, on his chest and down his back but don’t take the bumper and absolutely do not reach or grab for it. One reason I stroke under the chin and not on top of the head is to help the pup to hold the object longer and lift his head at the same time. Keep in mind that sitting and presenting nicely is not necessary at this stage of training. After pup has held the bumper next to you for a few seconds, put your hand slowly under it and say ‘drop’. Gently take the bumper and hold it yourself for a few seconds, before returning it to pup once more to hold. Don’t let him leave, but continue to gently restrain and pet him before taking the bumper again. This technique teaches the pup that you are sharing a retrieve, to stay with you, and to trust you. In time he will become confident and happy to return to you with his retrieve.
Because retrieving is the big reward I use this to develop many of the controls and basic obedience I demand in a hunting dog and encourage this interest in my young puppies from the age of seven weeks. What I do not do is keep throwing bumper after bumper. If I get two or three nice retrieves I stop there. I teach ‘sit’ before I throw a bumper and the little dog learns this so much quicker because it relates it to the fun reward of a retrieve. I call the pup with a bumper twirling in my hand and crouch down to greet it before going through a retrieve routine. Pup quickly learns that the commands mean fun begins once he does them. As soon as I have a pup wanting to retrieve and bring it back to me I begin to introduce memory retrieves. A memory retrieve is where I drop a bumper and then take the pup away from it on leash before turning around, sitting him and sending him back for the retrieve with a clear signal. Initially this may be only a few yards but the distance can be quickly built up. In this way the pup learns not to go immediately for the retrieve and it certainly helps to build his memory and focus. I then begin to introduce more control by holding the pup for longer periods of time and not allowing him to just run and chase the bumper – I crouch down or hold pup on a leash and make him wait for a few seconds before sending. Never send when he is struggling to go for the retrieve but gently restrain and wait until he is sitting still and calmly.
I keep my retrieving bumpers and tennis balls away from the dogs unless we are in a training session. They are not left around for the dog to play with and no one is allowed to go out and play ‘crazy’ fetch with anything. If we want to create good habits in our dog we have to ensure that they are related to the good fun times we have together training. I also begin to teach a dog to stay for longer periods of time and will go myself and pick bumpers I have thrown. Again the aim is to get the little fella waiting for your command, increasing control and building patience and especially not anticipating what comes next.
With flushing dogs, initially I like to keep them close. The closer they are the more likely you are to be listened to and be in control. To keep them close, as I walk along behind them, I drop tennis balls or bumpers unseen, for them to find. Sometimes I have to stand still and encourage them back to find them but after a few successful finds they begin to realize that a recall whistle means there is a bumper down and that the ‘treasure’ they seek is not fifty yards away but close to me. Once a dog has experience picking birds such a pigeons, this becomes an even bigger reward as they find pigeons close to you. Some hunters may feel that the dog will then always stay close and never cover the area they need to find wild birds. However, my experience has been, that as the dog gets real hunting and scent in its nose, it naturally begin to take in more ground. But by that time it should understand the commands you have taught and be far more responsive.
In the early days of training with a young spaniel or a pointer I do not let them relate the retrieve to the find. In other words I teach the point or encourage a good flush but do not allow them the retrieve immediately. I keep retrieve training and flush training separate until I am confident I am in control of both. If there is a constant find, shot, fetch – very quickly a dog will begin to anticipate and chase the moment a shot is fired or even worse, before and a pointer may begin to move in to the game too quickly as its natural enthusiasm takes over and the controlled point disappears. To reduce the chance of breaking I teach my dogs to sit not only to the ‘sit’ command and a single whistle blast but also to the flush of a bird, and to a shot going off.
As I mentioned previously all hunting dogs are specialists, and some will require more specialisation training than others. Training a hunting dog is not just a matter of obedience and control, but preparing them during training for the main jobs they will be expected to perform. Although the basics of gundog training may be the same for all dogs to gain the foundations of control and obedience while developing their natural instincts, there are ways in which an owner can give their dog experience which will help both of them in their hunting partnership.
I learned one specific skill with the first spaniel I ever owned many years ago. We were in Scotland on holiday and I had taken Sam with me. We were doing water retrieves as I had some duck hunting at the time and wanted him to be good in water. One of the bumpers I was using must have had a puncture because after a few retrieve it became waterlogged and began to sink. Sam had been sent for this and as it went down just under his nose he put his head underwater and picked it. I found this amazing and amusing as you can imagine so I used the bumper again and this time made him wait a little longer before sending him. The water depth was enough for him to swim, I would guess only about two to three feet deep. The retrieve was short but again as he got to the spot where the bumper had disappeared he put his head under and went down to bring it up. He became one of the best retrievers of diving wounded ducks I have ever had through this lesson we learned by accident. By use of an anchor of some nature and using a light line attached to the bumper, you can pull a bumper under water as the dog reaches it and teach him to look under water. By bobbing it up and down you can simulate a duck diving and then resurfacing. Use a light line and let go of it the moment the dog has the bumper in its mouth to avoid any tangling of his legs. Alternatively, as I did accidentally, use a sinking bumper and start very near the shore building up distance and depth as your dog gains experience.
Owners who want their dog to go dove or duck hunting should introduce a blind during training and have decoys out in a field to introduce their dog to working with these accessories. By doing specialised training in this way your dog will become familiar with decoys and the hide, and the first time he is taken out in the field be less likely to take blind and poles with him on the first retrieves or frustrate you by checking out each decoy as the wounded bird hobbles away. The same is true of duck hunting where a platform or special boat is used. A dog has to be trained to be calm and wait on a platform or in a boat, as well as knowing how to get on a platform or in and out of the boat.
Working often in heavy woodland or in poor light, I found that my dogs needed to mark the fall of a bird by sound as much as sight. To provide experience a friend and myself go out together and take turns at firing a starting pistol and throwing a bumper into woodland or over rushes and reeds into the water. Firstly we do it so the thrower can be seen but then progress to firing a shot and throwing bumpers so all the dog hears is the gun and a splash or crash in cover. Some dogs learn to mark the fall by sound very quickly, and, as a bonus, it also teaches them to hunt on their own initiative once they think they are in the right area.
A dog does not always see a bird shot, especially when the cover is tall grass or heavy cover. What your dog needs in these situations is gun sense, the ability to realise that in front of the gun that fired is the bird. Some dogs quickly develop the skill, others have to be taught when he hears or sees the shot being taken, to observe the direction the gun has been pointing and upon command make for that place. Done enough times a dog begins to realise that the retrieve will usually be no further than 35 yards in front of the gun. A dog that has been taught to go to the gun that has been fired and understands that following gunshot scent results in a retrieve at the end makes gun sense look second nature. This can be taught by using live cartridges during training to fire along the ground to where a bumper has been seen to be thrown and then progressing to unseen retrieves where a bumper is laying there previous to the shot and encouraging the dog to retrieve it by following that line of shot. Always remember to follow the same safety codes when training with live cartridges as you would be expected to at a shoot. There is no doubt that this form of training is very beneficial – a dog that works for and to the gun is a jewel to behold.
There are so many ways in training you can prepare the ordinary hunting dog for his specialised task and have lots of fun doing it. I am certain that dogs also enjoy the special challenges and variety these training situations present. I have mentioned only a few here and briefly, but do think about what you expect from your hunting dog, think about what it will need to do and then be creative in training and preparing him for these ‘ordinary’ tasks. But never ignore throughout the basic and essential foundation of obedience. If you do this I have no doubt he will be no ordinary hunting dog in other peoples eyes or even in your own from the first day you take him out.