Hunting Under Control
We discussed in another article how to get your dog hunting and finding tennis balls and dummies and then progressed onto the use of the rabbit pen to get your dog enjoying hunting. Some owners do not have the convenience of a rabbit pen and have to work out in the open fields which can often prove very tempting for a dog, so let’s look at how we can utilize both to get a steady dog that will sit to flush and then wait to be sent.
In preparation for steadiness while hunting it is important that you have taught your dog to sit to a number of commands; the voice command ‘sit’, a whistle command – one toot, a raised hand, and in the future the shot from a gun. We are going to cover reliable sitting at a distance and to other actions such as the shot from a gun in the future issues.
At this stage I want my dog to understand that it has to sit to the verbal ‘sit’ command and also to one toot on the whistle. Usually this is most reliable when he is close to me as that is all I have taught at this stage. Personally the whistle I prefer is an Acme 210 1/2. To teach this, with your dog on a leash walk along, say ‘sit’, take one more step and then stop, lift the leash and guide your dog into a sit. The one-step forward after the command is to allow your dog time to react and then be sat alongside you. Once he is doing this reliably, again walk along, blow one long ‘toot’ on the whistle, say ‘sit’ and again lift the leash so your dog sits. Once he understands the whistle do not say sit but just lift the leash after blowing the whistle. Leave the leash on but let go of it and allow your dog then to run around a little with the leash loose. Call him towards you and as he gets close blow the ‘sit’ whistle and move towards him reinforcing it with a raised hand and the word ‘sit’ if necessary. If he does not sit, pick up the leash, blow the whistle and just raise the leash to put him into the sit position. when he is doing this you can then remove the leash and again do the same exercise reinforcing the sit by moving towards him and saying ‘sit’ after the whistle, if necessary. If you have taught the stay to your dog before being sent for a retrieve the next step becomes easy.
As your dog returns to you and comes close (within reliable whistle sit distance), blow the sit whistle. The moment he sits, throw a dummy over your head and behind your back so that he can see it but you are blocking the route to it. Be ready to move towards him and reinforce the sit with your voice and body action. When he sits and waits, praise gently with your voice and then move alongside him to face the direction of the dummy and send with a clear ‘fetch’. Take your time and do not rush. Make it clear and controlled. Once you find that your dog is beginning to sit and look for the dummy to be thrown, you can now begin throwing it to the side, so that you no longer block the route. Always be very attentive and quick to react at this stage, as this is where he can easily break and get to the dummy before you send him. Getting the dummy is the big reward for him, so make this a for waiting to be sent, and not for going immediately. If he does break and manage to get to the dummy, calmly take it from him, take him back to where he was originally sat, make him wait, throw the dummy back to the place it was, blow the ‘sit’ whistle, say ‘stay’, go back away to where you were originally stood, wait a few seconds, then return to his side and send him with a clear verbal and hand signal fetch command.
When you start doing this, some dogs will become hesitant in their hunting as they look to you to throw the dummy. To minimize this hide a dummy or tennis ball occasionally for him to find while hunting in between the sit and retrieve exercises. Once you have got steadiness to a dummy thrown to the side while he is hunting, throw the dummy closer and closer to him until you can toss a tennis ball right across his path, like a bolting rabbit. At this stage I would recommend that you begin to pick up as many retrieves you throw as those you send your dog for. If you do this randomly, he will not know when you are going to send him and when you will pick it yourself. This will reinforce the steadiness.
Now take this exercise a little further. After throwing a ball across the front of your dog and getting him to sit, call him up to you before lining him up for the retrieve and sending him with a clear hand signal. Again this increases the steadiness but it also develops his memory for what has fallen. Once he will do this reliably, call him to you, and do not send him but turn away in the opposite direction and ask him to seek on. Encourage him to hunt away from the throw and help him quickly find a dummy you have hidden in that direction previously. Once he has found this hidden dummy and delivered it, now turn around and send him for the one you initially threw. This will build trust and confidence in you and prepares your dog for occasions where a bird has been shot dead and you know there are other birds near which you want to have a shot at before picking afterwards.
There is a balance to achieve here, we want a dog that will hunt but yet be under control and attentive to something flying or running. With dogs that become very ‘sticky’ not wanting to hunt, a time in the rabbit pen or more hidden dummies and cold game usually loosens them up. What is nice to see is a dog that while hunting immediately stops and sits when he sees something flying or rolling across the ground. The movement becomes a command to sit. One little accessory that some trainers use is a bolting rabbit. This is usually a dummy covered with rabbit skin attached to a long length of catapult rubber. Stretched out across the path of a hunting dog it is released when he gets close so that it bounces in front and across him, creating quite a strong temptation.
These lessons now can be taken into the rabbit pen or the countryside where there is game. The rabbit pen is excellent because often you can see or anticipate where a rabbit is hiding and be prepared for the flush. In the countryside you have to have the ability to read your dog and know when there is something there hiding and ready to flush.
Whether in the rabbit pen or in the countryside repeat many of the moves you did when using dummies and tennis balls. Use both to give occasional retrieves and finds if at any time your dog appears to be losing interest. If you are lucky enough to have ground on which you are able to hunt and shoot rabbits, get someone else to shoot for you and do not send your dog for every rabbit shot. We will talk about this in another article but if you shoot you will not be concentrating totally on your dog and if you send him for everything shot he could easily begin to become unsteady at this stage
Wherever you are able to hunt your dog, keep him very close. Remember that you have only been stopping him on the whistle close up to you and further distances will not have the same control at this stage. In the rabbit pen, initially walk him at heel to a scrubby area where a rabbit could be laying and then be in a position to intercept his chase with your presence and a sit whistle.
There are two very good videos that show this, one is with Ian Openshaw “Basic Spaniel Training” and the other is with myself “Basic Gundog Training” from Paul French Videos.
It is a big step going from training grounds to the real thing, the temptation of a rabbit or bird being far greater than a dummy. One excellent way to get your dog hunting is to offer to ‘dog in’ around the boundaries of the shooting estates. Provided he is under control, many keepers welcome this as it stops their birds wandering. ‘Dogging in’ on a good estate with game gives your dog plenty of scent up his nose, he can get regular flushes and will see birds running ahead providing the opportunity to reinforce sit, recall and steadiness. But make sure it is ground where you can see your dog and keep in constant touch with him. What often reinforces the steadiness while ‘dogging in’ is that your dog does not associate birds being shot every time with the find and flush and therefore learns there is no reason to chase as nothing is coming down. However occasionally throw a dummy in the direction of the flush or even in a different direction and give him a retrieve so he begins to learn the association.