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Keep Them Close

Keep Them Close

It wasn’t all that long ago that I was talking about and encouraging you to get your spaniel going. Now with the season  starting and plenty of young game about it may be that it is  advisable to talk about keeping them under control and hunting a  good pattern  whilst they are going. One of the traps that many  handlers  fall  into is allowing their dogs to pull  steadily  away from them until at times they are working out of gunshot  range. The  solution many handlers seem to adopt is to walk as fast  as possible  to keep up with the dog. This leaves you with  another problem  which is that in walking at a speed necessary  to  keep within  gunshot  you are probably missing a lot  of  ground  and cover which could hold that elusive rabbit or bird.

Your  dog  needs to be trained to work an effective  pattern  of ground which takes into account wind direction, scenting  conditions and type of cover. This pattern should be such that  nothing  is  left  unchecked, every tussock,  bush,  bramble  scrub, whatever  has  to be gone through and worked well. Some  of  the early  trials  this year have been run in  awful  weather,  with heavy  rain,  wet ground, tucked in rabbits  and  poor  scenting condition  demanding dogs that cover, in fact run  over,  nearly every  inch of ground. Even hunting a foot one side of a  rabbit usually meant that it was missed, as scent  was just not  carrying. These extreme conditions are rare but they do occur.  There are  some grounds where scent is notorious for being poor,  what causes  it  we can only guess at, and not only are  there  these grounds that produce little scent but even odd corners of usually  good scenting ground can be poor, so the essential  training in your hunting is to get your pattern right.

When  hunting a young dog I like to have ground where I can  see it  at  all  times, reeds and rushy grass is  ideal,  but  light woodland bottom and stubble turnip can also be perfect. In other words  somewhere that you can keep in touch. Generally when  you first cast a dog off to hunt after it has been waiting, the pent up  energy releases itself into a rush and if you are not  ready your dog has gone too far ahead of you before you can touch  the whistle.  So be prepared the moment you cast your dog off,  have the  whistle in your mouth and concentration on  ‘turbo’.  Where possible  I  always prefer to hunt a dog into the  wind.  It  is difficult to teach a dog to take the wind direction into account when quartering, 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 event pattern. When you do cast it off, cast it to the side and don’t move forward, give it  the turn  whistle  and bring it back across the front of  your  body making sure that in those first steps you don’t walk over ground that  hasn’t  been  worked. Get your dog going  in  the  flowing ‘windscreen wiper’ pattern from the very beginning. Even if your dog  ignores  the first turn whistle get out  and remind  it  to turn  with a tug of the ear or a pull of the fur under the  chin pulling it towards you with a pip-pip of the whistle. Some  dogs turn  on the whistle, look at you, see you are  walking  forward and come across in front much too far ahead. If this happens try standing  still as you blow the turn whistle and  watch  whether your  dog  turns more towards you, coming into your body  as  it quarters.  If  it doesn’t, give a  recall whistle as  it  turns, bringing it in close before casting it 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 it is expected to cross close to you,  and  a much ‘flatter’ pattern will result.

A  ‘flatter’  pattern where the dog is only moving a  few  yards forward as it completes each beat means that it has more  opportunity of finding game simply because the pattern it is  hunting must  put  it  very close to the scent of  anything  tucked  in. During  any  training or even shooting sessions I keep  my  dogs working very close, especially a young dog. I can keep in  total control  this  way and they also begin the think  that  all  the pleasures  in life come from being close to me. If I allow  them to range too far and  find game they will believe that is  where all  the fun lies and it is where they will want to be. A  young dog will tend to bore forward as well as going out to the  side, avoid this by turning it and not allowing the dog to go too  far ahead.  Keep them patterning tight, no more than  fifteen  yards either  side and five yards ahead. If you find there  are  large bushes  that  need  working, direct the dog into  the  bush  and within  seconds  use the recall whistle to bring  it  out  again before  putting it back in once more. This is essential  with  a young  inexperienced dog to make sure it realises you are  still in  control  even though you may be out of  sight.  Under  these bushes  lurk the dangers of running pheasants and rabbits.  Your dog will quickly learn bad habits if it gets away with misdemeanours because you cannot see what is happening. Can you  imagine if,  out  of sight, your dog flushes a rabbit, and has  a  short chase before the rabbit goes down a bury. You, not knowing  what has happened, recall the dog on the whistle  and then praise  it for  returning. Your dog however is still remembering the  chase which  the  praise reinforces, and that is not  quite  what  you meant.

In  the  early days with a young dog experiencing game  for  the first time, don’t be afraid to use the whistle regularly to turn him, bring him back in, and stop him on the flush. Learn to play the  whistle  like a ‘controller’ and make sure  that  he  obeys every  time, obeying the second blow is one blow too  late.  You may feel that you are blowing the whistle too much, but  providing  you are doing it correctly and at the right time,  after  a while  you will need to blow the whistle less and less.  However always be ready for the reminder if ever there is a  distraction which  just pulls your dog that little bit further than is  safe or good for the hunting pattern.

When  you get into more haphazard cover such as scrub and  woodland you cannot expect your dog to still work the perfect  left, right  pattern  and it can miss ground, so this  is  where  your skills come in, helping the dog to maintain it’s flow but at the same time making sure that the bush he has overlooked is checked by  directing  him to it. If you miss it, you can  bet  that  is where a bird is hiding.

Hunting  a spaniel well needs practice, many handlers  seems  to spend  considerable time on retrieving and handling  their  dogs onto retrieves but unless we get the hunting right with a  spaniel we probably will have little to retrieve anyway.