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.