START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON
‘Start as you mean to go on’. That was a motto my father always quoted to me whenever I did something new, It holds especially true with dogs as any minute spent with you is time when your dog is learning habits and behaviours. You are always training your dog and forming the foundations of your relationship. It is a lot more than just teaching basic commands. To be fair to your dog he has to know what is and is not expected in all circumstances. If you provide clear-cut understanding from the beginning then your dog knows where he stands. From the very beginning determine what will be thought of as good manners in your home and on a shoot. For example, you will want your dog to mix ‘politely’ with other people and dogs. You will want your dog to travel in the car, I would always recommend a dog box, and when you open the door you will want him to wait until invited to enter or leave it. It is worth spending a little time making a list of what you consider good behaviour and include behaviours acceptable to your family. Dogs are opportunists and they have no clear idea initially of what is right and what is wrong. If you allow your pup to jump up on you he will, and then others. If he is allowed onto the furniture as a pup he will consider this an accepted behaviour. Remember that cute little pup will one day be much bigger and sometimes dirty, and very wet. .
I have found that when you are teaching your dog what is required, it is far better to remove the opportunities for mistakes. In this way your dog has fewer options. Using a leash which keeps the dog attached to you is one way of doing this and used correctly the leash is one of the best training tools you have available. Limiting distractions, and using enclosed areas, environmental and man made barriers are all useful methods to restrict options open to your dog. By being able to show your dog exactly what pleases you and ensuring that he enjoys the training through praise and reward, the ‘clean slate’ in his mind will fill with all the right messages.
‘Sit’ and ‘Here’ are the main actions upon which many of the future work of your pup will depend – they are the real foundations upon which we will build. I prefer to teach sit in a variety of ways, and never resort to just one method. If only one method is used then the dog often associates sit not with the word vocalized but with the action you perform to get him to sit. Initially I will sit on the floor and encourage pup to come up close to my body either in between my legs or by my side. Then while I’m stroking down his back with one hand, the other will be resting on his chest to stop him moving forward. Stroking and holding should be firm but gentle. As I stroke down his back I put a little pressure on the rump guiding him down into a sit. Once he begins to sit down easily each time to just finger pressure I introduce the word ‘Sit’ verbally just before he feels the pressure. Always praise with a calm and soft voice when he does it correctly, but never allow him to stand the moment he hears praise – I prefer to keep him sat for a few seconds and increase the time as he becomes familiar with the training exercise. Another method you can use is with pieces of dog biscuit or kibble. Again get low to the floor, sit or crouch, encourage your dog up to you and as he comes in let him sniff the food in your fingers. He may nibble at them but do not allow him to take it. As he does, lift your hand slowly and guide his nose upwards with the food as you attempt to move your fingers up towards his forehead. You will actually be raising his head and arching his neck in this way causing his rump to sit down on the floor without even touching him. Praise and give him the small piece of biscuit (make these pieces very small, finger nail size). Again associate the word ‘sit’ with this just before you go through the action as you show him the biscuit between your fingers. This action will help when you introduce the sit to hand signal. You can also use feed time in several ways to teach and reinforce the sit. Take out a piece of kibble and use as previously described or stand with the food bowl in hand and wait until your pup sits in frustration that it has not been put down. Immediately praise and put the food down. Once more begin to put the command ‘sit’ in front of the action.
When he has been shown how to sit and knows what it means you can now request your pup to sit before any rewards he will receive. In this way get him working for his rewards – nothing comes free. Teach him to sit at the door before going outside, sit in the kennel before the door is opened, sit in the car before being invited out, sit before being greeted by guests, and of course sit before a thrown retrieve. Too often a dog associates sit with a correction or punishment because the action has been taught too harshly or it has been used harshly to stop an unwanted behaviour. Sit should be fun and reinforcement of the habit through a correction should only be employed when the dog is recognized to be wilfully disobeying.
The same holds true for the recall. It should be fun coming back to you and here once more there are multiple methods you can use. In the beginning it should mean the start of something good. ‘Here’ means come up to me and there is a reward. In training I do not use the dogs name to call him to me as the name is used and heard so many times during the day, and not only for calling him. The name is just an attention getter, so if you want to use his name, say his name first (to catch attention) and then say ‘Here’. Personally I do not allow my young dogs to go wandering around freely without me. I want them to feel I am part of their group and they may be called by me at any time. This teaches them that no matter what they are doing they have one eye and one ear on me. Since dogs are always learning I never let them go out in the fields or garden without being with them myself. When you call your pup, get down low, crouch or even sit on the ground and encourage the pup right up to your body. They are much more confident and interested in coming up to you when you are at their level. Never reach or grab. Keep your arms close to your body in front of you or tap your thighs and let them come right in. Slowly rub under chest and on shoulders and gently praise. Remembering to stay away from the top of the head. If your pup is reluctant to return, call him at dinnertime with food in hand, take out some kibble or use a biscuit to encourage him close into you. If you are using the leash, give a gentle tug and encourage once the dog has taken a step towards you. Timing of praise is important and the best time to praise and encourage is the moment the pup has turned and made the decision to come. Not when it has arrived. Tell the pup it has made the right decision by praising, even if he just looks and is thinking about it. There is a well-known saying among dog trainers, ‘the best time to call a dog is when it is returning’. So when your dog is coming to you tell him ‘Here’ and praise so the association between word and action is made. If your dog is so far away that there is no hope of it coming when called or is distracted, go closer, attract attention and then call. Never chase, it is far better to run away and encourage your pup to chase or follow you. Then stop and crouch down to encourage him all the way up.
If you train the ‘sit’ and ‘come when called’ soundly in your pup in the early days and develop good habits around the home, these will provide a sound basis on which to build your future gun dog training program. Show, teach and guide your dog into the right actions, delivering praise and reward when he gets it right. If you work at this and insist, – gently, firmly and fairly – on the correct behaviour each time, it will eventually become habitual.