More Gun Work
In familiarization with the gun we talked about introducing our dog to the gun but there is far more to gun work than just this. Once we have introduced the gun and our dog is familiar with the sound and movement we can then use the gun to teach him other aspects of work in the shooting field. Work that will help us put game into the bag and be proud of our dog’s ability.
Early on in training when your dog is steady and you are teaching him to mark the fall, begin point your arm above his head in the direction of the fall. In this way your dog begins to look along your arms for the fall and becomes familiar with your arms moving above his head and indicating the direction of a fall. Some trainers use a walking or plain stick and point it in the direction of the fall. The aim as always is to help your dog look in the direction and mark a shot bird. I have to add here, never use this stick to hit your dog as this can easily make him shy of a gun being raised. In my training I use my arm and accompany the movement with the command ‘mark’, often clapping my hands together to make a ‘crack’ before pointing in the direction I want him to take. As I progress and my dogs become aware not only of this but my body angle and movement I phase it out so they become accustomed to moving their body with mine and face in the direction a bird will fall. However, in the competitions I run in America we have to fire a shotgun using blanks in the direction of marked and unseen retrieves. Training with a gun a dog very quickly begins to learn that if one has been fired and it runs out in the direction the gun was pointed it will find a retrieve, even if it has not seen a fall. This is a real scenario for hunters who go out and shoot over their dogs, and therefore of great benefit to teach. Even dogs that hunt the ground out in front of you and have not seen the flight of a bird or run of a rabbit learn to look at the gun and see where it is pointing.
When teaching your dog to work with the gun, take your time pointing and firing and afterwards hold your gun pointing for a few seconds in the direction of the fall. Give your dog every opportunity to see it and where it is pointing. In an earlier article I mentioned the use of live shot and this can be of benefit here. Live shot along the ground leaves a trail that your dog will learn to follow, once more helping him to learn how to work with the gun in the field. Again as before, I cannot emphasise enough that safety has to be of paramount importance at these times.
Training a dog with a shotgun in your arms is good training, not only for the dog but also for yourself. All too often we train without the gun and then when we do use it in the field we are not practiced at handling both dog and gun together. Fumbling and uncertainty leads to different actions than you have used in training, cause your dog to dog misinterpret what you want and in doing so easily damage earlier training.
The sound of a shot should not mean ‘fetch’ but ‘Sit and concentrate until I send you’ and it is important to teach your dog to sit to shot and to stay until sent. This is quite easy to do by firing a gun and then commanding ‘sit’ or blowing the ‘sit’ whistle, but this control is all too easy to lose. As a hunter we often want to get the bird or rabbit back to hand as speedily as possible and therefore in our urgency send our dogs too quickly. This is especially true if the bird or rabbit is wounded and looks as though it may be lost. However ‘running in’ is very unsafe. Some wildfowlers have told me they want their dog to run in to ensure they do not lose a bird on the tide or down river but I always feel if your dog sits to the gun and is steady you can always send him quickly or slowly with the word ‘fetch’. So teach your dog to sit to the shot and also to remain steady for increasing lengths of time.
For wildfowlers, and pigeon shooters steadiness to shot and falling birds is essential as the sight of a dog dashing out on a retrieve can easily scare incoming birds. It may be many minutes before you can send your dog when there is a lull in the shooting so train him to wait. On a formal shoot of course, it may be as much as an hour before the keeper wants your dog picking up dead birds, and a dog running into a drive can quite easily spoil the whole day reducing the popularity of your dog and yourself to an all time low. Even when rough shooting the sound of the gun or its movement should never mean ‘fetch’, if your shooting is anything like my own you will occasionally miss – well maybe more than ‘occasionally’. When this happens the last thing you want is your dog rushing out and looking for a non-existent retrieve, and disturbing other game you could have had a shot at.
Often in training, when we have introduced the gun, we ask an assistant thrower to fire it to catch the dog’s attention and indicate the direction of a fall or where a dummy could be laying for an unseen retrieve. This is good training but for the shooting man in the field it is usually himself that is firing the gun. All too often I have seen dogs out for the first time and, although familiar with the sound of the gun, they do not realize it has been fired by their owner and are looking in all directions simply because it has always been fired by someone else. Some places echo when a gun is fired, and some magnify the sound of the shot. In these instances your dog can look completely confused and even rush off in the wrong direction when sent. Our reaction is to think he is being stupid or willful when really he is doing what his brain tells him is right to find a retrieve. Be aware of these situations and if possible train using the gun in a variety of environments.
If you hunt your dog like a spaniel, teach him to sit to the shot at a distance and to be sent in the direction the gun has pointed and where your dog is sat by your side teach him to look along the barrels and see where they are pointing because that is the direction to take. To put game into the bag there is nothing better than a dog that works to and for the gun. I have had a number of spaniels that learned to work game out of cover to where I was stood waiting with gun in hand. I often thought that this was a sign of intelligence and a natural thing for a dog to do where a true hunting partnership has been established. However I think we can help this to happen more often by teaching our hunting dogs to go into certain pieces of heavier cover such as a round bramble thicket a little ahead, and work it back in our direction. Often, in training a hunting dog, I will let him go into the cover and then encourage him back towards me where I have hidden a dummy or ball. Initially I did this because it was easy to put a dummy down, without him seeing me, just in front of where I was stood and inside the edge of the cover. Now I do it to get him to work towards me and realize that if there is game it is more likely to be in front of where I am stood. Of course the advantages of training this are that a dog is generally closer, therefore easier to control and we have a better chance of shooting whatever bursts from the cover. He will also then see the gun, the direction of the shot and learn quickly how he can get his ‘reward’ of a retrieve.
When rough shooting put your dog into a tangle of cover where it will be advantageous for scent or there is an opening, and then move around to the side where your dog is pushing any potential game. If the game flushes before your dog emerges and he sits in the cover where he cannot see, it can help him to call him out to a place where he can see you pointing your gun and command ‘sit’. The clever dogs quickly learn to move out and wait at a vantage point on the edge of the cover when there is a flush, and where, if they cannot see the direction the game has taken, at least can see the direction your gun is pointing.
In the field, shooting over our dogs the gun is an important part of the scenario and can create many problems for your dog or help make it a memorable day. Dogs do learn so much from training them with the gun, so use it sensibly in your training program firing it yourself and getting others to fire them for you. In this way you will both be prepared.