The rabbit pen really is an extra special aid for gundog trainers. If used correctly, it can help develop steadiness to fur to its highest degree in a relatively short time. It can also be used to give a reluctant puppy more enthusiasm when hunting and investigating cover. For handlers with several dogs a year to train, some land and plenty of time to spare, building their own pen may be an option but it will need careful planning if the rabbits are to remain captive for very long. Half-grown wild rabbits can squeeze through the meshes of normal sized chain-link fencing, while adult rabbits can scale it with ease, particularly on the corners if they are not wired over. Ideally, the sides should be at least 6ft high, but this can be reduced if the top is turned inwards to thwart enthusiastic climbers. Be aware, however, that foxes can easily clear a lesser height an electric wire, as placed round release pens, can solve the problem.
Rabbits are great diggers, so the bottom of the fence should be turned inwards and buried. My own pen has an extra roll of 1in wire mesh attached to the bottom of the vertical fence and 2ft of it have been turned in and buried to a depth of a foot or so on the inside of the pen. As most rabbits try to start a burrow right next to the fence, this will have the desired effect of thwarting most of their efforts. I have, however, had the odd rabbit being so frustrated on reaching this obstacle that it chewed and tore at the wire until there was an escape hole through it, so the mesh in the ground needs to be a good heavy gauge.
The pen must be large enough to house the size of population living within, otherwise overcrowding will produce unnecessary casualties. While rabbits are believed to be social animals they can be very aggressive to one another when kept in cramped surroundings. Six wild rabbits in a ¼-acre pen are ample, ideally being of the same sex. Wild ones are best as they will hide and produce more natural flushes, whereas their less hardy tame cousins will tend to hop about in the open.
The larger the pen the more natural it will be for the trainee, but it must also be user-friendly for the trainer to enable a chase to be intercepted swiftly. For the welfare of therabbits they must have escape routes to safety such as artificial warrens or gaps through the bottom of internal fences through which they can run but which will baulk a rioting dogs progress. The rabbits must of course be fit and healthy, so regular access to fresh food and water is essential at all times. I recommend pony carrots, sugar beet, sprout and cabbage stalks, stale bread and bags of commercially produced dry rabbit mix. Myxomatosis is a dreadful disease but over time has become less effective, and it now has less than a 50 per cent kill rate among the rabbits in my pen.
To keep burrowing animals on the surface is a constant battle each morning a walk round with the spade to fill any new earthwork is essential, as once rabbits get a foot underground the burrow grows at an alarming rate. Should disease or mass escape occur, restocking the pen with wild rabbits is relatively easy with a couple of live catch traps baited with carrots. It all sounds a lot of work and, believe me, it is. If you can hire an established pen belonging to a professional, it will be money well spent.
Putting the pen to use
So now to the correct use of a pen. For all breeds, once they have been taught basic obedience and the sit and stay is perfect with added distractions such as thrown dummies, there is no reason why these obedience lessons should not be moved into the pen where the distraction of rabbits running past the stationary dog can be introduced. Heelwork can also be practised, making sure each time a rabbit runs past the dog stands steady or better still sits down immediately. For the hunting breeds, the next step is all dependent on the assessment of each individual pupils natural hunting instincts by the trainer.
The bold dog may be so keen to keep the rabbits in view, lured by the prospect of a chase, that it lifts his head and bounces all round the cover instead of diving in and hunting with its nose on the ground. Conversely, some young dogs may be apprehensive at first and need that initial chase to switch them into hunting mode.
The art in effecting the correct end result must be in the trainers ability to be one step ahead of the pupil. Knowing which way the rabbits are likely to bolt from each piece of cover in my pen gives me a distinct advantage over any dog. I can place myself in a position to intercept the over-enthusiastic youngster when it goes to move after flushing a rabbit. Physical punishment for chasing is completely unnecessary. With skilful intervention, the surprise element really works and a verbal reprimand, such as Aargh, may be all the correction that is needed to stop the dog firmly in its tracks. Every time it finds, flushes and stops, whether caused by my surprise presence or under its own volition, I make sure that I give plenty of reward for the act of stopping before immediately casting the dog off again with the command Gone away to hunt in the opposite direction from where the rabbit went.
These lessons in the pen are short so that the trainee retains the maximum enthusiasm throughout, plus there is a limit to the length of time I can keep my own concentration fully focused and, most importantly, I do not want to cause excess stress to the rabbits. Once the youngster is exercising good self-control and stopping to every flush without my instruction, I am able to introduce different forms of noise, starting with a clap of the hands, an airgun report, a starting pistol right through to the actual sound of the shotgun being discharged. Choosing the exact moment that the dog is focused on flushing a rabbit will allow me to introduce the different sounds gradually to desensitise the puppy and ensure it will not be afraid of gunfire in the shooting field. It will also associate the shot with actually stopping, another essential refinement for safety in the field.
Young retrievers are certainly not left out of all this pen training, but they can learn while at heel when the spaniel is hunting for the rabbits. Use an older reliable spaniel for the early lessons until you are sure that the retriever is not going to get involved. Then let the retriever sit in one strategic spot while the spaniel is at its work around the pen. Any movement must be corrected just as you did in basic obedience, but remember to keep rewarding good behaviour as well as giving any correction. Eventually the retriever should completely switch off and relax. This is an essential requirement for any peg dog, not only retrievers, but spaniels and HPRs as well, and this will only happen through regular practice and being exposed to live game in the controlled environment of a rabbit pen.
The rest of this article appears in 8 May issue of Shooting Times.
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