Now that another shooting season is upon us, I feel sure, based on past experience, that there are many owners of novice dogs who cannot wait to get out and test their dog’s mettle in battle conditions. Perhaps now, therefore, as the novice dog is introduced into its first season, a word of caution is appropriate. It is at this time that the handler, who may be a novice himself, should be proceeding with caution. It may be that you have managed over many months to train the dog yourself and are justifiably proud of your prowess. On the other hand, you may have elected to have him trained by a professional and, if so, probably at no small expense. It is surely madness then to jeopardise all your effort and/or expense by throwing caution to the winds in the first few months of a new shooting season.

From the moment you step on to your shooting ground, you must decide whether you are going to be a shooting man or a dog handler for the rest of your dog’s first shooting season. If you are under the illusion that your dog is now trained and, like some machine, will go into automatic overdrive from the word go, then you can rest assured you will live to regret it. Accomplishing success or failure will depend on whether your handling imparts upon your dog’s experience positively or otherwise during those early crucial months. You would be amazed at the number of dogs returned for remedial training simply because the owner didn’t listen or was too lazy to act upon the advice given when the dog was demonstrated to him at the end of its initial period of training. On the other hand, it never ceases to amaze me that an owner, having spent many months training the dog himself, completely loses concentration on the dog due perhaps to the adrenaline rush as the dog finds and flushes the first bird and consequently all that has been worked for over many months can be undone in those few vital moments.

Dogs have all too frequently been returned to me with the plaintive cry, “He’s running into shot.” Who or what does the owner blame?

Well you can bet it will be everybody and everything except himself. He’ll deny, of course, that he has ignored the golden rule given to

him at the end of training, which would have been to ration the dog’s retrieves throughout the first season and has instead been sending him for every bird shot. Fortunately the cure is simple, and it is not, as one “expert” advised for dogs running into shot, to take the dog into a rabbit pen.

The secret is to avoid creating the problem in the first place and not to exacerbate the problem by creating another. To take a dog into a rabbit pen to solve running into shot is ludicrous, for you will be in grave danger of creating another problem ? running into flush. To solve the dilemma there should be just you, the dog and solitude, in order to re-implant in his mind that a shot is not a signal to retrieve.

The cure involves no distractions. A slip lead of perhaps 3m (no longer, as you don’t want to injure the dog’s neck) is attached to him. Sit him in the corner of a field and, standing with your foot on the lead, which should be lying loosely along the ground, fire a dummy from a launcher, commanding “Sit”. If he disobeys, he will get a rude awakening when he is brought abruptly to a sudden halt at the end of the lead. Next, take him back to the same spot where he had been sitting, and rebuke him there ? not before. Firmly shake him by the scruff of the neck, commanding gruffly “There, there, sit, sit”. Reposition the lead and repeat the lesson. As soon as he obeys and stays steady, praise him and walk out, repeating, “Sit, good boy, sit”. Keeping your eye on him, pick up the dummy and return to give him lavish praise.

That is all there is to it. All that remains is to repeat the lesson over and over again, letting him retrieve once in every four or five times until you are sure that he has got the message. From then on, throughout the season, allow him to retrieve one in three birds and always give the “Sit” command at every shot. Keep him waiting a moment before sending him for a retrieve. Never allow your dog to take retrieving for granted.

The question of when it is advisable to try the novice dog on a runner for the first time is one to be approached with great caution. Personally, I would tend to wait until the dog has had a few full shooting days before trying testing him on a runner. Here again, care has to be taken in choosing the type of wounded game. If it is a cock pheasant, leave it to a more experienced dog, for it may be too heavy and cumbersome ? moreover, there is always the danger that a cock may spur a young dog and put him off retrieving or, worse still, encourage him to grip and kill future runners. Neither would I advocate sending a young inexperienced dog for a hare, due to the weight involved. A duck is also a poor initiation for an novice dog, for it may give him a nasty tweak with its big flat beak and this may also discourage him or teach him to grip in the future.

Therefore, it can be seen that there is not much choice left; the favoured would be a “leggy” rabbit, a hen pheasant or a partridge. For the first coupe of runners it is advisable to follow the young dog at a respectable distance to ensure that he is on the line and not wandering all over the place on a multitude of different scents. Perhaps the most important rule which a professional trainer would have instructed you in, is to work him tight at all times throughout his first season, keeping him within a close pattern of ground treatment. If, on the other hand, you have trained him yourself, you may not be aware of the importance of such a strict regime, indeed may feel it unnecessary.

Allow me to point out the folly of such a cavalier attitude. Until your dog enters his first shooting season, he will not have been subjected to much temptation and, most important of all, he has not acquired any significant experience. All that is about to undergo a rapid change within the first few hours, as he is introduced to a multitude of exciting different scents and strange noises. Over the next few times he goes shooting with you, he will begin to differentiate and recognise the scents of the various fur and feather species.

As he gradually begins to realise the killing power of the gun and what his role is, he will, little by little, take up a few more inches to each side of his beat, which may go unnoticed by you as you are engrossed in the overall ambience; then he will take up ground in front, to the extent that, before you realise it, he is committing the cardinal sin hunting and flushing game out of shot. This is usually due to his excitement and obvious lack of control, but it will lead to the inevitable chasing game. Moreover, if he has a good nose, he will clear the game into the next parish. From that moment on, you will not be flavour of the month with your shooting companions.

Over the first season, then, an owner should abandon to a certain extent his shooting role and concentrate on being a dog man first.