The search for a new shooting companion will start soon, but choose wisely as there is a big difference between Labradors and spaniels

As the shooting season draws to a close it is time for us to reflect on what has gone well with our gundogs, but more importantly what has gone wrong and will need working on during the spring and summer months. For a few of us the search for a new shooting companion will start in earnest and the cycle of rearing and training a pup or bringing on a part-trained dog will start all over again.

At Gamegoer we breed the occasional litter and it never fails to amaze me how many people contact us to ask if we have a particular colour of dog or that they are looking to buy a Labrador or a cocker spaniel – there is a big difference between Labradors and spaniels and it not only their size! One question I always ask is what do they plan to use the dog for: beating, picking-up or shooting? This should be the starting point when choosing a working gundog breed and then the next stage is obviously the potential owner’s domestic circumstances. Another factor that I think is important is the person’s personality, for example: are they going to be the type of individual that will be able to cope with the hustle and bustle of a lively spaniel pup or would one of the retriever breeds be more suitable? In truth, you need to think very carefully about what breed of gundog will be suitable and whether you have the time and personality to work with and train your chosen dog.

Cocker spaniel in field

If you decide to use a spaniel just for driven shooting, really concentrate on its retrieving and steadiness

Spaniels

I have recently been following a thread on social media about how to start off a young spaniel. The question that was posted asked whether you should: A) start with basic retrieving? B) start with basic hunting? C) start with basic obedience? As to be expected the answers were varied, but some interesting points came out. Many people, myself included, like to start with a mixture of all three, but there were plenty of people that were adamant that a spaniel’s job is to hunt and that must take priority. That’s fine if you only plan to work your dog in the beating line, but for most owners at some point you will want your dog to retrieve. If your spaniel has been bred from working lines the chances are that it will have a strong hunting instinct in its genes and if you develop this too much you may well have a real job on your hands to get it to pick-up any retrieve.

I like to develop a strong retrieving desire in all my spaniel pups, and as things progress they soon learn to get their noses down and start to “hunt” for a dummy or tennis ball. Over the years I have found that by getting them really excited about picking tennis balls or small dummies I can then use this desire to hone their hunting instincts, quite simply they learn to hunt for the retrieve. On the other hand, if you were to take your young pup out on to scanty ground and just keep hunting it you would soon find it has no other interest other than getting its nose down and hunting for itself. Experienced trainers will have the skill, knowledge and time to rectify a wayward spaniel, but for the novice it can be a total nightmare and it is all too easy to end up with a dog that is totally out of control.

Going back to my earlier point about asking yourself what you want to do with your gundog, some spaniels are just not suited to sit on a peg all day and although they can and will do it, I am never sure they particularly enjoy it. If you do decide to use a spaniel just for your driven shooting, then I would suggest you really concentrate on retrieving and steadiness and more importantly do not look at a pup that has a lot of “high drive” field trial champion lines in its pedigree.

Gundog retriever

Most retriever breeds will be used for driven and walked-up shooting and picking-up

Retrievers

For hundreds of years the retrieving breeds have been developed for one main function and that is quite simply to retrieve. It is unusual for a client to bring along a Labrador or indeed a golden retriever that won’t actually pick anything up, however the problems are inevitably a bad delivery and poor obedience and these are normally due to the early stages of training being rushed. A retriever also needs to learn how to take hand signals and hunt and hold a defined area – this is a vital skill when you’re out shooting and see a bird drop but the dog has been unsighted and you have to handle the dog into the area. These are all skills that can be developed from an early stage of the pup’s training by hiding balls in rough areas of grass and letting the dog try to find them. They will be able to smell the ball but not see it, so they gradually learn to work out the area until they are successful.

In the majority of cases, the retrieving breeds will be used for either driven or walked-up shooting or picking-up, but they can be trained to hunt up to be used for rough shooting. It should be accepted that they will never be as efficient as a spaniel in this task, but it is a compromise as on one hand you may require them to work at a distance and the next you want them to hunt in nice and close and remain within gunshot. If you ask any gundog to “multi-task” you should be prepared to allow them some leeway in their performance.

Whatever breed you settle on, the very early stages of the dog’s training will be some of the most important lessons that it will learn and it is far better not to develop bad habits right from the start. Even more important is to make sure that you have made the right choice according to what you would like the dog to do in the shooting field and whether that breed suits your individual personality.

Graham Watkins runs Gamegoer Gundogs and has been professionally training gundogs for more than 35 years. He has competed in Field Trials and working tests, with several dogs achieving Champion and Winner titles.