To smack or not to smack? That is the question! There can’t be many subjects that are more contentious and emotive in the world of gun dogs (and parenting), than the thorny issue of punishment. Political correctness and the fear of sparking controversy is all around us which probably explains why very few people openly write about whether it is right or wrong to chastise their gun dog.
As with everything in life, some attitudes need to change, however all too often this leads to one extreme being replaced by another. Personally, I prefer the common sense approach, and this extends to the times I have to correct any of my own dogs, albeit in the field or out training.
So now to that big question: can it ever be right to chastise your gun dog? Yes, of course it can, as the vast majority of experienced and competent handlers would tell you. The real question should be what type of chastisement is acceptable and how frequent?
Gun dog discipline: tone of voice
For me, the best form of communicating any displeasure (or praise) is via the tone of voice. The power of this should not be underestimated, and is something that is very often overlooked. As for the frequency, this will depend first of all upon how well the dog has been trained, together with its character. Dogs are like people, they all have their own different personalities. Some are laid-back and easy-going, while others can be hard-headed and extremely wilful. By the same token, some exude confidence, while others have a distinct lack of it, and will need encouraging. As a consequence, all will require a different technique, and yes, at times this will involve a little physical handling.
Now at this point, and to avoid the possibility of any mass hysteria descending, let me be absolutely clear there can be very little justification for hitting and hurting a dog at any time. Apart from being downright cruel, this is also counter-productive, and all any person responsible will have achieved by doing so, is to have closed down the dog in question.
There can be no more of a pathetic sight than that of a dog which is sat next to its master, the zest for life clearly extinguished for fear of doing something wrong and the retribution that may well ensue. Some people may comment upon how well-behaved the animal is, however to those of you that have had a few dogs through your hands, the signs will be very clear.
And if a handler claims their dog has been fully trained, yet he or she is continually telling it off, then clearly this must be the fault of that individual, and not the dog.
Gun dog discipline: any physical handling must be proportionate
When teaching a young child, you are doing just that, teaching. The only way that a pupil will learn is by you demonstrating to them what you want, along with how they might achieve this. The same applies when training your dog, the main difference being that you cannot hold a full blown conversation with a dog as you can a child. Hence, you are reliant on tone of voice, and physically handling your dog.
So what type of physical handling is acceptable? Normally when a situation occurs, either to help teach a certain aspect of training, or to reprimand, the main form of physical contact used by many trainers is that of holding the scruff of the neck. But in any event, any physical contact must, above all, be proportionate.
So, by way of an example – when teaching steadiness, a young pup will always want to give chase when a ball or dummy is thrown. As we all know, it is normal practice to hold the pup back by the scruff, whilst giving the verbal command to sit. In time the pup will associate the verbal command with the physical handling that prevents him or her from running in, hence steadiness will be achieved. Equally when teaching a more wilful dog to sit and stay, it may be necessary, should the dog move, to then run out and place it back on the original spot from where it first wandered. It’s advisable to make sure that you show your displeasure by combining the scruff contact with tone of voice. If carried out correctly a couple of times, should the dog try to move again, tone of voice should suffice. When implementing a combination of common sense and sound judgement, by using scruff contact there is no danger that the dog may be hurt. Surprised yes, but not injured.
Gun dog discipline: exceptions to the rule
So can there ever be any exceptions to this? I believe so. Recently when out picking up, I witnessed one particular dog take a dislike to another. Prior to any conflict taking place, the handler, who was very experienced, quickly read the situation and gave his dog a sharp tap on the nose. Technically, this act comes under the ‘hitting’ category, so was he right? Yes, of course he was. For sure, the dog would have experienced a moment of discomfort but the reprimand was appropriate and proportionate. More importantly, he possibly saved both dogs from considerable face and neck traumas, not to mention blood loss, which can occur during a sustained dog fight.
Another example that comes to mind was when a relatively well-trained dog suddenly decided to give chase on sheep in the middle of a drive, much to the bemusement and anxiety of its handler. Fortunately, the individual concerned was a relatively spritely 50 year old, and was able to catch the dog in the act, whereupon he proceeded to smack it across the rump. So surprised was the dog at the actions of his usually genteel owner, that he has never chased livestock again to this day. Just as well, as the guns shooting on that day were the tenant farmers, one of whom owned the property being coursed!
None of this is particularly radical. However, as the last two scenarios clearly demonstrate, one size does not always fit all, and there can be no substitute for good old-fashioned common sense, with the emphasis being on ‘proportionate’, whilst also using one’s own moral compass.
Justin Clarke has produced both field trial winners and champions over the last ten years. Based in East Sussex, he regularly judges field trials and working tests. He is also the regional officer for BASC in the South East.