Nick Ridley looks at some of the pitfalls that a young dog can fall into on the beating line and provides sound advice on how to get out of them, or avoid them altogether
People often ask: “How old should my dog be before taking it into the beating line?” The truth is there is no straight answer — so much depends on the dog and the trainer’s ability. But the question every trainer should be asking themselves is: “Is my dog ready to go beating?”
Of all the participants on a shoot, a beater with their dog has the most potential to ruin a well-planned drive, so it is vital that the dog, whether a novice or a seasoned gundog, is well trained and that its handler is aware of the points at which things can go awry.
Getting the gundog steady
The main job of a dog in the beating line is to find and flush game. The volume of birds on the ground will vary from shoot to shoot, but a dog must be steady when faced with both flying and running birds.
During your dog’s initial training, you should have started by getting the dog steady to thrown tennis balls and dummies. This experience can then be made more “real” using a rabbit pen. Rabbit pens are a great method to polish a dog’s steadiness under controlled conditions and many trainers have pens for hire (that they also usually supervise) where the dog is exposed to plenty of scent and where they can learn that, unless told otherwise, they must sit steady regardless of what runs or flies past them.
In certain areas of the UK, the deer population has exploded and deer appearing on a shoot can be a huge temptation for novice gundogs. Here too, steadiness is essential. “It is practically impossible to set up a training scenario to prevent a dog from chasing deer, but in most cases the real problem is not that the dog chases, it is that the stop whistle has not been fully embedded,” says Neil Varney, gundog trainer and Shooting Times contributor. “Whatever a dog is doing, whether retrieving or hunting, when that stop whistle is blown the dog should stop.
“Go back to basics and make sure that lesson is fully understood and that the dog responds to the command immediately.”
Falling behind the line
One thing you may come across when working a dog in the beating line is that the line will often walk to the speed of beaters without dogs — and this tends to be a bit too fast, causing the dog to push on too quickly.
Ideally, you want to give your dog time to work the cover, especially bramble patches for example. But if there are lots of brambles you will quickly find yourself behind the line. And if you move on too fast, your dog will learn to avoid hunting the cover and just run around it.
If there are a lot of dogs working the line or the cover is thick, you may well hear the keeper give the command to “let the dogs work”, which should indicate to the beaters without dogs that they need to slow down. But otherwise don’t be afraid to ask the line to slow down a bit if there are areas that need dogging-out properly, especially on smaller shoots where every bird counts.
Out of control dogs
No matter where you go beating, you will come across out-of-control dogs and probably more so on smaller, more informal, shoots. The first thing to remember is that they are not your concern. But of course they can affect the way your own dog works.
Dogs by their nature are competitive animals and should another dog start to hunt out in front of your dog it can quickly cause your dog to pull on.
“If you have out-of-control dogs hunting in front of you, pull your own dog back into heel and keep it there until the offenders have cleared off back to their owners,” advises Berkshire-based trainer Graham Watkins. “Working a dog in the beating line is not a competition and you have invested a lot of time in training your dog, so it is vital you maintain its discipline.”
Covercrops creating problems for dogs
Some covercrops, such as wild bird mixes and root crops, can be great to work dogs in; others such as canary grass and maize can be the undoing of even the best-trained dogs.
Canary grass has become popular as a holding crop and, if it is topped off, it can be great in which to work a dog. But if it is left to its own devices it becomes tall and thick, so bear in mind that dogs working it can become quickly disorientated and lose their handler.
Something to watch for is that a dog may push to the outside of the crop and run forward, then try to work its way back to the beating line.
The telltale sign of this happening is if birds start to flush back over the beaters. Someone may shout that there is a fox or deer running around the flushing point, but more often than not it is a wayward dog from the beating line.
Hunting your dog in a stand of maize can be asking for trouble. Being planted in long rows, it is like a motorway for pheasants and a novice dog is more than likely to follow the footscent of the birds and just keep going. A good rule of thumb with maize is, quite simply, to keep your dog on a lead or at heel — something that the keeper on the shoot may instruct in any case.
Tom Masters, headkeeper at the Bosmore Park estate in Oxfordshire, reveals: “I always ask my beaters to keep their dogs under tight control or on the lead when working covercrops because there will be a lot of birds held up in the cover and I need them to be flushed in small groups.
“Also, most of our covercrops have sheep netting fences running alongside and when the birds bunch up it can be very easy for beaters’ dogs to peg birds up against the wire. Once a dog has learned to peg, it can be very difficult to break the habit.”
Free-for-alls at flushing points
Things can easily go wrong at the flushing point, because as you reach the end of the covercrops there may be a large build-up of birds that can result in a “free for all” among the dogs if the keeper gives the command to let them work the area.
To mitigate the chances of this happening if your dog is young and inexperienced, Neil Varney suggests: “If the keeper allows it, let your dog hunt early in the drive, not at the end. Then put the dog on the lead halfway through. When you go out the next time you can try letting the dog off a bit farther on up the same drive, and progress accordingly.
“Even experienced dogs can go AWOL though,” he adds. “If things go wrong you need to go back to the training field and reinforce what was initially taught. You could even consider taking your dog to a live game training day if you have access to one.”
If you are on good terms with the keeper an ideal way for a novice dog that has not yet been in a beating line for hands-on experience is to arrange for some dogging-in. This way your dog will gain experience of flushing usually around 20 to 50 birds in an area, but without any of the other distractions of a shoot.
When a dog sees the guns
Quite often when you reach the end of a drive, a dog will be able to see and hear the Guns. Alongside seeing birds falling out of the sky, this can be too much temptation and may encourage it to run-out through the flushing point, towards the Guns. This is a situation that is almost impossible to correct and, says Neil Varney, if it happens you will need to go right back to the drawing board in training.
“You can’t train your dog on a shoot day — the training must happen beforehand,” he points out. “And this situation in particular is why I put so much emphasis on teaching a dog to drop to shot — you don’t want a dog to associate the bang of a shot with the retrieve, rather you must introduce the sound of the gun as the stop signal, just as you would the noise of the stop whistle.”
In training therefore, Neil advises firing a gun and throwing cold game out and then stopping your dog from moving forward.
While there may be some people who view a beating dog as being at the bottom of the “dog hierarchy” on a shoot day, in fact it is the beating dog that needs to be the best-trained dog present. And beating dogs certainly work the hardest. As all beaters will know, the value of a good beating dog should never be underestimated. They are worth their weight in gold.
Get the day off to a good start
The beater’s wagon is probably the one thing you cannot train your dog to deal with. Crammed with lots of humans and unknown dogs, some of which may be protective of their space, it can be a stressful environment. But there are some ways you can ease the experience for a novice dog:
If you are on a trailer, try to sit at the end so your dog can see out and will only have one “neighbour”.
Many trailers have steep steps, which can be difficult for a young dog to negotiate. If your dog has trouble, just lift it up and don’t make an issue of it. Similarly when disembarking, have someone to hold your dog while you climb down and then lift the dog out.
Keep your dog on a lead at all times in the vehicle, especially if you are in a pickup.
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