Gundog training with puppies relies on good foundations being laid between the puppy and the handler from the very start of their relationship.
The question most often asked by the new owner of a gundog pup is when should gundog training start? While formal gundog training, in terms of introducing a youngster to the fundamentals of good gundog work, can start at around seven months depending on the individual pup, training a gundog, in its broadest sense, should start from the first day it begins life with its new owner.
Never underestimate the importance of the early stages of the youngster’s education. The success achieved in gundog training will have much to do with the rapport established between the partnership in the early days. So even before the first dummy is taken out of the bag, a lot of groundwork should have been undertaken to fuse a strong bond between the two of you.
There’s often a tendency to do too much too soon. Throwing dummies willy-nilly for pups under six months isn’t recommended. You only have to go onto a park to see dogs of every shape and size bringing back things that have been thrown for them. A retriever or a spaniel pup that retrieves a sock or a tennis ball says nothing about its future capabilities as an effective working gundog.
You can’t hurry things with puppies and gundog training
Racing ahead through the various stages of formal gundog training before a strong foundation between gundog and handler has been forged is usually the cause of many of the problem issues that confront first-time owner/trainers.
My mantra of ‘what’s the hurry?’ is well known. Ahead of you are years of devoted work from your gundog, so make sure you lay the foundation on well prepared ground.
Hopefully your pup’s genes will ensure it is already programmed for the job it has been bred to do. Your role is to make sure the pup learns how to execute those inherited skills, but to do so under your control and guidance.
Don’t try starting to teach 12-week-old pups to sit and stay or drag them around on a lead trying to enforce heelwork. But equally, it’s important not to simply have a daily routine that only entails feeding the pup and then letting it charge around heedlessly to exercise itself until the moment suddenly arrives when you decide the time has come for it to “start school”.
Spend the first five or so months building up a close relationship with the pup so that all the animal wants to do is be with you. During this time it must learn good manners and be responsive to you; it must trust you implicitly and not be fearful of you, because when the time comes that it does feel under some pressure – and it’s inevitable that at some stage the wheels will fall off the gundog training wagon – your relationship will be strong enough to overcome the problem and enable you to continue positively with your programme.
I don’t put a lead on a pup until it is around six months old but when I do, the heelwork comes naturally because the pup just wants to follow. Of course it won’t be perfect to start with, but I won’t have to start jagging and yanking the pup into position. A battle of wills won’t be necessary.
Likewise with retrieving. Pups that have established a trusting relationship with the owner and are then given the opportunity to retrieve will usually return with great pride to present the prize without delay.
I may be sloppy and puppyish, but in essence the pup has returned to you because it is doing what it was bred to do and you are the reason it’s doing it. Be mindful not to let retrieving turn into a game of repeated “throw and fetch”; retrieving has to be honed into the skills of game finding, adept retrieving and delivering of the game, so don’t undermine the process you are ultimately aiming for.
When first-time owners acquire a pup that is clearly “hot” and full of self-will, the assumption is to give it lots to do in the hope the activity and the “training” will calm it down. Of course, in a very young pup it simply serves to do the opposite and the hot pup boils over with all the inevitable problems that ensue.
The really fast and active pups often turn into the most exciting machines to work as adult dogs, but to get the best out of them it’s essential their formative first few months – before any formal gundog training starts – allows a very close and steady bond to develop with the owner.
The aim must be not to overcook a brain that’s already showing signs of reaching boiling point without too much encouragement – that will happen if the pup is given too much to do too soon.
It may be that new owners feel it’s a reflection on their success as trainers if they can race through a whole raft of skills with their young dog and to announce, as they so often do, a long list of what the dog is capable of.
Of course it’s often very soon evident, even by the look in the dog’s eyes never mind the poor execution of its work, that it clearly doesn’t understand what it’s being asked to do.
There will be those who disagree, but I maintain that for the most part, young dogs get it wrong because they know no better, rather than any conscious decision they have taken to be obstreperous.
Make yourself clear when gundog training
Training any animal is about getting across a clear message of instruction that is so definite and clearly understood that it’s followed without question; when that doesn’t happen it’s because the dog simply hasn’t learned what you are asking it do.
Yes, some dogs are more strong-willed than others and take longer to learn, but often this is down to simple information overload.
Brakes should be an essential part of early gundog training and by that I mean there has to be a degree of control. I like to get a young dog to start showing response to the stop whistle fairly soon.
I don’t expect a youngster to drop like a stone 50 yards away when I blow the whistle, but I do like to be able to attract its attention from a short distance away by using the whistle. That means I am establishing my first stages of control. It means I am laying the foundation to regain control if things go wrong.
Teaching reaction to the stop whistle in a calm and precise way is a huge advantage. It enables control of the situation to be regained and provides time for the dog to stop what it’s doing, clear its mind of confusion and then, and only then, be given another command.
Remember that being able to hunt and find game is a skill that must be encouraged in your early gundog training. I am often aware that first-time trainers get easily bogged down by demanding too much precision too soon. We aren’t producing obedience dogs. Youngsters need to be encouraged to hunt, so get the cake baked first and put the icing on later.
In all your gundog training, give young gundogs time to assimilate information. Once they appear to be getting it right, allow them time to perfect that skill and to consolidate what they have learnt before rushing ahead to the next stage.
Don’t be in too much of a panic; your aim is to nurture the raw abilities in a young gundog to enable you to produce a skilled and effective working gundog on which you can rely. It’s something that demands patience and an ability to “read your gundog”. So take it a stage at a time.