Question: “I have a two-year-old spaniel and this was his first season in the shooting field. His training went well but he refuses to go into any heavy cover. He just stands and looks at the bramble patches, in fact it almost looks as though he is pointing. Is there anything I can do to get over this problem?”

Graham Watkins, Sporting Gun’s gundog guru offers a solution

The causes

First of all, this is a problem that can be overcome but it needs to be taken slowly and carefully because you don’t want to totally put the dog off entering cover. You haven’t mentioned whether you have a springer or a cocker spaniel and this can make a difference, springers tend to hunt a bit harder and generally do not need as much scent to get them going as a cocker does. They are also bigger, stronger dogs and therefore can deal with thicker cover, although cockers become very adept at getting underneath the bramble and they will use any rabbit runs to their advantage. So, let’s look at what can cause this problem and then we can work out how to try and rectify it.

In the very worst case scenario, lack of drive (the desire to hunt) can come from poor breeding – this is where the dam or sire (or both) have not come from a proven working background. In truth, this is probably the most difficult situation to overcome because, genetically, the attributes are just not in the dog.

Another common cause of a dog not wanting to enter cover is that the young dog has been “over-faced” by the trainer trying to force it to go into bramble or heavy stick piles. As with all aspects of a gundog’s training, the foundations should be built upon gradually and you will create future problems if you try and push a dog too quickly or give it tasks that it is not mentally and physically ready to cope with.

Puppy entering heavy cover

A common cause of a dog not wanting to enter cover is because it has been over faced

Dogs need to be stimulated. If they are repeatedly sent into heavy cover without any reward, i.e. a flush or a retrieve, they can quickly learn that there is no point in thrashing around a bramble bush for no reward and can therefore become very reluctant to enter any cover.

Ideally, with a spaniel, you want what is known as a “hard flush” – that is when the dog finds game you want it to flush without any hesitation. Pointing in a spaniel can be caused during the steadying period when the dog has had too much pressure put on it, quite often for chasing. It then starts to hesitate when it finds game because it is not sure what the consequences will be, this is more common in sensitive dogs.

It is also important to remember that your dog is only young and this was his first season in the shooting field, he still has a lot to learn and some dogs need a good few years’ experience under their belts before they really get going.

The training

Once the shooting season has finished you can start the process of encouraging your dog to work cover, BUT this should be taken slowly. The process is one of gradually building up the dog’s confidence and the density of the cover. Do not make the mistake of rushing and over-facing the dog, as you could end up back to square one.

  1. Any young gundog, no matter how well-bred, will not continually hunt any cover without some kind of reward – be that a flush or a find. First of all, try and find some light cover – rough grass or bracken is ideal. Before getting the dog out of the car, hide some tennis balls about 15 to 20 metres either side of the line you will walk with the dog. As your dog is older I would be inclined to hide the balls in the thicker clumps of grass or bracken. Ideally you want to hunt the dog into the wind, this will help keep its quartering pattern tighter because any scent will be blowing towards you.
  2. Once your dog is finding the balls in the light cover it is time to make things a little harder. Make some loose stick piles, although don’t make them too dense, sit the dog up and throw a tennis ball or, even better, a fur-covered ball in to the sticks. You want the dog to see you do this. Walk away from the cover and hunt the dog through the grass back up to the sticks and then encourage the dog to “get in”. With any luck, he will get into the sticks and find the ball. At this stage, we are teaching the dog to associate the command “get in” with him finding something.
  3. The previous exercises need to be fully embedded into the dog before moving on. The next stage should be taken very carefully and preferably with professional supervision. A rabbit pen is ideal for getting a young dog hunting and he will quickly learn that if he investigates the stick piles, or rough areas of grass, he may well find a rabbit or a pheasant. The biggest advantage is that he will have numerous finds quickly and this will really boost his confidence, however don’t overdo this exercise as things can quickly get out of control.
  4. By the time you get to this stage your dog should have total belief in you and the “get in” command. You can now start to introduce him to heavier cover. Gradually build up from heavier stick piles to loose bramble and perhaps gorse bushes. Make sure the dog is still finding something good in the cover – hard rubber balls are quite good to use because they penetrate the cover a bit deeper than a tennis ball.
  5. Finally, you can really stimulate the dog by hiding cold game deep inside the cover and letting the dog hunt up and find it of his own accord. If you have taken things gradually and have slowly built up the dog’s confidence, he should have now connected that any form of cover should hold something good. As time goes on, and he has more and more finds, you will find that he willing hunts out these likely spots by himself.