It’s hard to beat the thrill of taking a young gundog out on its first real shoot day.
There’s much expectation and anticipation, and months of bonding, nurturing and training before the big day finally dawns.
Whether peg dog or part of the picking-up team, the moment will come when that first command is given and the dog is sent.
Like a ship on a maiden voyage, the minutes that follow will prove if the ship is seaworthy and if the captain is in full control.
No matter how many months have been spent training on dummies, no matter how in control you felt you were when you went out rabbit shooting, or the confidence you had in the shining pupil that emerged from the private lessons with a professional trainer, come the big day it’s just you and the dog.
Hopefully it will all go according to plan.
The moment that bird is cleanly picked and your dog is on its way back to present its first successful retrieve will certainly make it a day to remember.
But as we all know, things don’t always work out as we had intended, and for all sorts of reasons what should become a treasured memory can all too often turn into a day that’s best forgotten.
So what can be done to make sure the first day in the shooting field for you and your dog matches up to all its expectations?
While it can be hard to resist the temptation to take out a young dog as soon as the shooting season begins, make sure that your enthusiasm to take a youngster out on partridges in September is fully justified.
Perhaps it may be wiser for all concerned to delay its formal introduction until later in the season.
A few months can make a huge difference to a young dog’s ability and maturity so think long-term.
A successful few weeks at the end of the season will bring dividends in the years ahead, rather than rushing an unprepared and raw youngster that ends up spending most of the season having to be bolted down to the peg or even left in the car.
Work backwards from the shoot day in terms of how you should prepare your dog.
It’s easy to have everything planned down to the last detail in terms of kit, and just assume the dog will jump in the back of the car at home and then jump out ready and raring to go when you arrive at the shoot.
Make sure you put in a few worthwhile training sessions in the run-up to the first shoot day – but don’t try anything too clever with the intention of trying to prepare him for the unexpected.
Last-minute cramming doesn’t work with gundogs.
Far better to go over some solid, basic work with the emphasis on steadiness and bolster his confidence.
It’s important to maintain the dog’s routine on the morning of the shoot day, so if he’s used to a gallop and a modest feed stick with it.
It is unwise to overload a newcomer with a heavy meal before leaving home, but give him a meal that’s well moistened.
If you feed your dog on dry food, add some water on this occasion – your dog will dehydrate during the journey and may well not drink as much as he should during the day.
Feed well ahead of your departure time and make sure the dog has emptied itself before you leave. It’s a good idea to load your young dog into the car in plenty of time and not at the last minute.
If departure is in a panic a young dog will pick up on the stress.
Make yourselves known
Give some thought to the shoot day you’ve selected as the occasion on which you will both sally forth as a working partnership.
Make sure the keeper or shoot captain knows you have a new and inexperienced dog and choose a day that’s likely to give you an opportunity to work your dog with confidence.
A dog making his debut at the peg shouldn’t be expected to last all day.
Choose selected drives if you can or just part of the day.
As in training you want to give him every opportunity to succeed and not to fail.
Likewise with a picking-up dog, choose your drives if you can and err on the side of training for steadiness – it will make that first retrieve even more satisfying.
At the first opportunity after arriving, and having undertaken the necessary courtesies, make sure you let your dog out of the car – on a lead of course – and give it the chance to relieve itself after the journey. I always give dogs a drink on arrival.
New dogs will be thrust into a canine hierarchy, so it’s advisable to monitor their relationship with other dogs.
Once the dog is settled back in the car – and has adequate ventilation – you can join fellow guns or pickers-up for the pre-shoot gathering.
Whether a gun or part of the picking-up team, your young dog can be easily overawed by being hoisted out of the car into a sea of other dogs.
Remain aware – especially with dogs or bitches that may be rather shy or equally a little Bolshie – that while you’re enjoying the camaraderie of the occasion your dog has been plunged into a canine hierarchy at ground level.
Be mindful of this to avoid any untoward happenings that may thwart your day.
Be selective with retrieves
Guns with a new dog should pick the first retrieve with care.
If there’s a chance your dog is going to have its efforts undermined by the difficulty of the retrieve, or by having the bird snatched by another dog, it’s far better to wait until the right opportunity presents itself.
The same goes for newcomers to the picking-up team.
Far better to have one or two really good seen retrieves rather than drive after drive of frustrated whistle blowing and consummate failure.
Don’t over-egg the pudding and, if the morning has been a success, be happy to rest on your laurels and leave the dog in the car for the remainder of the day – making sure of course the vehicle is secure and there is adequate ventilation.
I never put a wet dog back into a dog box without first giving a quick rub down with a towel, and for young dogs on their first day I believe it’s important to make the occasion as little of an endurance test as possible.
After you have dried the dog, give it a light feed and a drink and leave it all to sink in while you retire to the shoot lunch.
In my book a couple of good retrieves on the morning of the first day will do, but I also want to take home a dog which has enjoyed the experience and has used it as an invaluable part of its education.
What I don’t want is a dog that is cold, hungry and uncomfortable, has been over-worked, has under-achieved and felt totally overwhelmed by the occasion.
All of this isn’t about pandering to working gundogs.
It’s about getting the best out of your dog by sensible and professional gundog management, as any experienced gundog man or woman will agree.
Relish the first day with your new dog – but make sure you do as much as you can to ensure there are many more to follow.