At some point the day will come when you have to take the plunge and let your dog experience a shoot day says Graham Watkins.

A very common question we get asked at Gamegoer is: “How old should my dog be before I get him in the shooting field?” In truth, this is always a difficult one to answer as it depends on so many different things; the dog’s level of training, the dog’s personality (is it a bold type of a dog or is it a more sensitive type?) and of course the owner’s level of experience. However, at some point the day will come that you will have to take the plunge and take the dog out and experience your dog’s first shoot day.

To avoid a total disaster you should first ask yourself the following questions; does your dog walk to heel on and off the lead? Is your dog steady to game, both fur and feathered? Is it on the stop whistle? Does it recall on the whistle? If the answer to any of these questions is “sometimes”, then you really should be getting those issues sorted out under controlled conditions rather than risking something going wrong in a “live” situation.

Dog's first shoot day

Make sure your dog is steady to feather and fur before taking it on a shoot

Beating line

Quite often during basic training you are putting a lot of discipline into your dog and some dogs can become flat and lose a bit of drive, this is especially true when getting your dog steady to both dummies and game. Over the years I have found that taking a dog into the beating line of a small shoot can do wonders to restore its confidence and get it going again, but this must be done carefully and with some thought. The first thing to consider is that the dog’s senses will be going into overload, there will be a lot going on for a young dog to take in. Even experienced dogs get excited on a shoot day.

You should always ask the gamekeeper if it is okay for you to bring a young dog along, and make it clear that you will not be working the dog all day and that the aim is to give it a bit of experience. Initially I like to leave the dog in the box with the back of the truck open so he can see and hear everything and get used to the comings and goings. I can then go and do all my meeting and greeting without having to niggle at the dog because he wants to say hello to the other numerous dogs that will be running around the car park area. When it is time to move off, get your dog, put it on the lead and walk it to heel. It is important that you set your stall out for the day.

Dog's first shoot day

Graham initially leaves his dogs in the box so they can see and hear everything

You’re in control of your dog’s first shoot day

Although you want the dog to enjoy the experience, it also has to realise that you are in control. If the dog seems quite relaxed you can just wrap the lead round its neck like you did in the early stages of heel work training, but again make sure he doesn’t pull ahead.

Cover type

When you reach the first drive you have a decision to make, and it will depend on a few things. The first is the kind of cover you are facing. If you’re in a crop that is fairly low and not too thick, so you can see the dog at all times, and you are working a spaniel and are confident of its hunting, there is no reason that you can’t take it off the lead and work it during the early part of the drive. There is likely to be plenty of scent to encourage the dog, but fewer birds.

Make sure you keep the dog’s quartering pattern close to you and keep your concentration on the dog, if it makes a flush blow the stop/sit whistle and make sure the dog obeys the command. Just be aware as the dog gets into more scent and more birds that is when he may well start to get “hot” and things can go wrong. The best thing to do is to prevent this from happening, so before he gets to this stage, call him and walk him back to heel.

You need to keep your discipline as well as the dog’s. Maize can be a nightmare for dog handlers as the dogs can quickly get out of control and run up and down the rows. The simple rule is keep the dog walking right next to you. This is where your training will really come into play, as trying to walk a dog at heel while holding on to a lead through a block of maize is a nightmare. The dog will want to go one side of the stems and you will go the other side and it becomes very awkward.

Dog's first shoot day

Maize can be a nightmare for dog handlers, so keep your dog next to you

Overcaution

As you get to the end of the cover, there may well be a build up of birds and this can be very exciting for a young dog. At this point don’t take any chances, he needs to be on the lead and sitting next to you watching rather than doing. Once most of the birds have been flushed, a keeper will quite often ask beaters to let their dogs go so they can flush the last few stragglers – do not be tempted to let your young dog join in the fun – it is the quickest way to ruin all your hard work.

It may seem that I am suggesting being overcautious when you first take your dog out and in fact I am. Like all your training it is a gradual build-up of experience for the dog and that old saying “prevention is better than cure” should be at the forefront of your thoughts in these early days. If things go to plan, both you and your dog should have benefited. The dog will have gained some initial experience in the field and you will have learnt a bit more about your dog. The next time you go out in the beating line your dog may well have a lot “more about him”, so just be ready!