I think it fair comment to say that the purchasing of a dog is where caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is of extreme importance. Undoubtedly the pedigree is an invaluable guide to the experienced trainer, but it can be most confusing to the less informed. Pedigrees may be interspersed with various show and field trial accolades, such as “Ch”, which the knowledgeable will recognise as show champion, FTChs (field trial champion) or FTWs (field trial winner). Unfortunately, over the past couple of decades, breeders with little integrity have merely added to the confusion by including these in the pedigree in the hope that they will increase the sales potential for the progeny. All it actually means is the dog is a field test winner, and is no indication that the dog has ever been tried on real game. All of this is not only confusing, but may influence the success or failure in the training of your dog.

Steering clear of show-bred dogs

Quartering or hunting is the forte of the hunting dogs, with springers and cockers being the most popular of these breeds. As far as I am concerned, any spaniel that will not hunt thick thorny cover be it brambles, gorse, blackthorn and so on is not worth its salt. To the spaniel trainer, there can be nothing more pleasing than to see a spaniel working rough ground with speed, style and grace. There is no other gundog in existence that compares to these breeds, but achieving this can pose a problem for the novice. Genetic inheritance has the most determining effect upon the descendants’ trainability. In my view, the dog bred for beauty as opposed to brains is the kiss of death to a trainer. I have never accepted a dog that had show blood in the first three generations, and if there were indications of show blood further back in the family tree I would only accept it for training if the first three generations were bred from high-class working stock.

I hasten to add that this is my personal preference and I am not suggesting that there are not show-bred dogs successfully operated in the shooting field or even in field trials by some dedicated breeders. I merely state that I do not like them, for in my view they have been genetically damaged by the official breed standards. To convince me further, I have seen in many shooting situations the pathetic efforts displayed by show-bred animals as they potter cumbrously through cover or tentatively attempt to enter thick briars, more often to turn away and blink game. Moreover, their body conformation is neither suitable nor aesthetically pleasing to a handler. To this end, however, you must make your own choice.

The hardest lesson

Teaching your dog to quarter its ground can be one of the most soul-destroying and frustrating aspects of training if the dog is not bred for the job. Next to teaching your dog to sit, which is the lynchpin of all future training, progressing on to being steady to shot and flush, quartering is probably the lesson wherein most controversy and problems arise for the novice dog trainer.I suspect that the greatest difficulty for the beginner lies in the abundance of confusing advice from experts and friends alike, much of which is pure nonsense. There are pundits who advocate the method of casting the dog off by throwing a biscuit to the right while giving the appropriate right-hand signal accompanied by the verbal command “Get-on” or “Hi-seek”. Then, after the dog has run out and foraged for the biscuit, the left-hand signal and voice command is given, while another biscuit is thrown out to the left and the dog is cast to the left and so the exercise is repeated. I have never resorted to such an asinine pursuit.

I never give edible rewards to any dog, except perhaps a puppy that needs encouraging to enter cover if it has a reluctance to do so, or in cases where problem solving was required and only then if all else failed. In instructing a dog to quest his ground in a consistent rhythmic pattern, I can imagine no more efficient way to encourage a dog to potter than to be forever chucking bits of biscuit or, even worse, carrying a pocketful of smelly morsels of raw tripe, in order to throw them first to one side and then the other.

Some authorities advise their readers to undertake the first few lessons in a field of root vegetables, by casting the dog off along the furrows. The idea behind this is that by doing so they will instil a good pattern into its hunting, though in my opinion this is unnecessary. Then there are those who will advocate the use of a check cord. However, this contrivance is an absolute nuisance, for it snags on the smallest tussock of grass or obstacle, requiring continuous interruptions to smooth handling. In the working spaniel, it should not be difficult to get him to quarter his beat. Most are natural hunters and, depending on their temperament, require only encouragement or a degree of restraint in order to curb their enthusiasm. Too much restraint should be curtailed in the early lessons. An exuberant dog with a good nose may test you to the limit, while a sensitive dog will probably require more encouragement.

Some trainers believe that early stages of quartering should be on bare, scentless rough grass. Through circumstances, this is the method that I had to employ. There are, however, dogs that will not respond to this and require the added incentive of foot scent to get them going. The last thing that is desired is that you need to stop the dog continually because it encounters game. If this is the method chosen then the dog should be out of sight while you walk the game off. It is handy if you can be assisted in this by an experienced dog. Open ground is the best choice for a site, for you will never get a rhythmic pattern of ground treatment instilled in a dog in rough cover. That will come later. Whatever method is chosen, however, the hand training is the same.

Follow my leader

Always commence facing into the wind. A dog should not work for edible reward, he should work for you because he worships the ground you walk on. A good indication of this is if he devours you with his eyes. His natural instinct is to go where you go and it is this quality that we take advantage of. Facing the wind with the dog sitting in front of you, cast him off to the right or left, whichever you prefer, with the appropriate hand signal and your chosen verbal command, “Hi-lost” or “Get-on”, and walk, crablike, in that direction yourself. In every likelihood the dog will follow suit, probably in the initial stages watching you askance, but as time goes on it will become more and more subservient to the wind. After you have progressed sideways for perhaps 4m, he will have moved slightly ahead of you. Give him one low sharp peep on the turn whistle, he will look at you, immediately give him the word and appropriate hand signal and start moving sideways in that direction.

These manoeuvres are repeated for perhaps 15 to 20 minutes in each session. You will find that hunting becomes his favourite pursuit and he will never become bored with it. The reason that I recommend short sessions in the beginning is because a puppy of six or seven months old has only a certain amount of energy and you do not wish to exhaust him. As each day goes by, you will find that your meanderings will gradually develop into a straight line, while he will develop a rhythmic ground treatment. There are two important aspects of hunting a dog to consider: first, that you must never over-run the dog’s nose ? that is, walk forward faster than the dog can hunt his ground; and second, throughout his training and right through to his first shooting season, you must work him in a tight pattern from side-to-side for as he develops his nose and game sense he will, bit by bit, without you realising it, take up extra ground and before you know it will be hunting in the next parish.