gundog training

Gundog training starts from the day a puppy is born. If you’re planning to train the dog yourself then you need patience, understanding and plenty of time.

The reward will be a dog that makes you proud when out in the field.

Gundog terminology

Looking for a nearby gundog trainer?

If you need  a local gundog trainer near you you will find a list of accredited trainers here and also advice on how to become a qualified gundog trainer yourself. You can also contact the Kennel Club who run gundog training days. 

Gundog training has a vocabulary all of its own and unless you are very experienced there may be some terms you are unfamiliar with. So it might be a good idea to check our gundog terminology guide and learn some of the terms by heart.

You might like to look at this list of the best gundog training equipment, put together by one of our dog experts.

Dog in camouflage

A well-trained gundog is a wonderful thing

  1. You should be made to feel welcome. The trainer to be an experienced gundog handler with evidence of success in competition, 
or perhaps a field trial judge.
  2. The fee should reflect the level of facilities and numbers in the class. One-to-one lessons cost more but with the right trainer it may well be worth it.
  3. The trainer should have a positive attitude towards the breed of dog you own. 
It will soon be obvious if they do not like 
or understand the breed.
  4. Vaccinations, regular worming and flea treatment should always be insisted upon before joining a class. Similarly, bitches 
in season should be excluded.
  5. Training methods should be positive and reward based. There should be no harsh handling or electric collars evident.
  6. The trainer should be respected by all present — an attentive, interested and happy class will be evidence of that.
  7. Expect to make progress slowly. It up to you between lessons to make sure you make practice in your own time.
  8. The facilities and equipment available for the class should aid learning. A safe environment is essential, with access 
to suitable equipment and water.
  9. Access to a well-stocked rabbit pen would be a plus. If the trainer does not have their own, expect them to help you access one when the time is right.
  10. As the training reaches its final stages, the opportunity to have your gundog introduced to the real thing, and even shot over on a training day.
  11. Patience and a common-sense approach will ensure that in the end you have a well-trained canine companion for the future.
  12. To find out more about training near you, contact the Kennel Club

Training techniques for retrievers and spaniels

Different gundog breeds respond differently to training.

  • Gradually throw retrieves further and further away for a Labrador, and also into thicker and thicker cover. That will avoid ending up with a cover shy retriever.
  • With a spaniel don’t throw a retrieve further than 10 yards away. You don’t want to instil in the dog’s mind that it’s going to find everything 30 or more yards away. You can do this quite easily by allowing the spaniel to race about before dropping the tennis ball or small dummy into cover relatively close to you.

Training gundog puppies

Formal training of a gundog puppy should start about seven months old. If you teach younger than this you’ll probably have to re-teach the lesson later on.

Establishing a bond between master/mistress and the youngster is key. Don’t rush anything, take it slowly.

Don’t embark on a strict training regime right away. Your new companion is only a puppy. Think of the early lessons as groundwork. Focus on guiding the puppy gently into doing the right thing and steering away from the wrong things. Don’t ask the puppy to do too much.


Teaching retrieving to a puppy living indoors rather than being kennelled outside can be tricky. The golden rule is that whenever the puppy picks anything up it must be encouraged to bring the item back.

The youngster must be praised for its actions, before the item is taken away and placed out of the dog’s reach. Don’t scold a puppy for picking up things indoors and then be puzzled why the dog is reluctant to retrieve a ball or dummy when it’s outside.

If you discover you have a puppy that’s reluctant to retrieve a certain item, for example a tennis ball, find something the pup does like to pick up. This could be a small fluffy toy or a puppy dummy covered in rabbit skin.

One or two retrieves per session is ample and if possible this should be done in an area that has no interesting smells that could prove a distraction.

Sit on the floor and encourage the puppy to climb on your lap while holding the retrieve. Lavish him with praise before gently taking the retrieve from him.

working cocker spaniel puppies

You will have to train each puppy separately

Getting used to a lead

Place the slip lead around the puppy’s neck, pushing the stop up to the correct position and then allowing the youngster to run about dragging the lead behind him. Gradually pick the lead up, but if the puppy starts to get stressed allow it to drop and just encourage the puppy to come back, lavishing him with praise as he does so.

Do this for just a few minutes a session. Very slowly build it up over subsequent weeks to the point where the puppy is happy to walk on a lead. Don’t stress or frighten the pup.

Introducing memory retrieves

Drop a dummy when the puppy is walking on the lead alongside and then encourage the dog to walk on with you away from the retrieve for a reasonable distance. Now slip the lead off and encourage him to go back and collect the dummy.

Don’t over exercise

Don’t overdo any of this play training with a retriever puppy before he’s one year old. You could spoil the youngster’s joints and once any damage is done it can’t be rectified.

If the puppy lives indoors and you have children he may be getting far more exercise than you think.

FAQs about teaching young gundogs

Q: Last year I bought a spaniel puppy and planned to train him.  He settled in at home very well with my seven-year old gundog Alfie.  Now the young spaniel is 11 months old I have started to do some training with him, but he does not seem to concentrate on me, looking around instead for Alfie. What should I do?

A: Your young gun dog has bonded with Alfie more than he has bonded with you, the trainer. He spends most of his day around Alfie so doesn’t need you to make any decisions for him. He will look to Alfie and then will follow by example.

Split the two gundogs up and kennel them separately for a while. Train the young spaniel pup alone. Don’t even take them out in the car together. You need your youngster to be focused on you at all times when training starts properly and you should  also start to spend more time with your young dog to form more of a solid one-to-one relationship.

He was looking for reassurance from Alfie, and this now has to come from you, the trainer. Once he starts to understand he can rely on you his concentration will get better and his training more responsive.

Q: I am about to breed my first little of puppies and am getting a lot of conflicting advice. What procedure should you follow when weaning puppies?

Puppies  are self-weaning, and will wean in their own time.

Puppies from bitches fed with BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, or Bones And Raw Food) tend to wean early, at about two-and-a-half weeks. Offer these puppies raw mince in broth, which they can take as soon as they are ready. You can add plain yoghurt but never milk as the best milk for puppies is from the bitch. After they have had their solid food, let the bitch top them up with milk. If one puppy is a bit slow, don’t worry, as it will wean when it is ready.

By three to four weeks, these puppies will chewing away on raw meat and bones as well as their mince slop, and by five weeks most bitches choose to suckle for a very short time only. A few like to go on for longer, and this is permissable, as long as the puppies have had their meat first. If puppies are fed a varied diet they are far less likely to become fussy feeders later on.

Q: I am getting a fully trained gundog next month. How long do I need to settle her in before taking her out working with me? How long will it take my new gundog to bond with me?

A: A spaniel should be fully trained at around 2½ – 3 years old and will have gained a strong bond with its owner during that time. To gain the dog’s trust, you need to take things slowly. Start by walking the dog on the lead at least two or three times a day and continue this regime for at least 2½weeks. When she’s not on the lead you should continually call the dog and encourage her to come to you. In this way she will get used to your voice and tone of command.

Don’t take the dog out working until it has bonded with you . Be patient.  Bitches sometimes take longer than dogs to bond fully. Take time to gain the dog’s trust. It will be strange enough for the dog in this new environment, without being asked to work for someone she does not know.

Q: Should I breed puppies from litter sisters simultaneously?

A: There are advantages of having two litters at the same time. All the mess and inconvenience is over in one go and  you will have a greater number of puppies to choose from for yourself.

Space can be a problem though. Both bitches will need separate whelping areas with no disturbances from other dogs for at least a four to six-week period.

Q: I am training two six-month-old Labrador puppies but they don’t always do as I ask. Can I allow them to go for a run to burn off energy before a training session?

A: Training begins long before a lead is placed around a puppy’s neck. From the time the puppy comes into its new home, it can be taught simple things, as it is important to build a strong bond with the puppy before its serious training begins.

For example, sitting for food can be started early, simply sitting is not enough. The puppy must learn to feast its eyes on you before it is allowed to eat. Formal obedience training can begin between six and 12 months, but this depends on the individual puppy’s physical and mental development.

Springer spaniel puppy

Q: I’ve had my 10 week old puppy a week and he is learning really quickly but I can’t stop him biting me. Today he drew blood. Should he go back to the breeder? 

A: Almost all puppies mouth, but some may bite too hard and need to learn “bite inhibition”. Dogs need to understand that we humans are delicate, and their teeth should never touch us.

To teach him bite inhibition, keep lots of soft toys to hand, and put one in his mouth whenever he opens it to get hold of you. Do not play roughly with him, because it gives the wrong message about how to interact.

Never smack a biting puppy, he needs to see your hands as the source of good things.

Puppies do have a need to bite and chew, so make sure he has plenty of safe items to gnaw upon.

Q: Should I use tug games as a reward after gundog training?

Dogs do love playing tug, and it is used a lot to motivate and reward highly-trained dogs such as sniffer dogs.

But if we want a dog to hand over whatever it has in its mouth to the lightest touch of its owner, then it is debatable whether teaching it to tug is ever wise, especially with those breeds that can be fairly opinionated.

Therefore, I would not use it for any dog that has to retrieve game.

For other dogs, tug can be useful as a reward, but we have to instil manners.

Teeth should never be allowed to touch the hand, no matter how lightly, and if they do, the game stops, the handler drops the tug item and walks away.

It is fine for the dog to “win” and keep the toy sometimes, but it should also learn to give it up on command.

Owners should be careful not to tug too hard because of the risk of damage to teeth, especially in a developing mouth.

shorthaired pointer with pheasant

Curing hard mouth: is it possible in a gundog?

Whatever fault a retrieving dog may have, be it running-in, whining or not listening to the whistle, there’s only really one that’s serious enough to end a dog’s career and that’s hard mouth. (Read how to stop your dog from being hard-mouthed.) The essential requirement of all dogs that pick-up…

teach a spaniel puppy to retrieve

How to teach a spaniel puppy to retrieve

Spaniels are “pre-programmed” to hunt, it is their most basic instinct. So many new owners might think that starting to teach a spaniel puppy to retrieve would be straightforward and simple. After all spaniels have been bred for generations to hunt out game from stick piles, patches of bramble and…

mown paddock for gundog training

How do I train a gundog to run straight?

When you think of a working gundog, the goals are relatively simple. We need to get the dog to an area and allow it to hunt. This might be hunting at our feet as a beating dog or being sent 180 yards to hunt a specific area. Either way, the…

Working labrador gundog

Gundog training at home or away? What’s best?

If I had a pound for every time a client says, “I wish my dog would behave like that”, I’d buy my father a new pair of Purdeys. Though it is lovely to hear people admire my dogs’ behaviour, I also find it frustrating. There is a good reason why…

Gundog commands

Basic gundog commands: these are the ones you need to know

Over the past four years I have been running gundog training classes and have been taken aback about how confused people get with their basic gundog commands. And if the handler is confused and inconsistent, it is unsurprising that their dogs also become confused and are inconsistent in what they…

Teaching a dog to engage their scent detection

In my previous training article, we were looking at getting the dogs going nice and confidently in a straight line to an area to hunt for a retrieve. It is equally vital that a dog can hunt for itself and hold an area to do a thorough job. There’s nothing…

crate training a puppy

Crate training a puppy – how to do it right

Q: We are due to get a new cocker pup and it will be living indoors. We have been advised that crate training a puppy is the right way to proceed. What do you think?  A: A crate is a good idea for any dog, but it should be introduced…

eye contact with dogs

Eye contact with dogs: it’s vital for good training

Why eye contact with dogs is key One of my training clients asked me recently what aspect of a gundog’s training I thought was the most important. My immediate answer was that unless the dog had a solid foundation of the basics, such as heel, sit, stay and recall, then…

place board for dog training

How can I stop my cocker spaniel creeping?

Q: I have done everything I can to stop my cocker spaniel creeping. I have consistently put her back where she started, never allowing her to have a retrieve after she has crept forwards. I tried place boards and she shuffled off them to get closer to me. She is…

dog training with a whistle

Dog training with a whistle: some frequently asked questions

Dog training with a whistle means you don’t have to shout yourself hoarse when you’re teaching your hound how to behave. (Read how to teach reliable dog recall.) Having a whistle in your pocket is a useful tool and of course different blows on the whistle can mean all sorts…

Spaniel off the lead

All training disappears when my gundog is off the lead!

On the lead my 17-month-old springer spaniel is obedient, walks to heel well, sits on the whistle and is steady. Off the lead he is like a different dog. He runs away and won’t stay close to me. He does understand the turn whistle and will eventually obey it after…

Wensleydale sheep

How to stop a dog chasing sheep and livestock

The costs of a dog chasing sheep According to Sheep Watch UK about 15,000 sheep are killed each year by dogs, when dogs are off the lead in a field with sheep or other livestock. This figure only includes the reported attacks, so numbers are likely to be more. Owners…

stop a dog chewing

How to stop a dog chewing the wrong things

Q: I am having a problem with my 14-month-old spaniel. He seems to love to retrieve, but chews hard on everything. He has chews in the house, but I had to take toys off him because he was destroying them too quickly. I always wanted to work him, but now…

Training your gundog to enter cover

Training your gundog to enter cover

The one thing that your gundog will have to do at some point is to be willing and able to enter cover. Whether that be to find and retrieve shot game or to flush a tight-sitting pheasant or rabbit, they will have to do it. A gundog that skirts around…

training delivering to hand

Delivery to hand: gundog retriever training by Lez Graham

Delivery to hand is the most common problem people come across when they are training a gundog. Why delivery to hand goes wrong Inconsistent handling Allowing the dog to drop what’s in his mouth when walking around house Removing the dummy from the dog’s mouth too fast Putting too much…

gundog steals

How can I stop my gundog eating game?

What can you do if your gundog eats game instead of returning it to you and leaving it intact. A reader wrote to me recently saying: “Twice last season my labrador ate 
a brace of partridges laid to cool in the back of the pickup. The dog, a six-year-old, had…