Nick Ridley looks at the words handlers use to direct their dogs to do a particular task or obey a specific order
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 do.
Basic gundog commands
Over the years I have been lucky enough to witness some of the best handlers in the country work their gundogs. My overriding observation is how consistent they are with their verbal commands and how persistent they are that the dogs obey that request. Novice handlers can be confused as to which commands to use for a particular behaviour. A common fault is the constant use of a dog’s name. The dog’s name is just that – its name. It is not a command or instruction and it isn’t asking the dog to do anything. (Read more about hand signals for gundogs here.)
Dogs learn by repetition. For example, we can teach our dog to sit by gently pushing its backside on the ground at the same time as saying ‘sit’. Eventually the dog will connect the word with the action. We could substitute the word ‘sit’ for any other word. We could, for example, use the word ‘banana’ and the dog would eventually connect that particular word with the action of sitting.
In gundog training, we have some basic gundog commands that are not found in any other dog activity. Some spaniel handlers like to use the word ‘hup’ when getting their dogs to sit, but I have never heard a retriever handler or trainer use the same word.
Another unique command to the gundog world is the phrase ‘hi lost’. This is used when a dog is in the area of a retrieve (particularly a blind retrieve) and the handler wants the dog to get its nose down and hunt the immediate area. The word has to be connected to the action by training and although it is predominately used by retriever handlers, it is a useful skill to teach any breed of gundog.
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To slightly confuse matters, there are other command phrases that are only used for certain breeds of gundogs. One example is the ‘back-and-fetch’ command. I have only heard this used by hunt, point, retrieve (HPR) handlers. It is basically used when the dog is at the side of the handler and is sent out for a retrieve. I have never managed to get a definitive answer as to why this is used when, as a spaniel handler, I would just say ‘fetch’. But, as I said, it doesn’t matter what words/commands you use as long as you use them consistently.
The overriding factor is to make your commands simple and concise. Do that and your dog will do what you want it to do and when you want it to, and your working relationship will be on a sound footing and flourish for years to come.
There are some breed and indeed trainer/handler variations, but there are common basic gundog commands that are used across the gundog-training community. (Read our detailed guide to gundog commands, terminology and phrases which also covers hunting/retrieving commands.
- Sit/Hup This is probably the most common and one that is trained from an early age. Obviously, this instruction simply means that the dog has to sit.
- Stay/Wait This means the dog has to stay where you have put it until given another command. Interestingly, in some dog training quarters, stay and wait mean different things. The ‘stay’ command means stay in a place as the handler is going back to the dog, whereas ‘wait’ means stay in a place as the handler is going to recall the dog. Gundog trainers tend to keep things more straightforward and just use one word.
- Heel A command that requires the dog to walk beside its handler both on and off lead. We tend to walk the dogs on our left-hand side as the majority of people are right-handed and will carry their gun on their right-hand side, opposite from the dog. (Read how to teach your dog to walk at heel.)
- Here/Come Most handlers will use either one of these words to recall the dog. Personally, I think that unless you are working more than one dog, there is no need to use the dog’s name before the command.