A young dog in the beating line encounters new sounds, scents and strangers, which can be overwhelming. Neil Varney offers five tips to create a steady dog.

Working your dog in the beating line of a driven shoot can be the most satisfying thing in the world but it can also be fraught with problems and pitfalls. There is a train of thought that if you only ever plan to use your dog for beating, there is no need to teach it to retrieve. In fact, it can be a distinct advantage if the dog has no desire to run-out and pick-up a dead pheasant. Yet you still need to think carefully about your training programme and a good beating dog will need to be taught some important skills.

Any breed of gundog can be trained to work in the beating line, though on most shoots you will tend to see a mixture of cocker and springer spaniels. The spaniel breeds have been bred for generations to hunt in cover, be it bracken, bramble or dense tangles of stick piles, but they all need to have this natural ability fine-tuned and this can start from an early age.

You need to build a bond with your gundog right from beginning. You need to become the centre of its world and you want to develop that relationship to the point where that little dog wants to be with you all the time.

Training sessions to beat gundog anxiety

Keep close

When you think about it, a dog used in the beating line never ought to be any further than 15m either side of you and about the same in front — it is never going to be sent for long distance retrieves, it needs to hunt close and tight at all times.

A simple method to train a dog to stay close when hunting is to hide tennis balls in light cover to start with and encourage your dog to find the ball. You will always be close by and over a period of time, and by association, your dog will learn that if it stays close to you and follows your directions it will always find something good.

At this stage it may be a tennis ball, but later it may be a pheasant or rabbit. There is a training process to get to this point and over the coming months we will look at putting the building blocks in place that will get your dog to this stage.

Gundog anxiety

You must build a bond with your gundog from an early age, so it wants to be with you all the time

Use a lead

Steadiness is a vital part of a beating dog’s training — a dog that runs out of control at a flushing point is a liability and will almost guarantee your being asked to put the dog on the lead and, in the worst case, may even end up with your not being asked back to the shoot again.

There is a lot of bravado in the gundog world and there is no shame in putting your dog on a lead, especially in the early days and in situations where you think it may get itself in trouble. The excitement of seeing tens, if not hundreds, of pheasants all stacking up at a flushing point is tempting for any gundog, let alone a youngster, so keep your wits about you and play safe.

Gundog anxiety

Get used to other dogs

The one aspect of a shoot day that we cannot really train a young dog to cope with is being crammed in the back of a beaters’ wagon with other “strange” dogs. It is worth bearing in mind that this can be stressful for a “first-timer”.

If at all possible, try to sit at the back of the trailer — that way the dog can see out and will have a bit of space to one side of him. A reassuring stroke won’t go amiss, but don’t make too much fuss of the dog as you don’t want to set up any anxiety issues.

Make sure you keep an eye on your dog to see how it is reacting to the situation and, more importantly, the other dogs around him. At this stage do not get distracted by trailer talk.

Negotiate covercrops

Maize covercrops are the bane of every dog man’s life. It is easy to lose a dog, and the result doesn’t bear thinking about. The best advice is either to keep your dog at heel or, again, to put it on a lead, though trying to negotiate thick maize stalks with a dog in tow is not easy.

If your dog is experienced and has a good hunting pattern you can quarter him up through the cover, but many dogs try to take the tramlines and will pull ahead, so it is better to keep the dog under control.

Quite often towards the end of the drive the keeper will ask the beaters to let their dogs go and work out the last of the cover. This is a time when disaster can strike and a bit of restraint is needed. Three things can happen: the first is that a situation may arise where the dogs are all working a relatively tight area and inevitably there will be competition, and in the heat of the moment your dog will ignore all your commands, with ensuing mayhem.

The second is when the flushing point has a wire fence or a bramble hedge line and, due to the pressure of the dogs, birds get caught (pegged). This is something you do not want to encourage as it can quickly become a habit. The third situation is the most embarrassing and that is when your dog is able to see the Gunline from the flushing point, sees birds being shot and decides it will go and join the picking-up team. All of these can be avoided by a bit of forethought and sound training.

Gundog anxiety

By hiding tennis balls in light cover and sending your dog in to find them you can begin to train your dog to stay close

Get used to strange noises

For a young dog in the beating line there are a lot of new experiences — there will be strange noises, strange dogs and a new environment with a lot of scent. Most beaters carry sticks. Flags are popular on most shoots, especially where there are a lot of covercrops and the crack of a flag can unsettle even the most confident youngster, so I now condition all of my dogs to having plastic bags being waved around their heads, along with making various beater’s noises. This may seem a bit of overkill but I see it all as part of their training and the more experience I can give them before they get into the shooting field the better. I strongly believe that prevention is far better than cure.

Gundog anxiety

Neil conditions all of his dogs to having plastic bags waved around their heads to stimulate a flapping flag, which are common on shoots, especially where there are a lot of cover crops