Gundog App: can you train a dog with one?
With a young labrador joining the family, an initially sceptical Marcus Janssen puts Ben Randall’s Gundog App to the test. Photographs by Sarah Farnsworth.
I have heard it said that the professional gundog training and trialling world is a bit like Birmingham during Thomas Shelby’s reign — murderously cut-throat. So, it goes without saying that, before even considering getting a gundog, one should have a reasonable understanding of the basics of gundog training and an idea of what you are getting yourself into.
Fortunately, I have been around working dogs my whole life. My father and brother have trained dogs, I have shot since I was a nipper (we had springers and English pointers growing up), and I have seen gundogs of all varieties working (and not working) in the shooting field in South Africa, the UK and the USA. I have also attended, as an observer or Gun, a good number of field trials over the years, including the IGL Retriever Championships and the Cocker Spaniel Championships.
The good and bad
Of course, none of this qualifies me to train a dog, but it has given me a pretty good idea of what good (and bad) looks like, and what is, theoretically, possible with the right input. And so, when I arrived at Ben Randall’s Ledbury Lodge Kennels to collect my 40th birthday present last year — a yellow labrador bitch with an astonishingly impressive Kennel Club pedigree certificate — I felt a lot of pressure not to mess things up.
I had no plans to turn Lilibet into a field trial champion, or even a proper working dog, but I did have my sights set on turning her into a good, reliable shooting companion; a peg dog that would not cause any mayhem or embarrassment on a shoot day. And as a father of three small children, one of which, the youngest, is as badly behaved as the most-unruly spaniel you can imagine, I was pretty determined that at least one member of my household would listen to me. Enter Ben Randall and his Gundog App.
Ben is a two-time winner of the Cocker Spaniel Championship and breeder and trainer of dozens of field trial champions. He is unquestionably one of the UK’s most highly regarded gundog trainers and handlers. I have known him for more than 10 years, and I have seen him work dogs on shoot days as well as compete at the very highest level, so I have seen first-hand just how effective his training methods are.
When I collected Lily, Ben very kindly informed me that I would have a year’s free subscription to his new gundog training app, which, I have to say, I was initially a little cynical about. In truth, I didn’t set out to train Lily using the app — in fact, I am a technological Luddite — but that is exactly what has transpired.
Initially, I used the app to convey to my wife and children how important the formative months of a dog’s training are, and I assumed at that stage that the app would soon become redundant. But, as Lily’s training progressed and I began to see how effective the lessons had been, I found myself delving deeper into it.
I would say that the app is not designed to teach you how to become a gundog trainer, but rather to assist you by acting as a reference tool for how best to do something. And it is also incredibly helpful for addressing faults when things go wrong, which they invariably do from time to time.
Essentially, it is a library of professionally produced training videos, featuring Ben and any one of his many labradors and spaniels, organised in a way that makes navigating to the most relevant video really simple. It is broken down into sections, starting with the very basic foundation stages of puppy training through to the most technical aspects of working or field trialling.
I already knew that getting the basics right — what Ben calls the Beggarbush or BG Foundations — was crucial, and that without really solid building blocks in place you are destined to fail or run into major problems later on. So, for the first six months, I really just focused on getting those basics right and ingraining them at every opportunity. This is where the app was brilliant. In the videos, Ben clearly demonstrates what to do, while talking you through the reasoning and psychology of each lesson or action.
And let me tell you something. Either I am a complete natural at this gundog training malarkey or Ben’s app really does work. Within a couple of weeks I was seeing real progress, almost on a daily basis. By the time Lily was six months old, I had her walking to heel, sitting obediently until recalled with the whistle and making memory retrieves. By the time she was 10 months old, she was making blind retrieves and responding to the stop whistle and hand signals. On a weekly basis, I would refer to the app to make sure I was doing things correctly, and then when I felt that we were ready to progress to the next stage, I would watch a new video in preparation for our next training session.
And as Lily has started to mature a bit, I have seen how the foundations that have been instilled since day one are now truly ingrained in her. No matter what she is doing, when she hears the three quick recall pips of the whistle, she immediately makes a beeline back to me; it’s as though that sound is now hardwired into her brain. I should also give some credit to Lily; she does seem to be a very quick learner who doesn’t generally need to be shown something more than two or three times before she gets it.
But the real beauty of the app is that it shows you how to use pretty much every scenario to instil these Beggarbush foundations. So outside of formal training sessions, Ben’s videos show how you can use playtime in the house, meal times, going for walks and even bedtime routines to further cement the things that you have implemented or introduced during your training sessions.
As I am sure any good gundog trainer, handler or field trialler would agree, getting the best from a dog is as much about putting in the hours as it is about avoiding mistakes. If you are not an experienced trainer, it is incredibly easy to inadvertently do things that are counterproductive. This is something the app repeatedly highlights. Not only does it show you how to do something, but it also highlights the common mistakes that people make, which more often than not lead to confusion and frustration. Moreover, it clearly shows how to address those common faults.
Ben is a big proponent of keeping things really simple and using as few commands as possible, which is why the app works — it is clear, simple and easy to follow. This makes perfect sense and I would be lying if I said that I don’t get a little smug when other dog owners comment on how obedient Lily is.
The ‘leave’ command, for example, has probably been the most useful tool in her training. As Ben explains, ‘leave’ effectively says to your dog that it should cease and desist from doing whatever it is at the time, be it holding on to a ball or dummy, showing interest in the neighbour’s cat or over-enthusiastically sniffing another dog’s bottom.
Admittedly, we are less than a year into Lily’s training, but I am confident that we have made a really solid start and that she is on the right track to becoming a useful shooting companion. Famous last words and all that, but I am now pretty certain that, when I finally introduce her to the shooting field this season, she won’t be a complete liability.
Gundog App was created to make quality training accessible to all owners. In over 300 videos, you can follow the step-by-step process from puppy to fully trained, covering topics such as retrieving, spaniel hunting and introduction to shot and game. So far, thousands of people have trained using the Gundog App. Every month, members tune in from around the world on the Gundog App webinar to discuss a variety of topics as well as strategies for improving their dogs.
Ben Randall comments: “In my experience, the key with training is to build a lasting partnership with your dog. The only way to do that is with positive techniques that reward the dog for good behaviour. I treat my dogs like my best friends and, as a result, they treat me the same. We have been overwhelmed by the reach of Gundog App.”
Gundog App is rated 4.2 stars on the App Store and is available to download on your mobile for £24.99 per month or annually for £249.99.