You’ve chosen your dog — but do you try to train it yourself or send it away to a professional? Ellena Swift weighs up the pros and cons
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 my dogs behave in a certain way; what the majority of dog owners do not realise is that I spend practically every day with my dogs — not just walking them but training them too. In fact, they are rarely ‘walked’, whereas most dogs in this country are taken out a couple of times a day simply to run around. (Read our list of the best slip leads for working dogs.)
Gundog training at home is a real commitment. The level my dogs have reached hasn’t been achieved by going to training once a week then walking them for the rest of the time. Any decent gundog handler will tell you that having a well-trained dog is more about making a lifestyle choice, rather than doing the odd bit of training and fitting the dog around you. It takes time, commitment, money and, most importantly, experience and knowledge. (You might also like to read about when it’s best to leave gundog training to the experts.)
Gundog training at home
The vast majority of handlers who trial will travel the length and breadth of the country to train. So when someone wonders why their dog is not doing something that another one is, they would find that if they took more time to train and worked on improving their handling, they would be a great deal more likely to achieve their goal. It might be a cliché, but the harder you work, the luckier you get.
The sad reality, though, is that most dog owners do not have the time, knowledge or ability to be able to train a dog to a certain level when carrying out gundog training at home Family and work commitments can so often put a stop to training or seriously limit the amount of time available for training. With this in mind, a lot of handlers seek help from experienced trainers who can take their dogs for extended periods.
Training schools are not a new phenomenon. I have books dating back to 1914 showing gundogs being sent away, typically by wealthy landowners, for local gamekeepers to train. A keeper would frequently take a landowner’s dog. Interestingly, many Shots then didn’t even have their own dogs. The modern trainer has evolved from that tradition. There are still plenty of people who shoot who have an abundance of funds but not much time.
Typically, a working dog will board with a trainer for a few weeks at a time. Booking a block of training costs around £800 a month — though the most expensive I’ve heard of is £2,000 a month — about the same as a cocker puppy would cost.
I find the way that works best is for a dog to train for a couple of months, then go back to its owner and return a couple of months later. This allows plenty of time to assess what is and isn’t working and how the dog performs. It also shows the trainer if it is the dog or the handler that needs more help, while allowing both to maintain their bond. But it’s not going to be cheap.
Gundog trainer and photographer Nick Ridley suggests another option is buying your dog fully trained. “If you buy a spaniel that has been trialled for £3,000 or £4,000, you know they have been trained well enough but also saved two years’ worth of expense to get them to that level,” he points out. “If you go down that route, you also have the option of going to see the dog work and let it go through its paces. Obviously, when any of us buys a puppy, we don’t know what we’re going to get.” (Read the price of trained dogs – what you should expect to pay.)
Clearly, though, what you miss out on in that case is choosing a dog, enjoying the cute puppy time at home and establishing a bond before they go away for training.
This is a service that I, and many other trainers, offer. There are plenty of benefits, for both owner and dog, but it’s not for everyone and it’s important to spend time with the trainer, or watching them and their dogs, before making any decisions.
You should be clear from the outset that sending a dog ‘away to school’ won’t really solve all your problems if you’re just starting out and you’ve gone for a hot dog way above your capability. Richard Negus, an owner of a very steady cocker, makes the point that Mabel was always going to be that way, as he selected her from steady stock. (Read Richard’s piece on breeding cocker spaniel puppies.)
“She is bred right for my needs,” says Richard, who is a professional hedge-layer. “I am not a flashy field triallist, therefore I chose a dog that was bred to be a steady hunter. You don’t buy a Ferrari if you require a vehicle to tow a trailer filled with hedging stakes and chainsaws.” If Richard worked in an office, though, he might find he didn’t have the time for gundog training at home.
Social media is a great way to follow a trainer and get a real feel for the way they work and what they can achieve with a dog. It is also imperative that a trainer is willing to spend time educating the owner on how they need to handle the dog once it returns home. I find it a good idea to use either one of my own dogs or another client’s dog to demonstrate how we train and show some examples of the results that can be expected.
If you see a method you would not naturally use, or do not like, they are not the trainer for you. There are a million ways to train a dog and selecting a method that suits you and your animal is crucial.
“It’s important to make sure the handlers are properly trained too,” emphasises Nick. “Otherwise training can be undone quite quickly. Once your dog reaches the level of training you require it to be, you and the dog should take a series of lessons with that trainer for you to learn how to work with the dog.
“I’m not a fan of group lessons. I much prefer a one-to-one basis as the trainer is then able to deal with you and your dog’s individual problems. I also like workshops, where you teach in a small group and go through the etiquette and processes with theory and practical tests,” he adds.
Results and achivements
The next thing is to look at the trainer’s results and achievements. There are some very good trainers who do not wish to compete and simply train for their pleasure but, in the majority of cases, they have no way of proving themselves or the level at which they train. Of course, they can claim to train at the highest level, but if someone is willing to put their reputation on the line — and risk being good, bad or indifferent — they are seriously worth looking at. If they are consistently achieving good results, it means impartial judges agree their dogs are top level.
There are many positives to having a professional assist in the training of your dog. The expertise, time and experience they can give are vast in comparison with being at home. However, there are negatives too; the service is not cheap and dogs are not always quick to train.
I would rarely consider a dog under the age of two to be ‘trained’. The process takes around two and a half years — depending on the age of the dog — and really needs a full season in the field, too. However, the results are worth it. When you consider the time and effort it takes for a trainer to get to a certain level, the cost is mitigated somewhat.
The other negative is that the owner does not get the satisfaction of knowing they have trained their own dog and its achievements are down to them alone. For many, seeing the dog attain results from their own hard work is all part of the experience.
The final issue can be that the owner may not be able to handle the dog or keep up the good work the trainer has put in place. Some dogs thrive on being trained and worked every day. If the owner cannot offer enough to keep the dog content, it is likely its level will deteriorate.
There are certainly pros and cons in sending your dog away to be trained, but for many it is a preferred option and it’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. It is much better to ensure your gundog’s training is right in the first place than trying gundog training at home yourself and making a mess of an animal with a lot of potential.