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How should I start training my puppy to be a gundog?

It's what every new owner wants to know

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Gundog training puppies

The first thing you must do when you bring your new puppy home is to establish a strong bond. You two are going to be partners and the youngster needs to be able to trust you completely. These first days are key before gundog training puppies.

Don’t hurry

It’s a case of more haste, less speed. Create a solid foundation before you do anything and gundog training will proceed much more smoothly. (Have a look at this list of the best gundog training equipment to see what you might need.)

Gundog puppies will have skills in their genes and these need to be developed under your patient control and guidance.

spaniel puppy

Establish a bond with your new puppy and don’t rush things

The first few months

You’ll probably be bringing the puppy home at about eight weeks old. For the next three months all you need to focus on is the bond between the two of you. All the youngster must want is to be with you. Of course it must learn to be responsible and polite but it must not be frightened of you. When training doesn’t go exactly to plan (and it won’t always) you want to know that your relationship is strong enough to overcome the problem and continue positively.

Make yourself clear

Some dogs are more strong-willed than others and take longer to learn, but that is often because they have been overloaded with information.

You need to make instructions clear so that they are easily understood. If a dog doesn’t follow your instructions it just hasn’t learned what you want it to do.

When gundog training puppies give them time to take in information. Once they seem to be getting it right, allow them a chance to perfect that skill before rushing ahead to the next stage.

working cocker spaniel puppy

Go gently with puppies, particularly if they are lively

Different types of puppy

Some puppies are very fast, active and full of self-will. These often turn into the most exciting working partners as adults but it’s essential that their first few months – before any formal gundog training puppies starts – allows the all important owner/puppy bond to develop steadily. The assumption by many owners is to give the boisterous puppy lots to do in the hope the activity and “training” will calm it down. However in a very young dog it does the opposite and the puppy boils over. Go gently.

Using food

Use feeding time to start the bonding process. It’s best if just one person does the feeding.  Rather than just putting the bowl straight down on the floor, hold it at waist height. Initially, the puppy might jump up, but be patient and eventually the dog will sit. When it does so, immediately put the food bowl down. It won’t take long for the puppy to realise that, when it sits, it gets the food — you have already started the process of getting your dog to sit without putting any physical pressure on the dog.

gundog training puppies

You can work on a puppy’s retrieving skills from about eight weeks of age

Using a puppy’s natural abilities

A puppy from gundog stock will have good natural ability. You can work on its retrieving skills from the time you bring it home at eight weeks of age.

I like to use a ball because when it rolls on the ground it leaves a scent trail, which encourages the little dog to use its nose. You can roll the ball out in front of the dog when it is running around, but I prefer to hold on to the puppy and then throw the ball. It is more likely to see the retrieve and get very excited about running out to pick it up.

At this stage, you are not steadying the puppy, so as soon as the ball hits the ground let the dog go, and once it picks up the ball give lots of encouragement. The chances are the puppy will simply want to get back to you and will come running to the sound of your voice without thinking too much about the ball.

Do not be in a hurry to take the retrieve away from the puppy — give it lots of praise and then take the ball. It is likely that the puppy’s desire to get back to you will over-ride the desire for it to run off with the ball, but do not overdo this. Remember the puppy is still young. Once or twice is quite enough and do not throw the ball too far.

Try to use either an area of lawn or at least flat grass so that the puppy can see the ball. You need to make things very easy during this stage of gundog training puppies.

Moving on

At around four to six months you can move things on a little. Walk up with the dog running around in front of you and, when the dog is not looking, drop a ball in some very light rough grass. Encourage the puppy back to that point and it should find the ball and bring it back to you. The aim of this exercise is to condition the puppy to believe that if it stays close to you, it will find exciting things; in this case a ball, later on a pheasant or rabbit.

However a canny dog will start to watch your hand and will not move away from you. It may even start trying to jump up to grab the ball. In this case leave the dog in the vehicle and go out to hide a few balls for it to find. I take particular care to lay grass or leaves over the balls so that the dog has to work to get them out — this encourages it to use its nose rather than its eyes.

Walk the dog up to the area and let it work things out for itself. If it is having a bit of trouble finding any of the balls just encourage it in the right direction and give it lots of praise when it finds one.

For the puppy, this is one big game but it is learning a vital lesson — that by using its nose and hunting close it will get rewarded with a find. Once again, you are not putting any pressure on the young dog, because these early exercises should be fun and positive. Another advantage of using this method is that the dog does not start to associate you with a retrieve and this will pay dividends when you move on to more complex exercises.

Starting on the stop whistle

I like to get a young dog to start showing response to the stop whistle fairly soon – you need to be able to apply the brakes.

I like to be able to attract the attention of a youngster from a short distance away by using the whistle. This establishes the first stages of control.

Teaching reaction to the stop whistle in a calm and precise way is a huge advantage. It enables control of the situation to be regained and provides time for the dog to stop what it’s doing, clear its mind of confusion and then, and only then, be given another command.

gundog training puppies

Wait until the puppy is about six months old before introducing the lead

What about using a lead?

I wait until a puppy is around six months old before putting a lead on her. At that stage the heelwork comes naturally because the puppy just wants to follow. Don’t expect perfection at the beginning.

Establishing a trusting relationship with your puppy will help with retrieving. The youngster who is then given the opportunity to retrieve will usually return with great pride to present the prize. The puppy has returned to you because it is doing what it was bred to do and you are the reason it’s doing it.

Retrieving should not be endless “throw” and “fetch.” Rather you need to develop the skills of game finding, adept retrieving and delivering of the game.

Can I leave a puppy alone?

Think very carefully about this because taking a puppy from its mother, brothers and sisters is going to be a stressful enough time in its life. On a more practical note you should also remember that a puppy will need feeding about 3-4 times a day so leaving it any longer than, say, four hours is not a good idea.

vizsla puppy

Don’t leave a puppy alone for longer than four hours

Questions about gundog training puppies

Q: I cannot get my cocker spaniel puppy to sit properly to the “sit” command; she just keeps wagging her tail and lifting up her bottom.  She is four months old now and this issue is preventing me from moving on with her training. She will not stay either when I walk away.

A: She sounds as if she is one happy little puppy that really wants to please, and you need to find a way of using that enthusiasm to your advantage.

By lifting the treat up and backwards you should be able to lure her into a sitting position before giving her the reward. She needs to learn that the only way to earn a treat is by being utterly still. Wait patiently until she stands or sits motionless and then instantly reward her. If she tries to move to take the treat, take it away and ignore her until she is still again. She will soon learn that being still earns reward and moving about does not.
Q: My puppy was attacked by another at gundog training, and now he hates going there. He’s reluctant to get out of the car, and he just sits and shivers in class. He won’t do any off-lead exercises at all. The trainer says he’ll get over it. Will he?
A: What has happened is that he has lost trust in your ability to protect him.Your task is to re-establish that trust away from the training class and then re-introduce him to the class environment gradually. Start by letting him stay in the car and watch. The next stage is for him to be with you but a little way away from the class itself, until he is happy to join in again. You could meanwhile arrange some one-to-one lessons with your trainer so that your dog can continue with his training, but without the pressure of having other dogs there. Returning to group training has to be done in his time as his confidence returns, and cannot be rushed.Ultimately, your dog will have to work with others, so this needs to be put right actively rather than just waiting for him to get over his fear, because some dogs will need more help with this than others.

Q: My puppy gets overly excited when around other people. I’ve tried to calm her down, but she gets so excited she even tries biting my hands. Have you any suggestions on how to curb this? A: With a small, lovable puppy, overexcitement usually happens when it is petted, praised and generally made to feel special. Even if this occurs only once or twice a week, the puppy soon becomes drawn to strangers, having been conditioned by receiving a reward every time it does so.  A complete change of management during this period is essential.Do not put her in situations where she can go to other people, but train her in a distraction-free environment on a one-to-one basis. Begin with sit, stay and heel, all taught on the lead, and within a few weeks you should develop this to off-lead full control.It may take a few months, but she must learn strict control and obedience in ideal surroundings.

Q: My four month old gundog puppy has started to whine when I’m training him. I’m trying to make him sit and stay, and to be steady when I throw a dummy. 

A:  The sort of training you have embarked upon is too much, too soon. Trying to enforce your will at this very early stage is only going to backfire. Teaching a gundog puppy to respond and to react to you, to be biddable and to develop a bond with you is absolutely critical.

Abandon retrieving and any enforced sit and stay exercises for the time being. Take your gundog puppy out into the garden or into a place where the two of you can concentrate on each other and interact. He won’t think he’s being trained but this is how you start to build up his education and attentiveness.

Simply getting the gundog puppy to come the moment he is called, to follow you and even possibly to sit to the pip of the whistle is invaluable for future training. Most of all, you need the gundog puppy to listen and be watchful towards you. Instil these basics and you will have a gundog puppy that is keen and ready to move up to the next level when the time is right.

A puppy’s brain and ability to retain instructions will not be in a condition to start coping with even the most basic of gundog training until he is at least six months old.

Q: We have a five-month-old puppy that is starting to habitually bark for attention. 
We don’t want this to become 
a habit and have a noisy gundog puppy,  do you have any advice 
on how to prevent it?

Give your puppy adequate interactive exercise so it has less pent-up energy. Avoid over-exercising a young dog; the aim is to simply burn off excess energy, not exhaust the puppy.

Avoid leaving it alone for long periods of time. Train the puppy to 
be left for increasingly longer amounts of time; initially for very brief periods. Don’t increase the length of time you leave the puppy until it has learned 
to settle quietly for shorter periods.

Never comfort or feed the puppy when it is barking for attention — this is rewarding unwanted behaviour. Don’t shout at it to stop barking, as this may cause it to bark even more. Try getting its attention with a clap or use the whistle. As soon as the puppy is quiet, redirect its attention to something productive and rewarding (like a toy) and after getting its attention, practise simple commands, such as “sit” or “down”, in order to shift its focus.

Q: How do I stop my gundog puppy spitting the dummy out? I have tried placing it in her mouth while saying ‘hold’.

A: Teaching the ‘hold’ by pushing a dummy into a dog’s mouth is not an easy exercise and should only be undertaken by an experienced gundog trainer. While carrying a dummy is natural for a retriever in training, the act of forcing a dummy into its mouth – no matter how gentle – is very unsettling. Most dogs refuse to grip the dummy which means you then start to exert force to maintain the hold and the whole exercise disintegrates into a negative training situation.

If you are adamant about teaching the ‘hold’, seek expert help .

It’s important not to hurry, which is why I prefer to train a dog to sit in front of me with the retrieve and not take the dummy straight away. If the dog is taught to sit you allow it to feel good about itself for the few seconds before you take the dummy. It builds up the dog’s confidence about what it has done.

If you have a young dog that starts to spit out a dummy when you have progressed to say, a 1lb training dummy, it’s worth going back to basics and reverting to a small canvas puppy dummy that the dog can carry easily and so is less reluctant to drop. Undertake a normal retrieve but as the dog approaches take a step back and then start to walk away, encouraging it to carry the dummy and walk at heel. Encourage the dog and make it feel really proud of what it has achieved.

Be in no rush to take the dummy but do whatever you need to – even sit on the floor if necessary – to make the dog give you the dummy without dropping it. Use the same dummy so that the dog will bond with it.

Introducing the dummy when gundog training puppies