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A gundog’s first shoot day

It's an anxious time of year, writes Ellena Swift in Shooting Times, when new dogs are introduced to shoots and some will require more training

Dogs on shoot day

The end of a shoot is an ideal time to bring in a young dog for an easy pick up

Now more than ever, many gundog enthusiasts around the country are excited and preparing for the shooting season. A lot of those are novices or first-time handlers and will currently be wondering whether their dog is now ready for the season.

Are the dogs’ and handlers’ skills good enough to be useful on the shooting field? Like most things in the gundog world, there are a hundred different answers to this question.

Everything is based on personal experience and at some point that will have been the correct approach for a single dog. So for each individual it is a difficult question to answer with a blanket response.

Any trainer worth their salt will have seen a lot more dogs ruined by rushing and overwhelming them. Sadly, it is a common occurrence. Many handlers allow the excitement and anticipation of working their dog on a shoot to rule their decisions on training. I tell my clients that a dog can only learn at their own pace and should be trained as such – every dog is different.

Despite being a difficult question to answer, there are factors that can help to make a decision. Firstly, it depends on the job you intend for your dog. For example, if I am training a dog for the beating line, I will not take it on a shoot day unless I have had the dog out walking birds or dogging-in first.

It is a good way to test the most vital tool in your box for a day spent beating – the stop whistle. Without a solid stop whistle on live game, there is very little point in taking the dog out. The heel is not crucial, as a lead will suffice.

Gundog training

It’s worth having a puppy dummy or tennis ball when out, to give a young dog some easy retrieves

Recall is also extremely handy in the beating line, but if you have a solid stop one can simply walk and pop a lead on when required.

Some in the beating line like to teach their dog to stop to flush rather than use a stop whistle. This can be useful although not always practical as if there are large flushes and lots of game, the dog will not move much. I do hear a lot of handlers state that they are going to take their novice dog out to “learn what it is all about”. Often this means they intend to take the dog on lead to simply watch all day. Invariably, this will create one response: frustration.

Imagine taking a three-year-old child to a funfair but not allowing them to go on any of the rides. It would result in tantrums. It’s the same with the dogs, it manifests in squeaking, whining, running in and mouthing birds when they pick them.

The dog has been asked to show better steadiness and patience than most advanced dogs are ever asked. My experienced dogs would remain at heel without working for an entire day, but even they would not last long before getting bored. So to expect a youngster to cope is unrealistic.

labrador in maize

A young dog in uncut maize can see game but may disappear from view then control is lost

Steady away

If I felt a day or certain drives could be too much for a novice dog, I would simply take them out for one or two drives and then either pop them safely in the car or take them home.

Maize can be a nightmare for a young dog and their handler. The dog can see right through the bottom of the crop and so can normally see game running about. If asked to hunt in it, the handler can rarely see the dog and easily loses them. This can create bad habits and a serious lack of control. So it’s best to avoid this initially with a young dog.

For a picking up or peg dog, the most important part of their job for me is to be steady on game. The stop whistle I do not concern myself with as much, although normally, by the time I believe a dog is ready to sit on a peg or to pick up, I will have a relatively good stop whistle.

Again a common mistake people make is to take the dog out, on lead and then at the end of the drive they allow them to follow the older dogs sweeping. The young dog has no idea what they are doing except chasing dogs and enjoying a good run. They pay the handler no attention and might slowly learn to pick a bird.

But the anticipation from all that excitement next time on a drive will again start to manifest itself in negative ways. Not only this, but they will be learning that to find a bird they do not need to listen or pay any attention to the handler. While I am all for allowing natural instinct to be developed, this is not the way to do it. I work on dummies and cold game in controlled situations at home for a long time before I ask a lot of them out in the field.

Once I have achieved steadiness and I believe they can cope with seeing falling birds and other dogs working, I will allow the dog to sit on a drive far enough away from the Guns that the bangs will not be an issue.

Once my older dogs have done their job, picked runners and found the dead game, I quietly set up one simple retrieve using a dead bird for the novice dog to retrieve. This is the reward for their steadiness. This way they start to learn their job while I remain in control. As they get more experienced I ask a little more of them. By taking it slowly I know if they can cope or not, then I can practise at home before I ask it again.

Early learning

Dogs are not robots and as such can easily throw a curveball that a handler won’t expect. Something you may have felt the dog was prepared for, shows they are not. This can be not only disappointing but embarrassing and might often get you into trouble with the gamekeeper.

The best you can do in that situation is initially get control. That may well mean walking out to your dog and putting it on a lead. You are much better doing that than continuing to attempt to fight them.

Do not be embarrassed, just accept the fact that you may need to go back to the drawing board with training at home. These events happen to us all and should be seen as a further learning opportunity, not something to be repeated.

If you are not certain that your dog is ready to cope with the excitement of a real shoot day, then it’s fair to assume they are not. Try and find an opportunity to train around live game to not only try out your dog’s skills that they have learnt at home, but also give you confidence that they are ready and will listen to you when on a shoot day. A dog is much more likely to respond to a confident, calm and assured handler rather than someone who isn’t quite sure.