Ellena Swift explains in Shooting Times how owners can ensure their aspiring gundogs learn the right skills
Ever since I was old enough to walk by myself, I have been going shooting with my family. I’ve always been attracted to the working gundogs side and, since I was eight years old, my father would give me his own trained dog to work on a shoot day.
How I became a gundog trainer
With a fully trained dog to guide and nanny me through the day, I began to learn. Aged 15, I began training my own dogs and, after a little more than a decade, I became a gundog trainer for clients.
Over the past nine years, I have researched, explored and improved my techniques so that I can assist my clients to the very best of my ability. It has taken a long time to get to this stage and I am still aware I have a lot to learn.
It surprises people to hear that I go to many different trainers up and down the country as often as I can. But why should it come as a surprise?
Gundog training — more specifically obedience training — is possibly the only sport in the world where most people assume that not only can they do it, but they can be good at it.
Many with little to no experience buy a gundog and believe that, because they have read a book or seen dogs working, they will be able to do it and become a gundog trainer. If I read a book on golf or watched professionals play, it would not mean I could hit a ball like Tiger Woods.
It is normally when the dog reaches the age of around 12 months, and they are running rings around their owner, digging up the garden and proving less the model gundog and more the pain in the backside, that most realise they may need a little help. This often comes in the form of lessons from a professional.
Whether they are group lessons, one-to-ones or online lessons, they can be invaluable for any handler at any level. But how do you choose the right trainer for you and your dog?
Like many things, the different areas of working with dogs seem to move in and out of fashion. A few years ago, it was dog grooming. Overnight, there were dog grooming businesses everywhere. In the past 18 months, it has been dog walkers and now ,finally, it is dog trainers. Everywhere you look, there are new dog training businesses popping up.
There is no single governing body to regulate the industry and so, to become a trainer, all you need to do is simply declare yourself ‘a trainer’. This can mean that it is a bit of a minefield. All too often, handlers have negative experiences at the hands of a trainer who is unsuitable for them or their dog.
Knowing the breed
The first thing to consider is the breed of gundog you have and the job you wish it to do. If you intend to work a German shorthaired pointer on the moors counting grouse, a pure retriever trainer will be of little help.
Many trainers will specialise by their breed of choice. Others will be more focused on the discipline they prefer, such as trialling retrievers or training an all-round shooting companion.
A lot of people will buy a puppy with no intention of using them for their original purpose. You may well see a vizsla sitting on a peg, a cocker used for wildfowling or a labrador in the beating line. These dogs will need a trainer who not only understands the breed, but also understands how to curb and mould their instincts to perform the job their handler would like, rather than the one they were intended to do.
Once a handler has found someone who can train the discipline and breed they desire, there are other considerations. First, qualifications. The majority of good handlers I know would roll their eyes at this and I am inclined to agree. Again, we only need to look at another sport to see the best in the game hold no qualifications in that area. Andy Murray does not have a degree in tennis.
Gundog training is not something that can be learned by simply reading or writing essays. There is no written exam that can prove a trainer’s worth when training gundogs. So those who only list their paper qualifications as a gundog trainer are more than likely ones to avoid.
Secondly, achievements are worth a look. While not every trainer chooses to compete, the vast majority at any decent level do. For me, this is imperative. How can a trainer profess to advise, guide and teach a handler how to achieve a certain level of competitive handling if they have not achieved it themselves?
A handler who has been at the top of their game regularly and consistently will not only be up to date on training methods, grounds, dogs and handlers, but will also be able to use their experiences to help others.
In the field
Achievements alone, however, are not always enough. Experience within the field should be a given. Someone who does not work their dogs, with the best will in the world, cannot possibly advise others on how to work them in the field. A good trainer will always have vast experience of working dogs in every role they intend to teach.
If a client contacts me wishing to trial an English springer spaniel, I advise them to go to another trainer. I do not trial spaniels, so I simply cannot — and would not — presume to be in a position to advise. However, if someone wishes a spaniel to be an all-round shooting companion, I am experienced in training, handling and working spaniels in the field.
Word of mouth
Finally, I would consider reviews and word of mouth. The best trainers I have ever found have decades of experience in the field, many of them have seriously impressive achievements and, when speaking to people who have trained with them, have amazing reviews.
Personal recommendations and reviews are a great way to find a trainer. It is best to take recommendations from people you know and trust. Likewise, it is important that when you see a trainer, you gel with them. You should watch them with their own dogs and like or agree with the methods they use. If you do not like how they train their own dogs, it is unlikely you will enjoy them helping to train your own.
Many trainers will take a client’s dog in a session to use as a demonstration. If the trainer is able to demonstrate with a novice dog how to train certain aspects, it instils confidence among those in attendance.
Despite all of the above, occasionally there is something else one needs to consider. This is coaching ability, which is something that is based on instinct and natural ability, as opposed to being learned.
I was a lecturer for nearly six years before starting my own business, and there are some people who are skilled at guiding and teaching others. They have the patience and the eloquence to enable them to impart knowledge to others. Communication skills are vital for any trainer. I have known good gundog trainers who struggle to coach and guide others. Or they simply do not possess the patience for it.
Ben Randall, of Beggarbush Gundogs, is a very talented gundog trainer. He has not only proven himself by training his own spaniels, but also by designing a smartphone app to help a novice gundog trainer.
Ben explained that any trainer should reach the level you want to achieve, if not higher. Not only this, but they should train and run their dogs in a way that you would like to achieve yourself.
A good fit
“If there is an element of the way they train that does not suit or complement your dog or style, you are probably not going to be a good fit together,” suggests Ben. “Some trainers focus on the dog, rather than teaching the handler how to teach their dog.”
Trainers need to have skills not only as a handler, but also as a coach. Ben concludes: “There are many extremely successful dog handlers who, despite their own success, struggle to coach others. Being able to coach and teach is a vital skill for any decent trainer.”