“I have a spaniel that I use for beating and picking-up. He is very good at ‘sweeping up’, but I do on occasion have the need to send him out in a straight line and I am having real problems getting him to go much further than 10m before he starts hunting. Do you have any tips that may help me to overcome this issue?” Mr A Ballard, Devon
Some breeds of gundog are more suitable than others when doing certain jobs in the shooting field. That said, most of us need a “jack of all trades” — a dog that is capable of doing a multitude of tasks — but we may have to accept that this kind of dog may not be able to do everything as well as the more specialist gundog.
When setting out a gundog training programme, it helps if you have an idea of what tasks you will eventually want your dog to perform. This way you can concentrate on the relevant exercises.
A spaniel that has been bred for generations to hunt will more than likely have some kind of quartering pattern built into its DNA. However, as trainers we will try to refine this, and it can be challenging to get a spaniel to run a straight line due to its inherent desire to work side to side.
If you have trained your spaniel to hunt close to you, it can be quite confusing for the dog to then be asked to get out away from you, especially if you need it to go some distance.
Failing to “condition” the dog into being a solid and keen retriever from an early age and allowing the hunting instinct to overcome everything else can be very difficult to undo at a later stage.
What do you want your dog to do?
One of the key elements in gundog training is to decide right from the beginning what tasks you will want your dog to undertake. A good “sweeping up” dog is worth its weight in gold. They will cover the ground methodically, picking-up both dead and injured birds. However, there will be times when you need to send your dog for a particular bird and, in most cases, it will be one that is running. There is an argument that it is beneficial to have more than one breed in a picking-up team — a spaniel for sweeping and a retriever for straight-line work — but if you only have one you need to train it to deal with all situations.
Training a dog to run straight
1. Training any gundog to run a straight line for a retrieve is not difficult — it just needs a bit of planning. I like to use a track or a lane, preferably a tarmac or gravel one so there are no scent distractions. Put a dummy down and walk the dog back a few yards — you can incorporate a bit of heel work into this exercise as well.
2. When you are ready, turn the dog around and send him back for the dummy. This is a really easy exercise, but at this stage we need the dog to succeed every time, so we can gradually build his confidence. If the dog pulls off to one side, call him back and start again. It is important you are consistent with this and only let him run the short straight line.
3. To further strengthen the lesson, you can add more dummies to the line. Standing them up on end makes them easier for the dog to see. Remember, you want the dog to go straight out and straight back, not have to hunt for the dummy, and that is why at this stage you keep it simple. Over a period, you can gradually increase the distance you send the dog.
4. Now move on to a field. I like to use a fence stake as a marker, so I know where the dummy is. Start with a simple seen retrieve. Remember, call the dog back if he deviates from the line and set up again. Be consistent.
5. Finally, you can increase the distance to the retrieve and remove the marker. Make sure to use the exact same place at first — this will help to give the dog confidence and he will begin to believe that every time you send him out in any particular direction he will find a dummy.