Is it possible to train a gundog without leaving the house? Ellena Swift thinks you can achieve a lot — including unloading a washing machine
We are living in unprecedented times. The situation with COVID-19, and the resultant social distancing and isolation, is stressful for the vast majority of us. But how is it affecting our canine friends? Some may actually be enjoying having their owners around all the time, particularly if they are used to being left during the day. But the lack of opportunity to get out and about may mean others are feeling the strain.
Usually at this time of year, my dogs would be getting into the swing of the working test season, with competitions most weeks and training in between. I would have also been training in as many different places around the country as possible. But with trips and tests postponed, if not cancelled, it is a very different story. So what can I do with them?
I am fortunate in that, because my husband is a farmer and gamekeeper, I have several paddocks and fields just outside my front door, with no public right of way. This means I can still stretch my dogs physically as well as mentally without breaching the Government’s guidelines.
Most people do not have that option and in more normal times rely on footpaths, parks, gundog clubs and land owned by others as places to train their dogs. Now we are in lockdown, their dogs’ activity and exercise has simply ceased, with little hope of returning any time soon. So how can we keep our dogs occupied?
Many gundog trainers are using social media to try to keep clients and their dogs entertained, posting challenges and training drills. These are fantastic for those who have access to a good-sized garden and are not self-isolating or shielding, but for this article I am going to focus on what we can do indoors.
Ideas for training a gundog inside
All my dogs are very food motivated and love to carry things, so it is relatively easy to come up with games to keep them occupied. When I was heavily pregnant, I found myself in unfamiliar territory in that I couldn’t offer the dogs as much exercise as they were used to. So — just like now — I had to work their brains from within the home. I trained Nala to unload the washing machine; each day she eagerly awaited me to load it and for the cycle to finish. I’m not sure how clean the clothes were once I put them in the dryer, but at least Nala was content with her work.
We only have to look at assistance or guide dogs to see that dogs do not need the physical as much as we think. Clearly, exercise is vitally important, but in the short-term, exercising the brain will keep your dog content until lockdown restrictions are eased. A guide dog doesn’t complete half the physical exercise that a working gundog does, yet it is perfectly content and happy. It is all down to mental stimulation. So in the confines of home, there is no reason you cannot work a dog’s brain to assist with its obedience and training once back outside.
Heelwork is a good place to start. This is something that will always need revisiting and there is no time like the present. Most homes have a hallway that is relatively narrow and straight, and this is ideal to practise getting the dog to walk tight to your leg. It is really important that you practise this both with and without a lead on.
There will always be instances when your dog needs to wear a lead, even if it is just to go to the vet. I get infuriated when I hear the classic “my dog is better off the lead than on” — it shouldn’t make a difference. A great way to train is to put the lead on but don’t hold it — leave the handle to drag on the floor. Use the enclosed space and your body to keep the dog in tight. When it walks nicely, use your cue word, such as ‘heel’ or ‘close’.
Another good exercise is to test their steadiness. While I appreciate it doesn’t replicate the excitement of a falling bird, this is a good challenge to try. If you feed kibble or raw, you can ‘sit’ the dog in the middle of a room — preferably one with a wipe-clean floor — and sprinkle their food around them. Use their normal ‘leave it’ command, walk away and go into another room. Depending on the age and stage of your dog, leave them for, say, five seconds and return. It is good to see if they have remained steady or broken their ‘sit’ command and resisted the temptation. If they struggled, make it easier for them by only walking to the door — don’t actually go behind it.
Build it up until they are sitting solidly without you there.
If you own and work a team of dogs, you can practise using their name only to help teach them to cast one at a time. Put their food out in front of them and have them sitting next to you as if you are on peg or shooting (rather than traditional out in front when feeding). One at a time, send them for their food. Each dog should wait for their name or individual command to go. Because everything is in such close proximity it is easy to correct any mistakes.
Another exercise to help with gundog work is to practise the stop whistle. Lots of dogs will stop OK on the whistle when running, but as soon as they get their heads down hunting will readily ignore any stop or recall command. Here is a great opportunity to practise. Scatter their food or put it in a bowl and send them to it as you would a retrieve. Let them start to eat and then blow the stop.
Remember the stop whistle should be a positive thing, so when they stop it is a good idea to reward immediately with either something more tasty than their food — cheese and ham are good options — or a toy or ball they love. They will soon start to get it into their head that stopping is always a good thing and something to be happy about, not something to avoid. You can do the same with the recall whistle.
Hunting is a great game to practise around the house. It doesn’t matter what the dog is looking for as long as it enjoys it and wants to do it. Most dogs won’t have played this game before so, to start with, take the item and let them see you hide it. Walk the dog away and then put in the hunt command. If they don’t understand, help and encourage them. The more excited and enthusiastic you are, the more eager your dog will be.
Get imaginative with where you hide it and extend the area of search.
Busy doing nothing
Finally, something that is great to teach your dog during this stressful time is how to relax, switch off and do nothing. There is little worse than a dog that refuses to settle when you are in the house all the time, so this is a skill that will pay off in the future as well as now. The dog needs to know when the games have started and subsequently finished.
Ensure the dog has its own cage, bed or blanket to go to when it is time to relax. If the dog refuses to stay there, have the bed near you but put a lead on. Put the end of the lead under your foot or even possibly a table leg so that the dog cannot wander about and avoid settling. You can give them a chew or a bone to help keep them occupied, but this kind of defeats the object of them learning to settle.
I did begin to think that with all this going on, despite being a great time for puppies in their new homes because the owner is there to help them settle, how many young dogs are going to suffer with separation anxiety once life returns to normal? They are so used to having their owners with them that when they suddenly have to be left on their own it could be a big problem.
So teaching your dog and continuing to get them to settle alone with you in the house is hugely valuable. Use this time wisely; stimulate your dog’s mind, get training a gundog inside but don’t forget to teach them to be content to settle too.