In the first of a three-part series, Margaret Allen offers advice on the best way to train a puppy to the gun
All dogs should learn the social graces that make them acceptable in human company, but a gundog’s upbringing needs special attention. You should bear in mind that your ultimate goal is for your dog to be a companion and teammate while also being under control and understanding that you call the tune.
A shooting day is thrilling for a dog and all his senses and instincts come into play. The scent of all the wild animals, the sight of game running or flying or falling to shot, other dogs enjoying themselves, the sound of guns and voices — all these will arouse excitement in your dog.
Your aim is to channel his enthusiasm and turn him into the sporting partner of your dreams.
It is best that your new gundog puppy arrives in summer so that you have good weather — hopefully — in which to bring him up, and longer days to settle and bond with him. Plan where he will sleep and have everything ready. A cage is a wonderful thing if the puppy is to live indoors. It will prevent destructiveness and helps with house-training. You’ll seldom have reason to be cross with him after leaving him unsupervised.
Place the cage in a draught- and traffic- free position with some comfortable bedding and a small bowl for water. I drape an old towel over the top, back and sides to make it more cave-like.
Find out what the puppy has been eating and order some in. If you prefer to offer other food, ask the breeder for a few days’ worth of his to help you “wean” the puppy on to your choice. If you have an already resident dog, he may resent the “intruder”, but there is much you can do to ease the blending into your ménage. You will probably be feeding a puppy three or four times a day. Each time you do so, make a point of giving the resident dog a treat. This will make him see the newcomer as a source of good things.
Always give the puppy his meals before the resident dog. You might think this would make the older dog jealous, but it shows him that you rate the incomer as important and, if you are the pack leader, the resident dog will show the new one due deference. Take the new one through doorways and put him into vehicles before the older dog. Do not leave the two alone together until you are certain that the older dog is friendly and tolerant towards the puppy.
Education can begin early, probably when a puppy is as young as five weeks. One important thing is that gundogs must not be vocal on a shoot day. I frequently find that puppies I buy in do not know what “be quiet” means.
My home-bred puppies learn this at five weeks because when they make a noise, I splash them with a little water while saying, “be quiet”. I speak in a normal voice so they can hear me but do not think that I am joining in. I splash them with a small amount of water in the face — using a water pistol is fine.
It is not painful, more an unpleasant surprise. After a few repetitions, a puppy makes the connection between its noise, my voice and the splash. You do need to be determined, however, and persevere — puppies can be persistent. A huge amount of a gundog’s training involves steadiness — at heel, sitting at the peg or, when questing, to the rise of game. This, too, can begin when a puppy is very small.
Signal to eat
When you are about to feed him, gently push him into the “sit” position, repeating the command several times — you are teaching the puppy English — and restrain him while you place his bowl in front of him. After a second or two, say “paid for” and free him with a pointing hand. After a few repetitions, the puppy will usually sit while you remove your restraining hand. Make him wait until he looks up at your face, then give the command and signal to eat.
Imagine all the signals you may use once the dog is trained and see if you can incorporate these into his feeding-time ritual. For example, once the puppy will wait while his food is placed before him, give the command to sit and set the bowl down a few yards away. Keep saying “sit” while you move out at right angles to the puppy, then give the appropriate signal and command you will use to send him to the left or right later on in his training. I say “left” or “right”.
To teach the command to make him go farther away, place the food a few yards from him and back away a short distance, keeping the dog in a straight line between you and the food. Repeat “sit” until he looks at you, then give your signal and command. I say “get on”, meaning he should go straight to his dish. At this time, you can bring in the whistle signal for “sit” and he will quickly learn that it foretells something good — that is, your signal and command meaning he can eat. You will think of other ways of using food to encourage a puppy to do what you want, such as hunting close to you to find biscuits you have hidden in the grass.
Interest in livestock is forbidden
It is vital that gundogs ignore livestock, horses and wild animals or any creature that incites the instinct to chase. Sheep, chickens, cattle, deer and horses can be a matter of life and death for a dog. The first time you notice your puppy looking at any of these, be fierce and leave him in no doubt that interest is forbidden.
The ideal result of this treatment would be that your puppy appreciates that there is an enticing animal in the vicinity but looks away as if to say, “What an interesting cloud formation over there” or, indeed, looks at you as if to say, “I’m such a good dog. I wouldn’t dream of having anything to do with that.”
As well as the sit, his early training should include walking beside you on a loose lead and coming when called. Dogs naturally respond to an either/or concept; either all is well, comfortable and enjoyable, or things are uncomfortable, unpleasant and frightening. You can use this to persuade him to do what you want. You can use bribery to get him to walk close to you at heel and, conversely, you can give a meaningful tug on the lead if he tries to pull on it. In this way, you teach the dog that he has an alternative — to pull and be uncomfortable or to keep close and be comfortable.
The same is true for the recall. If the puppy comes quickly to call, he will receive praise and a titbit, but if he gives into distraction or refuses to come, he needs to learn that you may walk off without him. When you do this, be sure not to keep calling him — that only tells him where you are. Instead, let him think he is losing you. Of course, you need to know that he is safe; you must not be near a road, for example.
Start when the puppy is young — you know yourself that the things you learned when small are things that have stuck with you. It’s the same with dogs. Make sure that what your puppy learns is what you want him to learn. Instinct can lead a dog to learn things that go against gundog training. Prevention is always better than cure.
Puppies do not become any more intelligent than they are at about seven weeks old, but as they grow up, they can concentrate for longer and do more physically demanding activities. With a puppy less than 10 months old, teaching sessions should be short and informal but there should be clear aims.
Before a lesson, think about what you want the puppy to learn and plan each session. Base your plan on the previous session and always end on a good note.
Margaret runs a training kennel in West Dorset. Part two to follow next week.
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