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How to train a spaniel puppy that lacks confidence

It's all about careful handling advises Neil Varney

puppy lacking in confidence

Working cocker spaniels are increasingly popular out in the field. However I am hearing some reports from owners that they have a puppy lacking in confidence and in fact some people think that the breed has lost some of its boldness.

If you’re concerned about that then there is no need to worry. Get the training right and consistent and you will still end up with a reliable companion. It’s just that a puppy lacking in confidence needs to have its needs and early training managed rather differently than a bolder dog.

Training a spaniel puppy lacking in confidence

training a puppy lacking in confidence

With these puppies give them more free running exercise than you would with a bolder dog. Encourage them to enter cover – starting with easy, long grass, gradually building up to the thicker, harder variety.

During these lessons you need to continually make a mental note of the dog’s attitude to the tasks you want it to perform. Is he, for instance, ‘getting too far away’ or is he simply ‘just running about happily’ and enjoying himself?

Or maybe he’s ‘hunting with determination’ because there’s scent on the ground? All this is for you to decide. With a less confident dog it’s generally best to use ground that’s had game on it because the scent it leaves will actively encourage him to hunt.

Don’t be alarmed if the pup actually finds game and chases it a short way, say 15 yards or so before turning and returning to command.

If he does this then praise him lavishly on his return. On the other hand, it’s a sign to start serious training if he chases game and continues hunting hard where it disappeared.

It’s also the sign to avoid giving him any further contact with game until later in his training.

Boosting your puppy’s enthusiasm for training

If a puppy proves reluctant to enter cover, throw some retrieves into shortish grass and encourage him to search by  letting him run straight in on them.

For this exercise I use tennis balls or small dummies so the pup has to use his nose.

As soon as he gets keen on rushing into tall grass for a ball, start throwing two or three into cover simultaneously.

This is a useful tactic that stops the dog thinking there is only one retrieve to pick up. Give him lots of encouragement to get him to go back in to search for others. If necessary you can even walk into the grass – downwind of the remaining balls of course – and have him hunt them out.

The dog will soon learn there are rewards to be found in cover and after a week or so of this lesson he’ll be keen to go in under his own steam and search on command.

Hunting in the grass

The next step is to encourage him to hunt in the grass without any balls being there and just before he starts to give up hunting, throw or drop a ball where he can find it.

The tricky bit is getting the ball into the cover without him seeing you throw/drop it. The secret is all down to timing. Wait until he’s moved slightly away from the area, head down sniffing, and then throw it in behind him.

Chasing rabbits

An alternative way to get a ‘soft’ spaniel hunting properly is to let it hunt freely in a pen and chase rabbits. The pen should have more cover than open spaces so that the dog only gets a fleeting glimpse of a bunny before it disappears into cover again.

Keep a close eye on the dog as you do not want it to come close to actually catching any of the rabbits.

Once the dog starts to persistently hunt the area where rabbits have disappeared into cover you can stop the pen work and continue his training elsewhere.

The best way is to simply sit on the ground and let the puppy jump all over you!

Throw a short retrieve and, as soon as the dog picks it, give lots of encouragement to return. Do NOT try to stop the puppy jumping into your lap. That’s all part of the fun.

Let it have some fun! The important thing is to praise the dog BEFORE you take the retrieve from its mouth.

Teaching a dog to sit still and not move. 

To do this, you need to catch the dog just before he goes to move, not afterwards. To do this you must watch for the warning signs.

Usually a dog will always lower his head before lifting his bottom from the ground, so you need to correct him as soon as he starts to lower his head.

If you do it this way the puppy will learn not to move from a sitting position until you command him to.

teaching puppy to sit

Give the dog the command to sit.

Keep a close eye on him as you move away.

Be quick to correct him if he starts to lower his head.

Remember that a gentler dog could well develop greater drive and confidence as its training progresses if it is handled well.


This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated