The basics of gun dog water work
Water work: Training young gundogs to work in water often presents a new set of challenges. Summer is the perfect time of year to iron out issues that aren’t so easy to deal with in an icy lake on a shoot day in December.
There is an assumption that all dogs love water. By and large they do – but some more than others. Like us, some are good swimmers and some are not – I have even come across a labrador that couldn’t swim at all. In this case the young dog almost drowned after jumping into a lake unexpectedly. So it’s important to make sure your dog is able to swim, and that they are working in water from which they can be readily extracted should they get into difficulty (without endangering your own safety, of course). It is essential you make a careful assessment of any area where you are undertaking water training to ensure any unseen currents or other hazards will not put your youngster at risk.
Location is key on water work
Hopefully the summer will provide plenty of warm water opportunities for training youngsters. Our own pups have the chance to paddle in shallow water from just a few months old, but it’s in a very controlled situation where they can’t get into difficulty. I have seen many potential disasters where young dogs being trained in water get quickly distracted. It only takes someone else’s dog splashing around or a moorhen skirting over the surface to steal a youngster’s attention and draw them out into deeper water.
The last thing you need is for water to be associated with panic and fear, so it’s important to tackle water work with the same degree of control you apply to other training. Try to locate a place that’s quiet and where the water is shallow and shelves slowly to avoid the youngster inadvertently getting out of their depth.
Any reluctance to enter the water can be overcome in the very early stages by tossing a stone into the shallows to make a splash and engender some encouragement – or even by wading in yourself.
Taking an older dog to bolster confidence is often very useful, but it is essential that the more mature animal doesn’t take off into the deep water for a swim, otherwise the youngster may well follow and soon get out of its depth.
Swimming is a very vigorous exercise for dogs: they have to learn to breathe differently, keep their legs active, be mindful of the direction they’re travelling in, keep an eye and ear on you for instruction – and eventually retrieve the game.
The aim is to steadily build up the dog’s confidence in water so the physical jobs of keeping afloat and not taking in gulps of water become automatic and they can concentrate on what they are being told.
Take it easy on water work
Only by giving a youngster time to perfect the art of being in water and emulating those synchronised swimmers rather than a paddle steamer that’s lost its way will you be able to start working on the level of control you have. Do not work from the premise that the dog will literally sink or swim. Once the young dog is clearly happy about being in water, try a few retrieves from the shallows – remembering that the dog must deliver the game and not stop to shake. Follow this with a few retrieves that entail a little swimming, but make sure the dummy isn’t going to get washed farther away than you intend by an unsuspecting current.
The aim is to attempt a few short retrieves from water that do not put the dog under too much pressure. Don’t gild the lily by doing too much retrieving directly from water or you will create a problem for yourself when you need to send the dog over water to retrieve game from the far bank. I try to reach this stage quickly so the dog doesn’t become fixated on the assumption that the dummy is always floating somewhere on the surface.
Select a location for a marked retrieve where the swim across to the bank isn’t too far. You must be happy that your dog is well trained enough on land for you to push them on over the water to the far side. Most dogs will get halfway across and even though they have hopefully marked the retrieve, will start spinning in the water as they look for the dummy. That’s where you have to make sure the dog trusts you and will follow your instructions to keep on swimming until the bank is reached. If it has been well thrown, the dummy should be easily seen and retrieved, and the job must be accompanied by ample praise and encouragement – focus more on getting a dog across water than retrieving from the water.
As you extend the distances worked across water, a dog may veer off the line on which he’s been sent or become distracted. Using the stop whistle to attract the dog’s attention and put them back on course is the way to deal with this problem, so it’s important that the dog is focused on the whistle on land before being let loose on a larger expanse of water. You should always make allowance for the fact that stopping mid-swim isn’t as easy to achieve with the same precision in the early stages of water training as stopping mid-gallop on land.
It may appear that training a dog in water means little more than duplicating the methods used on land – but that’s where most of the problems arise.