Getting it right from the start
By Jeremy Hunt
It must be the most often asked question by those who have decided to train their first gundog – “When should training start?”
In the life of a gundog there should be no beginning or end to its training but in terms of introducing a youngster to the fundamentals of good gundog work, a more structured approach to training should start at around seven months – depending of course on the individual pup.
Never underestimate the very early stages of the youngster’s education. They are very important. The success achieved in training as the pup matures will have much to do with the rapport that has been established between the partnership in the very early days.
So even before the first dummy or tennis ball is taken out of the training bag a lot of groundwork should have been done to fuse a strong bond or “connection” between the two of you.
Keep everything simple at the start. To a pup it’s just a game that both of you are playing – and that’s how it should be. Don’t get hung up about steadiness and being strict and rigid and how things should happen. Keep everything happy and positive.
As I always say: “This is the part where we put all the ingredients of the cake together before we bake it. And remember that there’s plenty of time to put on the icing so don’t rush.”
There’s often a tendency to do too much too soon. Throwing dummies willy-nilly for pups under six-months-old isn’t recommended. You only have to go onto a beach or visit a park to see dogs of every shape and size bringing back things that have been thrown for them.
So just because a baby Labrador pup retrieves a sock or a tennis ball with gusto doesn’t mean to say that you have a potential Field Trial Champion on your hands!
Racing ahead through the various stages of formal training before a strong foundation between dog and handler has been forged is usually the root cause of many of the problem issues that confront first-time trainers.
My mantra of “What’s the hurry” is well known. Ahead of you are years of devoted work from your gundog so make sure you lay the foundation on well prepared ground.
Hopefully your pup’s genes will ensure it is already programmed for the job it has been bred to do. Your role is to make sure the pup learns how to execute those inherited skills, but to do so under your control and guidance.
Don’t try starting to teach a 12-week-old pup to sit and stay or drag them around on a lead trying to enforce heelwork. But equally don’t just leave the pup to its own devices with a boring daily routine.
If the pup has just been fed and is then allowed to charge around heedlessly to exercise itself you are doing it no favours. So when the day suddenly dawns and you decide the time is right to “start school” you will find you have mountains to climb.It’s essential that you spend the first five or six months building up a close relationship with the pup so that all the pup wants to do is be with you.
During this time it must learn good manners and be responsive to you; it must trust you implicitly and not be fearful of you, because when the time comes that it does feel under some pressure – and it’s inevitable that at some stage the wheels will fall off the training wagon – your relationship will be strong enough to overcome the problem and enable you to continue positively with your training programme.
By four months or so you can try some very simple games with a tennis ball – perhaps thrown into some long grass. You need to be sitting on the floor at “pup level” so that when the pup comes back it isn’t intimidated in any way. When it successfully finds the ball (even though it had no idea what it was really doing) you are the one and only
person it wants to share the occasion with. This is the first retrieve.
I don’t put a lead on a pup until it is around six months old but when I o the heelwork comes naturally because the pup just wants to follow. Of course it won’t be perfect to start with but I won’t have to start jagging and yanking the pup into position. A battle of wills won’t be necessary.
Likewise with the next level of retrieving with say a canvas puppy dummy. Pups that have established a trusting relationship with the owner and are then given the opportunity to retrieve will usually return with great pride to present “the prize” without delay.
It may be sloppy and puppyish but in essence the pup has returned to you because it is doing what it was bred to do and YOU are the reason it’s doing it. Always be mindful not to let retrieving turn into a game of repeated “throw and fetch”.
Retrieving has to be honed into the skills of finding shot game, adept retrieving and delivering of the game so don’t undermine the process you are ultimately aiming for.
When first-time owners acquire a pup that is clearly “hot” and full of self-confidence, the assumption is to give it lots to do in the hope the activity and the “training” will calm it down. Of course in a very young pup it simply serves to do the opposite and the hot pup simply boils over with all the inevitable problems that ensue based on its age and inexperience.
The really fast and active pups often turn into the most exciting machines to work as adult dogs, but to get the best out of them it’s essential that their formative first few months – before any formal training starts – allows a very close and steady bond to develop with the owner.
The aim must be not to “overcook” a brain that’s already showing signs of reaching boiling point without too much encouragement. And that will happen if the pup is given too much to do too soon. It may be that new owners feel it’s a reflection on their success as a trainer if they can race through a whole raft of skills with their young dog and to announce, as they so often do, a long list of what the dog is capable of.
Of course it’s often very soon evident, even by the look in the dog’s eyes never mind the poor execution of its work, that it clearly doesn’t understand what it’s being asked to do.
There will be those who disagree, but I maintain that for the most part young dogs get it wrong because they don’t know any better rather than any conscious decision they have taken to be awkward and wilful.
Training any animal is about getting across a clear message of instruction that is so definite and clearly understood that it’s followed without question; when that doesn’t happen it’s because it simply hasn’t learned what you are asking it do.
Yes, some dogs are more strong-willed than others and take longer to learn, but so often I see dogs that the owners say are taking too long to “grasp” a skill. The reason is usually that the dog is suffering from information overload.
Brakes should be an essential part of early training and by that I mean there has to be a degree of control. I like to get a young dog to start showing response to the stop-whistle fairly soon even though it can be very elementary and not always look very pretty!
I don’t expect a young dog to drop like a stone 50 yards away when I blow, but I do like to be able t attract a youngster’s attention from a short distance away by using the whistle. That means I am establishing my first stages of control. It means I am laying the foundation to regain control if things go wrong.
Teaching reaction to the stop in a calm and precise way is a huge advantage. It enables control of the situation to be re-gained and time for the dog to stop what it’s doing, clear it’s mind of its confusion and then, and only then, be given another command.
And remember that being able to hunt and find game is a skill that must be encouraged in your early training. I am often aware that first time trainers easily get bogged down by demanding too much precision too soon. We aren’t producing obedience dogs. Youngsters need to be encouraged to hunt.
In all your training give young dogs time to assimilate information. Once they appear to be getting it right allow them time to perfect that skill and to consolidate what they have learnt before rushing ahead to the next stage.
Don’t be in a too much of a panic; your aim is to nurture the raw abilities in a young dog to enable you to produce a skilled and effective working gundog on which you can rely. It’s something that demands patience and an ability to “read your dog”. So take it a stage at a time.
Only two choices – but what’s best for me?
By Jeremy Hunt
Once the decision has been made to buy your first Labrador the next big question is all about sex – dog or bitch?
So are there valid reasons why there should be any difference in the working ability of a dog or a bitch? Or is one easier to train than the other?
In essence the answer is simply that there isn’t any real difference but that doesn’t mean to say that you should ignore a range of considerations before deciding on a male or female shooting companion.
Of course seasoned guns will often have a distinct choice. How often have we heard it said ”Give me a dog any day” or perhaps “Bitches are always easier to train.”
As in all things it’s a case of “each to their own” but for those starting from scratch and with no pre-conceived notions about preferences between dogs and bitches, there are surprisingly several things that do need to be factored into your deliberations over gender choice.
To start with it is a total fallacy that dogs are harder to train than bitches. In terms of ability it is impossible to make any sweeping statement. The ability and temperament of individuals is all about the genetics and breeding behind them and the way they are trained. It has nothing to do with their sex.
So with that cleared up what are the other gender issues that warrant some thought?
Let’s start with dogs. Clearly the primary advantage for most people is the fact that there are no twice-yearly seasons or “heats” to contend with which may interfere with the bitch’s availability for work.
While there are those who prefer the male “attitude” of a dog and believe it brings with it more work focus (not something I agree with) there are also testosterone and sex drive matters to contend with. So a male gundog will inevitably have other things on his mind which can weaken his concentration at times when either training or once he is a fully functional gundog.
Of course a well-trained dog is aware that he has to contain his amorous intentions in just the same way that he has had to master other parts of his training. For some owners that degree of control is not always achieved and can be a lifelong nuisance.
Castration is an option and while vets are now worryingly very keen to dismantle male dog parts with great enthusiasm from a young age, the only real advantage I see is that it removes the ability to deliver the goods rather than diffuse the sexual urge.
So while it’s never wise to make generalisations, I would say that it does not always take away the sex-drive and is not a quick-fix to addressing the problems of a dog that loves to go “bitching”.
There are now hormonal treatments being offered by vets which can be administered to dogs to quell their sexual urge. But anything that tinkers in this way with the natural behaviour of a male is not something I agree with and I would fear it could have an adverse impact in other ways. I would not want any outside influences to potentially undermine my training expectations of a dog. I want a dog to be a dog and to train it in a way that will get the very best from it as an individual – totally in-tacto.
Despite their twice-yearly seasons, there are many guns who prefer to shoot over a bitch rather than a dog. Some will say they are “sweeter” in their attitude and less inclined to be as single-minded as a dog both during their training and in their work on the shooting field.
And of course there is always the opportunity to breed from a bitch, even if for no other reason than to be able to perpetuate the line and “keep it the family” for the future.
But in practical terms it can be very frustrating if a bitch comes on heat at exactly the time you need her to be by your side in the shooting season and likewise there is always the need to be vigilant to avoid an unintended alignment!
To be safe I work on the basis of three weeks and three days before I dare risk a bitch coming into contact with a dog – although in actual terms I will keep dogs away from bitches that have just had a season for at least a month. A friend recently had a bitch mated accidentally on the 22nd day of her heat when she should not have been able to conceive – and she produced 10 pups!
And last year, while enjoying lunch with the pickers-up, one unlucky chap discovered his Labrador bitch “tied” to a Hungarian Viszla dog behind his Land Rover. He was convinced she had long finished her season – clearly her and her paramour new otherwise! So if you are about to take on a bitch pup as a future shooting dog there has to be an acute awareness of the risks.
Spaying is an obvious option if you are convinced you never want to have a litter from a bitch. But once it’s done it’s done and vets do seem very keen to do this to bitches these days. If that is something you decide to opt for I would advise allowing the bitch to have one season before spaying – in my mind it just gives everything the chance to function but I may be old-fashioned!
There are hormonal drugs now available from vets that can deter a bitch’s season if it that is required for whatever reason. Likewise should the worst happen and a bitch is mated by accident, there is a drug treatment available to terminate the pregnancy in the very early stages. In both cases, as any vet will confirm, there can be side-effects and I know of bitches that have had unwanted pregnancies terminated but have gone on to show problematic oestrus cycles for the rest of their lives and some that have never failed to produce pups to planned matings. So opting for a bitch as a shooting dog does come with a deal of responsibility.
The question I am often asked is what is my own personal preference – dog or bitch? For those of us who have spent a lifetime with gundogs we can all remember great dogs of both sexes that have proved themselves to be outstanding in their work. So while I think anyone poised to become the owner of a new gundog – be that puppy or otherwise – should carefully consider the pros and cons of both dogs and bitches, I think it is just as important to do make a personal assessment of yourself as an individual and of the background of the pup you are considering.
Achieving a memorable and reliable partnership with a gundog is as much about your own attitude and ability as well as the dog’s breeding and genetics, as it is about whether you decide on a dog or a bitch pup.