There are times when we, as gundog owners and handlers, wish the ground would swallow us up. Fear not. Janet Menzies suggests the cures for the worst sins
Bad gundog behaviour is not difficult to solve, but some adjustments to your training might be required. Janet Menzies charts the top 10 gundog crimes – and how to fix them.
The perfect gundog is made, not born. So for more, follow the 9 gundog training tips from The Field.
GUNDOG BEHAVIOUR: THE TOP 10 GUNDOG CRIMES
Of course, none of our own dogs would ever commit any of these crimes, but just in case you have a friend whose dog is a bit of a sinner, here are the top 10 gundog faults — and how to cure them (so that you can give your friend a bit of help).
1: PULLING ON THE LEAD
In at number one yet again, pulling on the lead is the most common problem reported by all dog owners, and massively exploited by the manufacturers of various harness-type contraptions.
In fact, the issue is that the dog does not heel. Look at it logically. If the dog is heeling, he is not pulling. So, rather than spending a fortune on bondage gear, teach him to heel.
You can teach heel on or off the lead. With a pup, start off the lead. Get his favourite attachment object. Like Harry Potter house-elf Dobby, pups become attached to their owners’ socks. Having first removed the sock from your foot, dangle it by your side as you tap your thigh with it, saying the pup’s name and the word “heel”. He will follow. Make a sharp turn across his path so he cannot help but keep close to your thigh. Make a fish-hook turn back on yourself. Again, he has nowhere else to go but close to your heel. The pup will become involved in this game and will start following you as you zigzag around.
You can use a similar technique when he is on the lead. Use a simple, cheap, slip-lead. Put it on correctly with the ring on your side and the end coming out of the bottom of the ring, so it naturally falls loose.
Sit up your dog, usually on your left side. Walk forward to your left on a diagonal line or curve, which is going to take you across in front of the dog.
He may try to pull, but you are already beginning to walk across in front of him. Keep walking across and into him, so he has nowhere to go. Follow your heeling exercises and you will soon find a loop in the lead.
With a dog that has already got a pull on, turn round sharply and walk in the opposite direction for a few paces. You are now pulling the dog. Turn again, towards the dog and that elusive loop in the lead is there.
2: NOT COMING BACK
This is problem made famous by social-media star Fenton, as millions watched him chasing deer in Richmond Park while his owner begged and pleaded with him to come back.
Easy to solve. Do not beg your dog to come. Dogs beg, not humans. Puppies come to their owners instinctively. All you have to do is use the pup’s name, add the command “come”, a repeated pip on the whistle and welcoming body language.
This works until the pup begins to push the boundaries. The first time a young gundog deliberately disobeys the instruction, you must be firm immediately. If you are sure he heard you, understood you and didn’t do it, then go over — run if necessary — and grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him back towards you while pipping your whistle.
If you have allowed this problem to set in with an older dog, create a situation you can control, otherwise known as a trap. Recruit a friend. Find an enclosed area (not Richmond Park) where the dog cannot go too far. Get the friend to hide. When the dog is bounding around near where your friend is hiding, give the return command. At the exact moment your dog is not obeying, the friend must leap out of hiding and grab the dog, much in the way that divine intervention strikes down the sinful.
You now have the upper hand over your dog and you must keep it. Never, ever, repeat the come command when it has been deliberately disobeyed.
3: SWTICHING RETRIEVES
Moving rapidly up the charts, switching retrieves is the result of poorly managed picking-up teams on big driven days. The simple solution is to watch him work, rather than chatting to your friends. As soon as the dog has picked a retrieve, pip him back to you.
In training, teach your dog to pick a specific retrieve by throwing distraction dummies both before you send him and during the retrieve (outrun and/or return).
Remember to throw the distraction on the other side of you from the initial retrieve, so that you are always between the dog and the distraction. This gives you a chance to intervene and physically stop your dog from going for the distraction.
Previously at number one, running-in has dropped down the charts recently. Unfortunately, this is more because owners have stopped seeing it as a fault than because it is any less prevalent. It is a fault, and a big one. Running-in ruins the drive and makes your dog unsafe to shoot over.
The issue is a failure to teach and enforce the golden rules of steadiness: sit, stay and drop to shot or flush. If the dog sits and stays sat no matter what, he won’t run-in. So when you teach your pup to sit (or hup) with verbal command, hand gesture and whistle, make sure he remains sat until you release him with another instruction. Sit the dog up outside the kitchen window at feed time. Go inside and keep an eye on him while you prepare the feed. Knowing he is waiting for food will help him stay put for as long as it takes.
If you have a chance to train in a rabbit pen, you can have controlled circumstances to make sure the dog is listening to the whistle when flushing or bolting game. Another good exercise is dogging-in, where your dog will only be moving birds and not having the additional excitement of shots and retrieving. Work the dog close to you, so that you have the opportunity to step in and stop him if he makes a move. Then work in the opposite direction from where he moved.
5: MAKING A NOISE
The fault of making a noise is quite often cured by a neighbouring Gun walking over and removing the dog to a nearby vehicle, ditch, or other convenient hole in the ground, which the dog’s owner wishes would also swallow him up.
Dogs generally make a noise through fear, pain or excitement. Find out which and deal with the source. With fearful whining and whimpering, take a step back and let the dog gain courage and maturity before going back out on shoots. A yelp of pain shouldn’t be overlooked. Speaking through excitement is more difficult to assess as it can come from too much or too little game. If the dog only gets a flush or a retrieve as often as your team scores a goal, it may give a bark of triumph, but this subsides when work becomes commonplace. Conversely, a younger dog in the thick of things will let you know when its brain is fusing.
6: MOUTHING GAME
It is often not spotted until the game is rejected by the dealer, otherwise mouthing game would be higher up the charts. It’s on the same fault spectrum as switching retrieves, and generally stems from handler error. As soon as the dog is picking the retrieve, pip him straight back to you so he doesn’t have a chance to mouth and play with the bird.
Once set in, mouthing and biting game is almost impossible to cure, so best prevented in the first place. Don’t send a young dog for runners, strong live retrieves or heavy retrieves until he is picking up and carrying calmly and without effort.
7: UNSTEADY ON PEG
A permanent top 10 chart entry, unsteady on peg regularly contributes to the profits of dog-kit manufacturers as owners engage in a nuclear-arms race of dog-restraint mechanisms. Loop the lead over the peg; attach the dog to your cartridge bag; tread on the lead or some part of the dog’s anatomy — all these result in chaos and humiliation. With climate change resulting in boggier ground, even the trusty corkscrew is no longer up to the job.
Instead, you could become one of the super-cool guns with a no-slip peg dog. Even on a day when your shooting is rubbish, there is little to beat the smug feeling of your peg dog sitting like a charismatic and faithful statue at your side through a 30-minute drive, unflinching before the successive temptations of a rain of dead birds, running hares, deer and wild picking-up dogs.
It takes about two seasons to train a peg dog and involves you lending your gun in the shoot to a friend for most of the season, so you can focus completely on the dog. Actual retrieves are kept to a minimum, even with a fully-trained peg dog. To keep a dog steady on the peg, you must accept his role is iconic.
8: GENERAL DISOBEDIENCE
In at number eight on this chart, disobedient dog in fact tops the list of owner faults. Bad dog handling makes bad dogs. As owners and handlers, we are the ones who train our dogs to be disobedient. Most pups start out obedient and delightfully willing to please. They follow us round like dogs while we owners cheerfully ignore them — until they do something wrong. Only then do we give the young dog any real attention. This is called faulty reinforcement, and this is how you train your dog to be disobedient.
Going back to Fenton, if he comes back, nobody notices and everybody goes on chatting and ignoring him. But if he dashes off, then he gets our attention. Pretty soon everybody is down on their knees imploring him: “Good boy, come, there’s a good boy.” This is a win-win for Fenton. Not only is he getting freedom but also he is getting attention. Even more wonderful is the fact that he is being praised for being disobedient. Put yourself in Fenton’s position and ask yourself why you wouldn’t repeat this behaviour? Remember to engage with your dog. Notice and immediately praise his good behaviour. Do not tolerate his bad behaviour, step in and make it clear to the dog that you are not pleased.
In most cases, aggression stems from insecurity. Set firm boundaries for your dog to help him mature. You need to be completely consistent in your relationship with the dog. If you change according to your mood, the dog will be confused and uncertain. Avoid treating your gundog as a human being. Don’t let him up on furniture, or feed him when humans are eating, and definitely not on the bed. A dog needs to know that he is a dog and what that place is. A dog that thinks he is human won’t know how to interact with other dogs and this is when aggression can arise. It can also spill over into dominant behaviour with humans, especially children.
Using an indoor kennel in a quiet part of the house, or a utility area, gives the dog his own space to relax. This takes the pressure off everyone. Allow it to set the tone for creating a calm, confident dog that knows when enough is enough.
If you own a cocker spaniel, stop reading now and buy a pair of waterproof overtrousers or overalls. One of the most successful spaniel trainers of all time, Ian Openshaw, even has special overalls embroidered with his Rytex kennel affix. Covering up is the only cure for a spaniel that jumps up.