Puppy training for gun dogs
by Barry Oliver
We all like to see the brilliant gundog performer, the star of field or swamp, defying belief with its game-finding or retrieving ability. The gundog that helps fill the bag is not only a joy to watch, but also an essential part of the responsible hunter’s outfit.
The unruly, knuckle-headed gundog, oblivious to its handler’s commands, racing around the swamp or paddock, chasing anything that moves, including stock, is a liability not only to the hunting party but also to the hunter’s cause. All gundogs at birth have within them the potential to end up this way. Hunting genes are no guarantee of good manners. In an untrained gundog, it’s possible they can end up giving canine outlaws extra petrol tickets with which to create even more mayhem.
Undoubtedly the first basic tenet to follow when purchasing a hunting companion that is going to spend hours and hours with you in the hunting field during the next ten or so years is breeding. The various breeds available to the Australian hunter today didn’t just appear by chance, nor were they the result of random breeding by hunters who gave little or no thought to what they were doing when planning that next litter.
The breeds bequeathed to us today came about as a result of careful breeding programs carried out by knowledgeable and dedicated enthusiasts who knew what they were after and were single-minded in their approach to achieving it. This quest for perfection is still going on today, so why not take advantage of it? In all livestock breeding, an improvement in quality only comes about as a result of careful, selective breeding and it is exactly the same with gundog breeding.
One final word of advice on this aspect of purchasing your next pup: in general, stay away from show-bred only lines. In many gundog breeds these days, the divergence between show and working lines is so great that there are practically two sub-breeds within the one breed, so unless you really know what you are doing, select your breeder carefully.
Once you get young ‘Jack’ home, at about seven to eight weeks, his basic training can start almost immediately. In fact, it can start before you bring him home – in the car. Chances are, Jack is going to be spending a fair bit of time travelling throughout his hunting life and anyone who has had a dog with carsickness or car fear knows what a disaster it can be. Dogs suffering from these problems will arrive at your favourite hunting spot a physical or psychological wreck.
Most pups will survive the first trip home none the worse for wear but a percentage will not. Guard against this by using some common sense - maybe a couple of short, happy trips followed by a bit of a game. Maybe introduce the pup to a new toy at the breeder’s and then place this in the car with the dog. Perhaps the kids can accompany you and play with the pup along the way. Whatever you do, try to make what could otherwise be a traumatic event, a pleasant and relaxing experience for the pup - it could pay big dividends later.
Once home and settled in, basic obedience can start from day one; however, one vitally important rule at this stage is to keep it all brief and enjoyable. While there is a place for more rigorous training, this is a long way in the future. At this stage make Jack your mate and make sure he enjoys training. It is surprising what a young pup can learn in the first few weeks at its new home and essential ingredients in its future working life should have their genesis during this time. Basics such as Jack learning his name, coming when called, retrieving, sitting, learning the meaning of ‘No’, learning to go into the kennel when told, learning not to bark unnecessarily, leash manners and getting into the vehicle are all elements that should be in the curriculum of the prospective gundog.
Just remember however, never get too carried away with the progress that you might make in these early weeks and start rushing Jack’s training. A young pup can develop surprisingly quickly when training and there is always a temptation to see how clever Jack is by pushing him that little bit too far, or perhaps by trying to show him off in front of a couple of mates.
Many experienced dog people will tell you that such events will more than likely end in disaster, especially the scenario where a couple of mates have just arrived on the scene and you want to impress them with Jack’s prowess. It seems to be one of the unwritten laws of dog training that just when you want to show someone what your up-until-now-gundog-prodigy has been doing, the wheels will fall off. Such experiences will do nothing for your confidence or your pup’s development, so avoid them.
One of the great motivating factors for all young pups is food and a lot of valuable, seemingly incidental training can be done around meal times. Blow your whistle just as you put Jack’s bowl of food in front of him and it won’t be long before a toot on the whistle will be enough to bring him running.
When out giving him a walk, wait until his attention is on you, toot your whistle, call his name, run backwards a few paces as he comes in to you and then reward him with a tasty tidbit when he arrives full of joy at your feet. Vary this by sometimes not giving him any food, replacing it with a lot of patting and perhaps a game for a few seconds. In time you will be able to remove the food from the situation completely. Add to this program by gently pushing him into a sit when he arrives, say the word ‘sit’ and when he does, follow up with the reward of a tidbit or much joyful patting.
When he is eating, introduce a few loud noises in the background, clapping two pieces of wood together is a good idea. Throughout a period of weeks, introduce a starting pistol if that can be arranged. Before too long you will have imprinted a number of valuable field lessons, whistle recognition, name recognition, recalling, sitting and gunfire, all in a no-stress, happy situation.
Basic retrieving lessons can be started in much the same way. Select a passageway or a similarly long space from which no real deviation is possible. Hold Jack gently in position, quickly get him really interested in a soft object such as a rolled up sock and throw it a short distance while he is watching it. When it hits the ground, use the words Jack is going to hear for the rest of his working life - ‘Fetch it!’ - and let him go.
If you have aroused his interest correctly, the moment you let him go he will be after it in a flash. The instance he picks it up, call his name in a joyous tone, getting his attention. Run back two or three paces, squat down so that you are at his level and nine times out of ten he will come bounding back to you. Don’t rip the object out of his mouth straight away, instead play with him for a few seconds and then gently remove it, perhaps using the word ‘Give’, maybe using a tidbit to distract him while you take the retrieved item from him. Again, follow this up with a mighty dose of praise. Do not overdo this type of activity. Two or three successful ‘retrieves’ of this nature in a session, maybe two or three times a week is ample for a little pup.
After awhile, sit Jack in position before you send him, hold him in the sit for a few seconds before release and very slowly increase the length of the sit stay.
One aspect of the field star of tomorrow’s training that must not be neglected is socialisation. The gundog that gets on well with everyone, people and dogs, and is not upset by new and unexpected experiences is a joy to own. On the other hand, there is the occasional gundog that wants to fight or bite - a menace in anyone’s language. The cure? It’s basic, don’t let the problem start. Get Jack used to everything - noises, people, other dogs, trucks going by, stairs, the dark, wind, aircraft, other people’s cars, everything he might conceivably come across and then some.
Obedience classes are a great place for Jack to meet all sorts of dogs but don’t just go for a few weeks, stick to it. Believe me, the learning experiences that both you and Jack will get as he moves up through the obedience ranks are not going to be wasted when he is in the field. Some of the best field and retrieving trial gundogs have spent more than a bit of time at the local dog obedience class.
Apart from these training related matters, the other important things in your young champ’s early weeks are nutrition and health matters. Nutritionally, there are some excellent performance dog foods on the market. Although expensive, they are regarded highly by many people who know what’s what when it comes to dogs and dog food.
Veterinary care, in terms of the major preventative safeguards, should always be carried out in a conscientious manner, as it should for all dogs. There are no shortcuts in this area and the gundog puppy should be given the best care available.
These are just some of the important basics that you can work on while Jack is at a crucial stage in his early development. Of course, there are other aspects that have not been touched upon; however, you can add to your store of knowledge on gundog training by reading everything you can on the subject in both books and magazines.
For the early stages of training, general dog training books are a good starting point; more specialised gundog training books can come a few months down the track. Ideally, reading should take place before the purchase of your new pride and joy. The SSAA’s gundog group, the Working Gundog Association of Australia, can also offer advice and valuable training (see their notices in the Australian Shooter).
Basic training for Jack in those first crucial months as a young pup is in many ways identical to that which applies to any dog who is going to spend many years as a performance or working dog. Getting to know his future boss, becoming a good citizen, adjusting to life in the 21st century, combined with enjoyable play training appropriate to the future role in life, is of basic importance for guide dogs, police dogs, customs dogs and your gundog.
The idea that the gundog should be like the man in the grey flannel suit, a tool that is brought out for the hunting trip and then put away until next time, could not be further from the truth. Time spent getting the basics in place will help develop a brilliant hunting companion, a mate with a character and personality who can do his stuff with a passion that will make your heart stop. It’s all up to you!
Image 1: The hunter approaches his Irish setter while the pointer shows excellent backing manners, honouring its bracemate’s point. Brilliant work, but in order to achieve it the trainer put in may hours of basic training.
Image 2: Young pointer put on tentative point - This pup shows great potential and possibly he will fulfil the promise he shows. However, to a large extent it all depends on the basic training he receives as a youngster.