On the 21st January 2019 Jazz will turn 3 years old. It’s been the most amazing three years that taught me a lot and I recently had an idea to share some of my observations about my training experiences as a list of various Working Spaniel specific training vs how it helped me with my girl who doesn’t regularly work on shoots.
Working Gundog Basics: Walks
All three Gundog trainers I took Jazz to, as well as numerous articles, Facebook groups I joined and books I read through, all advise not to “go for a dog walk” with young spaniels.
Main reason for this is that an average young working bred spaniel doesn’t have a concept of a “walk with owner on a footpath”. Whilst there will be exceptions of this rule, most want to tear the countryside upside down and hunt, chase, hunt, chase, hunt. I found this to be very much the case with young Jazz.
In the first year of her life she was always on a verge of no-control even though I was consciously incompetent and tried my best to follow various advice I was given to the best of my abilities. Looking back I can see that I was only doing 50% of what I could have been doing and perhaps didn’t take some statements seriously enough.
For a young working gundog there should never be an option for free running in the countryside as it brings up a dog that is impossible to work in the required shooting range or one that hunts uncontrollably becoming a hazard to itself and others.
Pet Gundog experiences with the above:
From the perspective of the three years I have a much better appreciation for the seriousness of the potential problems. To the best of my then knowledge I followed the “no walks” advice and I tried to create as much interactive outdoor time as I then knew how. With my next puppy I will add much more fun games that keep her attention on me all the time. I will know the real price of chasing and how long it takes to repair the behaviour. I was lucky in that I was able to make up with more training focus later in Jazzy’s training what I didn’t quite see to enough in her adolescence. Combination of her biddable nature, trainable attitude, strong bond with me and a lot of time helped me avoid potential disaster but I know some owners of older spaniels that can never walk them off leash now. This would be beyond sad for me.
Often I see posts in Facebook groups of new owners asking what should they be doing training wise with their 3,4,6 months spaniels and there will always be a short reply in between more elaborate ones that would go something like: “be the centre of your dog’s world”, or “just enjoy your dog”. I now think this is the best advice. Young spaniels are such a bundle of energy and joy that it’s near impossible to match that but it is possible to channel it with interactions.
Summary: The no walking of a young working spaniel rule seems of triple importance for a pet gundog in my experience. I love taking Jazz for walks and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do it without her hunting out of control if I didn’t catch her over zealous nature early enough.
Gundog Skill: Quartering
In basic terms, it’s picking a line of travel pointing into the wind and zig-zaging fairly tightly from one side of it to the other!
The purpose of quartering is to enable your dog to thoroughly and effectively search a piece of ground, and to keep him within shotgun range so that anything he flushes can be shot. [Totally Gundogs, Pippa Mattinson]
Pet Gundog benefits from my experience:
Jazz absolutely loved this from the moment I started “quartering games” in her puppyhood. She liked to peruse the ground in a pattern of sorts anyway but although it took absolutely ages to get to anywhere with this way of walking, it was one of the best ways of keeping her near me and away from hedges with young birds which she was desperate to control the population of…
In her second year she was very fast to pull away from me and very eager to chase game of which we have a lot of where we live. I ended up teaching her not to enter any cover because she would run into everything, cutting her ears, stop pads, injuring her eyes etc It was as if she had no care and as I didn’t need her to be such a fearless maniac, I taught her to stop before entering anything.
In fields with higher grass, the quartering helped me greatly with keeping her from simply shooting off in a straight like a rocket and allowed me to control her by letting her do what she loves to do: hunting the ground for scents of game.
This is something I would put much more emphasis on teaching to my next pup as it’s so instinctive and so much fun for them yet so incredibly useful. It can be done in simple manner by sending the dog to quarter near the owner but also at a distance which again I think it has a great value in control department. There were times where Jazz would absolutely lose her brain and was so high on emotion I found it impossible to stop her but I could slow her down by asking her to start quartering. If I taught this with more diligence I know it would have helped me so much more on our woodland walks which she loves but where sometimes I have to put her on a lead as she goes too loopy! Quartering is something I practice with her often now when walking the fields at home and I hope to improve her skills even more once the days start getting longer.
Working Gundog skill: Retrieving
The Gundog Club runs non-competitive Field Tests graded 1 to 6. The first four tests are done on dummies and no cold game or genuine shooting conditions are needed to take part in them. I’ll list the retrieving requirements for each below if anyone is interested.
Grade One Hunting Retriever (spaniel) Field Test
RETRIEVE NO 1 A single marked retrieve on land and in clear view at 15 yards. RETRIEVE NO 2 A single marked retrieve on land and in clear view at 20 yards.
The Gundog Club: Grade Two Hunting Retriever (spaniel) Field Test
RETRIEVE NO 1 Memory retrieve
The handler carries a dummy and walks the dog at heel (off lead) from the starting post to the 20-yard marker. The handler drops the dummy at the 20-yard marker and returns to the starting post. Without undue delay, the assessor will instruct the handler when to send the dog for the retrieve.
RETRIEVE NO 2 Split retrieve, either right or left – as determined by the assessor.
A dummy is thrown either side of the dog, who is facing the handler. The dog must remain steady whilst the dummies are thrown and must fetch the dummy requested by the assessor on a hand signal from the handler. The handler is situated three to five yards from the dog. The dog is positioned with his back to a fence, hedge or similar barrier.
RETRIEVE NO 3 Marked retrieve in clear view at 30 yards.
RETRIEVE NO 4 Marked retrieve into light cover at 25 yards.
The Gundog Club: Grade Three Hunting Retriever (spaniel) Field Test
SEEN RETRIEVES: TWO marked retrieves to take place during hunting. After the stop whistle, and once steadiness to fall has been demonstrated, the assessor will instruct the handler to go to the dog. The dog will then be sent from the handler’s side, for each retrieve. Delivery to hand is essential.
OBSTACLE RETRIEVE: ONE marked retrieve across a minor obstacle, such as a small stream or ditch. Swimming is not required. The final retrieve should be carried out after the end of the hunting test.
The Gundog Club: Grade Four Hunting Retriever (spaniel) Field Test
BLIND RETRIEVE: A short blind retrieve (up to 20 yards) the dog to be sent from the handler’s side. MARKED RETRIEVE OVER A JUMP : Length of retrieve – up to 25 yards. Maximum height of jump ‘two feet’. The dog to be sent from the handler’s side.
Pet Gundog Retrieving Skills: benefits and experiences
From earliest age Jazzy loved carrying objects in her mouth, loved finding things around the house and parading with them like some kind of victorious hound. I didn’t really have to teach her to retrieve anything, it was as if she was born with a blueprint of “find it”. The one thing I failed at teaching well was retrieve to hand and as a result she can often be seen doing round of honours around me rather than delivering the object to me. I will definitely not make that mistake with my next one 🙂
The benefits of Grade 1-4 retrieves are, in my experience, aplenty. The biggest one is that it has helped me keep Jazzy close, interested (on a verge of obsessed to be fair!) in what I am doing, passionate about communicating with me about the retrieves and it provided me with many play games she absolutely adores.
Jazz can, in a fashion, perform all retrieves including those in Grade 5 & 6 but she’s not the steadiest in her work (that’s an understatement) and she’s also not the greatest swimmer so I only tested her over a shallow, narrow stream near my work for a water obstacle retrieve for Grade 5 retrieve. Although I only practiced this with her on few occasions, she can retrieve cold game without issues and wounded game and she is very good at delivering those to hand but she can be very hit and miss with dummies if she has the slightest suspicion she can play running around 😉
Summary: Retrieving dummies and hunting games in controlled manner have contributed to a superb teamwork between us. I often hear from other working spaniel owners saying that their dogs are fabulous at home and in the garden but the moment they go out, the dogs just want to go. I really do think that it’s important to realise what my dog is passionate about and nurture that in a way that goes well with what we want to do.
Working Gundog Skills: Steadiness to fall
A well mannered gundog does not retrieve until given permission to do so. He must sit calmly whilst the retrieve falls to the ground and wait for permission to be sent. We call this ‘steadiness’ to fall. […] Waiting for a command before setting off to fetch a retrieve, is all part and parcel of learning to be a well behaved gundog. [Totally Gundogs, Pippa Mattinson] Read more
Pet Gundog benefits from my experience
Teaching Jazz to wait for being send for her retrieves quite simply revolutionised my ability to control her impulses. It is supposed to teach self-control and it certainly have done with Jazz. She became much more interested in checking in with me, waiting for her release signals. This in turn started helping hugely with her chase instincts.
She is a very passionate retriever so I don’t know how beneficial this particular skill would be for a dog with less drive but for us, it transformed her from a hectic dog that wanted to run to every ball thrown and dummy launched, to a much more composed and measured dog calmly marking objects I throw and waiting to know which one she should run to. I found her ability to exercise self-control in this simple exercise, had a big effect in other situations, seemingly unconnected ones like: should I chase that wallaby or maybe I could sprint after that Patagonian Hare? (we have a decent choice of wildlife here 😉 )
Perhaps controversially, I loved taking Jazz to a small shoot for a combination of beating and some picking up of missed birds after the shoot. It’s an amazing sight watching these dogs hunt and the moments when she was actually working with me, taking directions, it feels like an incredible teamwork. Many other aspects of “shooting for sport” disagree with me for variety of reasons so I don’t work Jazz but for anyone who saw a working spaniel doing their job it’s clear what motivates them and it’s a great lesson in how to use their drives for pet gundog control.
I would definitely recommend Gundog training for anyone with a working bred spaniel/other gundog. I personally looked into various training methods but after a lesson with Jules Morgan from The Gundog Trainers Academy I settled firmly on positive reinforcement training.