[wp_ad_camp_2]Very few of us keep a working spaniel purely for working.
The vast majority of working spaniels in the UK are also family pets.
And therein lies a problem.
Because the restraints we place on successful working spaniels are simply not acceptable to many pet dog owners.
New spaniel owners are often lulled into a false sense of security during the first few months, only to find control of their dog slipping horribly through their fingers towards the end of the first year.
Sometimes control is not lost until the dog has been ‘let loose’ on the local shoot.
We’ll have a look at what you can do to resolve the situation if your spaniel is running wild, but first lets look at why things went wrong in the first place
Why do working spaniels get out of control?
Serious spaniel trainers all follow a similar set of ‘unwritten rules’ that guide them as they train the dog.
Most people with a pet spaniel that they also want to take shooting, are either unaware of these rules or, are not committed enough to stick to them.
And this causes no end of trouble!
Rules control the fun!
- Rule One: the spaniel is never out of shotgun range unless retrieving on command.
- Rule Two: the spaniel is taught to sit to whistle and flush with absolute reliability
- Rule Three : the spaniel is taught that the handler is the source of all pleasure
Let’s compare this with many pet spaniel owner’s rules
- Rule One: the spaniel has no idea how far he is allowed to go, so he goes as far as he can get away with. Which on family walks is often very far indeed
- Rule Two: the spaniel has no idea what to do when a bird or rabbit flushes, so he makes the obvious choice and chases it.
- Rule Three: the spaniel finds a great deal of entertainment in so many ways (hunting rabbits, playing with the kids, ) that his handler seems quite dull in comparison
Rule One: keep your spaniel close
I can’t emphasise this enough. You need to keep your spaniel close to you. Distance erodes control. My spaniels have never in their lives, been further from me than fifty yards unless retrieving or as part of an obedience exercise. Learning to obey this rule changed my life and if you are keen to have a really good working spaniel, it can change yours too.
Rule Two: thorough obedience is essential
It is vital to get your basic obedience flawless in the absence of distractions, and then go on to ‘proof’ that obedience thoroughly (see below). You cannot hope to control a dog on a shoot, the most exciting place in the world, if he is not faultlessly obedient away from it.
Rule Three: be the centre of your dog’s world
A spaniel working in the field is going to be subjected to tremendous temptation. To counter that temptation, to keep him focused on you, he needs to believe that you are his very best chance of a retrieve, or for an opportunity to hunt.
Everything utterly brilliant in his world needs to happen where you are, and this is more difficult to achieve if he is answerable to three or four different people, all with different standards of behaviour.
Which takes us back to Rule One, because your best chance of convincing your dog that you are the source of the finest entertainment on the planet, is to keep him near you and to be the only person that provides him with what he loves: hunting and retrieving.
I mentioned ‘proofing’ above. And this can be tricky to achieve without help. Perhaps the most significant problem facing the pet dog owner lies in proofing the dog’s basic commands (recall, sit and turn whistles) against the distractions he will face in the field. This is not easy to do without access to live game on a regular basis.
Many people do not understand the proofing process. They are not aware that dogs are poor at generalising commands and need to be carefully taught to obey commands in many different situations. Thus the stop whistle needs to be taught to the dog away from all distractions, and then re-taught in the presence of increasingly challenging distractions.
Many gundog trainers use a rabbit pen or enclosure to complete this process and to arrive at a dog which stops or drops to whistle and flush.
Added to this is the temptation for many pet spaniel owners to take their dog into the shooting field before he is ready.
First fieldwork experiences
The first few outings in to the shooting field are very important. They set the tone for the future and a careful introduction to the shooting field can help to avoid faults like whining and yapping developing.
Once you have a young dog out with you for the day on a shoot it is very easy to let him experience too much excitement. When you only have the one dog, it is not always easy to have the self discipline to put the dog back in the car or take him home when he starts to fall apart.
Taking a young freshly trained spaniel into the beating line of a shoot is a common mistake with new spaniel owners. The noise, smells, excitement, constant flushes, gunshots, and falling birds is enough to melt the brain of many a young dog and send him into an out of control frenzy from which it is difficult for the handler to recover.
What is the answer?
If your dog is still very young and has not yet been taken shooting the answer is straightforward. Follow the rules, get a good training book (you can buy mine from the Gundog Club – proceeds go to the Gundog Trust – grade one is for complete beginners) and consult a professional trainer for help with proofing your dog’s commands before taking him onto a shoot.
Resist the pressure, to ‘untrain’ your dog, which will be place upon you by others that do not share your goals or requirements (see below). Focus on what you really want for your dog and you won’t go wrong.
But if you are reading this, the chances are you have already got into difficulties. Your dog is probably between ten and twenty months old, and has already started chasing game or running in.
I would like to say there is a simple solution to this problem but sadly there is not. Bringing an ‘out of control spaniel’ back under your control again, is not straightforward.
You will need to stop all access to game and re-establish some sound brakes and steering before re-introducing game under controlled conditions. You will need to ensure that your dog is not allowed to engage in any more self-rewarding acts of misbehaviour and to keep him within a very short distance of you whilst you re-establish obedience.
All your spaniel’s exercise will need to be managed so that he will either be
- Quartering within 20 yards of you
- Retrieving dummies under close supervision
- Walking at heel
You will not succeed if you or any other members of your family allow the dog to run around hunting for himself.
You will definitely benefit from some help from an experienced spaniel trainer, including access to his facilities for working your dog amongst game when the time comes.
Before you dip into your wallet for this help, you need to decide exactly what you want from your dog and what you are prepared to do to get it. Because without commitment you will be wasting your money.
It may be that you decide that attaining a good standard of spaniel fieldwork is not for you. If you decide you really want to succeed then you need to go into the process with both eyes open.
What do you want from your dog?
Do you want a close quartering spaniel that flashes from side to side in front of you as you walk forwards, always in range, and stopping to wait for your instructions each time a bird or rabbit flushes or is shot? This is the role at which the spaniel excels. It is a wonderful feeling watching a hard hunting little spaniel working his heart out, all within a few yards of his handler.
Perhaps you don’t do much rough shooting and want a peg dog? Many people choose a retriever for this role, but spaniels can make a perfectly good job of retrieving from the peg. Both my cockers are happy to sit on a peg if the situation requires it. You will need to be careful to avoid too much excitement too soon if you don’t want a ‘whining’ problem to develop.
Maybe your passion is beating, and you want your dog to work in the beating line. This is one of most demanding roles for a young spaniel. Few serious spaniel trainers will take a young spaniel into a busy beating line for a number of reasons. The beating line moves at a speed determined by the beat keeper, not at a speed suited to a spaniel quartering and covering the ground effectively.
You cannot hold up the beating line whilst you correct your spaniel, or get him back under control, it moves inexorably forwards and becomes ever more exciting as the beaters draw nearer to the guns. Once you have been given your position in the beating line you cannot pick and choose where you work your dog. You have to maintain the line.
Beating through low cover crops will enable you to keep your spaniel in sight but on many shoots this kind of beating is not available. On some shoots the dogs are pretty much ‘tipped in’ at one end of the drive and reassembled at the other. Control over your young dog will be lost before lunch time on the first day in these conditions.
Beating unravels training like nothing else, so please think carefully before taking a young spaniel beating.
Precautions to take when introducing your dog to the shooting field
Picking up is a much better choice than beating for your dog’s first season. Try to team up with an experienced picker up so that your dog is not sent on runners. An inexperienced dog will not only become unsteady if allowed to chase runners, he may also be tempted to shake or even bite a wounded bird to stop it struggling.
Make it ‘blind retrieves only’ for at least the first two or three shoot days.Never let a young inexperienced dog pick up a bird he has seen fall only a few moments ago, even if it is dead. He will rapidly become unsteady and start running in.
If you are a keen shot, and enjoy driven shooting, have the dog sat on your peg and do not let him pick up a single bird on his first few outings. Don’t think of taking him on a three hundred bird day until he has proven he can remain calm and steady on a small, much quieter shoot.
Resisting pressure from other people
If you are beating, or on a ‘walk and stand’ shoot, you may be put under a lot of pressure from keepers and beaters to ‘let your dog go’. If they see your young dog behaving well, they will assume that the dog will also be fine if chucked into half an acre of six foot high brambles. I promise you that he will not. A young spaniel should never be out of your sight for more than a few seconds.
If this is your first dog people will be very free with their advice. Ask yourself how their spaniel behaves. Remember that an older dog may be given more freedom. And if those offering their opinions don’t have a spaniel nod politely and ignore them!
Remember also that the keeper’s aim is to flush as many pheasants as possible today. He needs birds in the bag to avoid embarrasment and he does not care how your dog behaves in six months time.
You can be quite sure that when your little dynamo is running out of control by the end of the first shoot, the keeper who was urging your dog on just a few hours ago will be the first to shout ‘get that bloody dog on a lead’!
If you are asked to put your young spaniel into thick cover, politely explain that he is still too inexperienced to be out of your sight.
The fact is, if you want a high standard of behaviour from your spaniel, you have to start behaving like the serious spaniel trainer in the examples above. I learned this the hard way after attempting to compromise with several dogs. Unfortunately no-one will pat you on the back for these aims. And many will enjoy watching you abandon them.
But if you stick to your guns, you will get your reward. Not only will you have a dog that is a pleasure to shoot over, you will one day bask in the warmth of the compliments you receive about your spaniel. You will not regret the efforts that you have made nor all that you have learned. And you will have a dog to be proud of for years to come
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