All gundogs must be able to hunt.
Retrievers are expected to hunt for shot game, whether dead or wounded and to ignore live unharmed game.
Spaniels are expected to hunt and flush live unharmed game in addition to carrying out a ‘retrieving role’.
Pointers are expected hunt and point live game and to flush on command.
Because the ability to hunt is so crucial to the role of the hunting retriever (spaniels and hprs) this skill is rightly given great importance in their field trials.
And our working gundog breeding stock are selected with hunting ability firmly in mind.
A natural ability
Hunting is the instinctive pursuit of scent. Spaniels hunt ground scent, some other gundog breeds hunt air scent. You cannot teach a dog to hunt. What you can do, is teach the dog to ‘cover its ground’ efficiently, and help give the dog the confidence to enter all sorts of vegetation in search of scent.
Getting started with hunting
The speed and enthusiasm with which a dog hunts are a combination of its genetic ‘drive’ to hunt, and its confidence.[wp_ad_camp_1]Your job is to ensure that your spaniel puppy is confident in all types of terrain.
That does not mean allowing a puppy to race around out of control, or attempting to force it to enter punishing cover.
It does mean giving the puppy the opportunity to explore different types of countryside.
Exposure to countryside
Take your puppy to leafy woodland floors, let him run through long grass, muddy paths and tracks, and clumps of bracken, heather and other types of vegetation. Your puppy needs to scramble over tree stumps and logs, splash through puddles, push through leaves, and just generally become confident in his own ability to negotiate the countryside. His own natural hunting instinct will grow and develop provided that this confidence is in place.
Indeed it may grow and develop rather faster than you expect. Particularly in some of our spaniel breeds.
Hunting instincts in working gundog breeds tend therefore to be very strong indeed, and this can sometimes cause problems for their owners. Particularly with spaniels.
Hunting can easily get ‘out of control’. For this reason it is important to establish a balance between encouraging that hunting drive and establishing boundaries.
In spaniels this is best achieved by taking great trouble to keep your spaniel very close to you indeed, whilst hunting. You can find out more about keeping spaniel puppies close to you in this article: Keeping your gundog puppy close
The HPR breeds require a different approach because their role is to range out further than a spaniel. If you are training an HPR puppy with fieldwork in mind, it is important to consult an experienced HPR trainer for advice about hunting.
You might also find it very helpful to read The Versatile Gundog: Training HPRs for Gun, Rifle and Hawk
Reluctance to hunt
Some young gundogs can appear reluctant to hunt. Sometimes this is because they are being asked to hunt where there is little scent.
Some dogs may need more scent and fresher scent to get them hunting with enthusiasm, than others. This is less likely to be a problem in a working bred dog but it can happen.
You need to try and ensure that young dogs have access to ground where there is plenty of scent. A bare football pitch may not be sufficient. You may need to put yourself out to find a meadow or field where rabbits are active at night, in order to get a reluctant puppy really hunting well with his nose glued to the ground.
With an older reluctant hunter your best bet is to pay a professional gundog trainer for some help and the use of his rabbit pen.
Moving on with hunting
Once your puppy is hunting confidently you will need to ‘organise’ the way in which he hunts so as to achieve good ground coverage. Hunting in a structured pattern is the most effective way to go, and most working bred spaniels take to this very quickly and happily. Here is an article to get you started: Quartering for spaniels
Hunting for retrievers
Retrievers have to hunt too, but unless you are using your retriever as a rough shooting hunting retriever, he will only be expected to hunt shot game. And this simplifies things somewhat.
Just like spaniels, retriever puppies need to experience lots of different types of terrain in order to develop the confidence to hunt with enthusiasm.
Once retrieving practice is under way then you will need to work on helping your dog develop his abilities by giving him the opportunity to gain experience. He will need to learn to collect retrieves from all kinds of different places, and to cross all kinds of obstacles in order to get access to the retrieve. Teaching a ‘hunt’ command will help you to keep the retriever hunting in a specific area so that you can work as a team together. Check out this video by gundog trainer Dave Latham for an idea of how this works in practice.
Effective hunting is a product then, of the dog’s instincts, the confidence you help to instil in him, and the boundaries you impose as you control him. The end product is an outstanding piece of teamwork between man (or woman) and dog. And is a joy to behold.
How about you?
Do you have any favourite tips for getting puppies hunting well? Share your thoughts in the comments box below
If you enjoy my articles, you might like my new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.
Alistair Stobie says
I meant to comment on the hunting article; as a year-old on relatively scent free ground he worked a beautiful pattern which was possibly even a little fussy. As the scent level increased (doggingin and early partridge days) it pulled his pattern out completely.
By chance work means that the only time I get to train is early in the morning, which now means mostly in the dark. It’s really tightened up the pattern again even on rabbitt-heavy ground. I still don’t like getting rained on in the dark.
Alistair Stobie says
Tried that; put him away n box in a break and tried to feed and water him. Entirely uninterested (water was not stagnant mosquito ridden). Going to try liquid honey and high energy snacks
We use liquid honey for our cocker. She loves it, but even a reluctant dog will probably lick it off his muzzle! Good luck 🙂
Alistair Stobie says
Did your collapsing spaniel article disappear? Interested to know what people do to keep the energy levels up during the day. Mine won’t eat during a hunting day until back home. Noticeable on a days walked-up that his drive on the last drive was noticeably down.
Hi Alistair, it is scheduled for publication on 4th November. Some dogs that won’t eat at work, will eat if put in a vehicle. Is there a shoot vehicle he could sit in for a few minutes so that you can feed him? Pippa