We have endless discussions on my Positive Gundogs Facebook Group about free running. Why it doesn’t matter, why it does matter.
There are two sides to the debate of course, and both have their virtues. But there is also a lot of confusion.
I posted the piece below on the group to try and address the issues involved, clear up some of the confusion, and clarify my own position on this topic.
A number of people have asked if they can copy my post but I prefer people do not copy and paste what I have written, so instead I’ve posted it here on the my gun dog website and you’re welcome to share a link to this article on Facebook or elsewhere.
My post on Positive Gundogs
I hear people saying that they would never let their spaniel free hunt, and people saying that free running never did their dog any harm.
I even hear people saying that those who do not allow their spaniels to free hunt are committing an act of cruelty – and they mean this quite seriously.
Let’s clarify some of those issues
What do we mean by FREE RUNNING or FREE HUNTING
A young working bred spaniel has little notion of ‘going for a walk’ – being outdoors, off leash, is for him, simply an opportunity to hunt.
That’s what he does.
If he is not at heel, or bringing in a retrieve he is hunting – following scent with his nose.
There are exceptions, but, if he is not doing this, he is not the kind of spaniel you need to worry about, and he is probably not from working lines.
So free running equals hunting. And hunting without controls or parameters, is something that causes problems for SOME dogs. Even if it has never caused any problems for yours
This by the way is NOT free running:
Allowing a dog to run around in a large fenced garden or paddock is NOT free running.
There are boundaries and controls over how far the dog can go, and what he can do while he is in there.
Unless you have stocked your garden with rabbits, or filled your paddock with chickens, and provided you don’t start giving your dog all kinds of commands he has no intention of obeying, your dog is not going to learn anything awful by racing around and kicking his heels, in this kind of exercise area
Genuinely free running in the countryside causes two problems
• Dog that won’t hunt within gunshot range
• Dogs that run amuck completely out of control.
The first problem might not be a big deal to you, if you don’t want to shoot over your spaniel, or if you don’t want others to be able to shoot over your spaniel.
You might think it isn’t a big deal even if you DO want to shoot over your spaniel, but in my experience, a spaniel that hunts out of control is a hazard to himself, an annoyance to all those around him that have put the effort in to control their dogs, and loses more game than he finds.
However, the main problem with hunting out of range is that it often leads to the second problem
A serious welfare issue!
The second problem is a serious welfare issue, because spaniels that hunt out of control are often abandoned.
I spent several years running what was effectively a gundog telephone helpline taking at one point as many as forty calls a day from gundog owners.
I have been around gundogs all my adult life but I was SHOCKED by the numbers of people who were struggling.
Most of these calls were from spaniels owners
Most of those calls were from springer owners
Most of the callers had lost control of their dogs.
The FACTS are
1. Some dogs can be allowed free running and never cause their owners any problem
2. Other dogs will quickly fall into one of those two categories above.
3. When people lose control of their dog – really lose control, it is a very distressing situation for them. Grown ups sob with despair at what has happened to their dog. And the end result for the dog is often a one way ticket to a rescue centre – or worse.
4. Unless you are a very experienced spaniel owner, you cannot know for sure what the effects of free running will be, on your working bred spaniel.
If you want to take the chance that your dog will be OK with free running that is up to you. But here’s the catch. If he isn’t OK, the problem is hell on earth to put right. And your chances of making a working gundog out of him are slimmer than my pencil.
What about people who say let a dog chase and he will soon learn he catches nothing?
I know that some experienced trainers recommend this. On open moorland, heather for example, I can fully believe that this works.
Where I live, with thick brambles and dense cover all around, any free hunting spaniel worth his salt WILL eventually peg a pheasant or catch a rabbit, and once that little jackpot has happened you WILL struggle to ever get back in the driving seat, unless you are prepared to use FORCE – and I am not talking about a little tug of the ear.
If you have a hard hunting working bred spaniel, please think very carefully indeed about how you are going to manage his free time.
In my opinion far more potentially useful working gundogs have been ruined through this practice than through any other common mistake.
On a less important note, from someone who has tried this from both directions, if you want your spaniel to hunt a nice crisp, tidy pattern, this is easier to achieve if for the first few years of his life, that is the only way he is allowed to hunt.
Just my thoughts….
Allowing a hard hunting spaniel to self hunt on what is most people’s idea of a daily walk, is often a recipe for disaster. With the dog chasing game, bogging off and generally learning that the best fun is to had anywhere other than close to its owner.
For anyone that wants a working bred spaniel as a pet I would advise a huge amount of interaction with the dog during the ‘walk’ with games, heel work, retrieves etc and keeping the dog in a ‘zone’ of control. Which is arguably more of a training session than a walk.
But for anyone that wants a spaniel to work under close control in the shooting field, my personal view is that their best bet is to forget about ‘walks’ entirely and spend the time training the dog i.e. quartering, retrieving, and general obedience.”
The other side to the story
Now what I have written above is my personal viewpoint and there is of course another side to this story.
Some people believe it is not acceptable to avoid taking young working dogs for family walks and I have placed an article by one such person in the files on the Positive Gundogs Group so that you can see this argument from a different perspective. And also get good advice on controlled walking.
All you need to do if you want to read it, is join the group
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