[wp_ad_camp_2]In this series of articles about working Springer spaniels, I have been looking at the problems that many people experience when they take on their first working Springer Spaniel.
Not only in purely pet homes, but also homes where there is every intention to train the spaniel for fieldwork.
I have also been looking at how traditional advice together with modern attitudes and preferences towards dog training methods are contributing to problems people are experiencing with these uniquely intense little hunting dogs.
The sad truth is that rescue centres are kept very busy caring for and re-homing Springer Spaniels, many of them clearly from working lines.
Out of control
One thing is certain. These dogs are not in rescue centres because their heelwork has been overdone, or because their hunting isn’t up to standard.
Some are there because they are a victim of circumstance, families breaking up due to divorce, or perhaps the death of an owner.
But many are there because their owners cannot cope with them.
They are there because they are ‘out of control’.
In this section, we take a look at what those owning, or thinking of owning, a working bred Springer Spaniel, can do to avoid getting themselves into difficulties with their young dog.
Thinking of buying a Springer puppy?
How can you tell if a Springer is really the right dog for you? It is important to be well informed and objective about the nature and attributes of the working Springer Spaniel. Please read this series through from Part One.
I know it is a marathon, but by then end, you will be able to ask yourself some questions and to answer them truthfully.
- Will the primary role of your Springer be to accompany you on long walks in the countryside?
- Do you intend to walk your dog with family and friends?
If you answer yes to either of these two questions, for example a Springer might not be the right dog for you.
An ideal home?
Many people think that a Springer is an ideal dog for a home where long family walks are the norm. After all, this is a dog that needs exercise, and lots of it.
But, a young working bred Springer may need you to focus totally on him, for much of the first year at all times when he is running free out of doors.
Failure to do this can be disastrous.
It is very difficult for anyone to sustain this kind of concentration for periods of an hour or more, and interesting walks often last this long. It is worth noting that experienced Spaniel trainers run their young dogs for short periods of time, no more than 20 minutes or so.
This is not just to keep up the dog’s speed and prevent him from dawdling (though it serves this purpose too) it is also to stop the handler’s brain from melting!
It is also worth considering that it is very difficult to focus 100% on a dog whilst you have people with you. They will inevitably expect a share of your attention.
These things are very important as they are such a major part of many people’s expectations when they are choosing their first dog.
The right home!
There are some more, equally important questions you should ask
- Do you really want a dog whose primary instinct is to find, flush (and even catch) live animals?
- Are you willing to focus on your dog 100% of the time you are outdoors for the next year or so?
- Are you willing to work hard on training your dog, and to learn fast?
- Are you interested in the Springer’s role as a gundog, and in what gundog training can do for your Springer?
- Are you willing and able to get help if and when you need it whilst training your Springer?
If you can honestly answer yes to these five questions, then a Springer may be the dog for you.
It is worth remembering that although the act of chasing is not the working Springer’s function, it is his natural instinct. The working dog that stops to every flush and turns to hunt away on command has had many, many hours of hard work and attention put into him.
Unfortunately, with a hard-hunting dog, there is no ‘half way house’. Your dog is either under control, or it isn’t. And getting that control takes a lot of effort.
You need to be prepared for that.
If you are committed to training entirely without aversives you may find a Springer more challenging than some other breeds. You will need to be ruthless about controlling his environment and making sure you never expose him to any ‘accidental rewards’ that you cannot compete with.
The right puppy
Whatever your chosen methods, if you still think a Springer is for you, then it will help you greatly if you work hard at increasing your chances of finding the right puppy.
Not all working Springers have the very ‘intense’ hunting drive we have described here. Some are more ‘laid back’ and trainable, and are far more suitable for many owners.
Don’t worry too much about buying acres of red ink on a pedigree. What works best for a field trial kennels won’t necessarily work best in your world.
If you know of a nice Springer, whose behaviour you admire, find out where it came from. Buying a brother or sister from the same parents, even if they are from a different litter, gives you the best chance of a similar puppy as siblings share a lot of genes.
Don’t be too influenced by the behaviour of dogs that have been trained by experts.
You need a dog that can be trained by you.
Finding your puppy
Never, ever buy a puppy without meeting its mother, and wherever possible meet its father too. Make sure that they and any other related adult dogs in the kennels, are the sort of dogs you would want to live with.
Steer clear of dogs that seem disinterested in people. A well-trained good tempered gundog won’t leap all over you (unless perhaps it’s a cocker!) but it will be pleased to see you and happy for you to stroke it, tail wagging furiously.
Beware the puppy whose mother regards you with suspicion, or with a stiffened body posture, and rigid tail.
If the puppies are very young, it could be that she is overprotective because her pups are close, if so, ask to see her and interact with her well away from her puppies, but err on the side of caution.
‘Run away’ fast if there is any sign of aggression or nervousness in the other dogs in the kennels.
You are looking for a friendly dog. One that loves people, and actively seeks out their company. This is as important when it comes to training, as it is with regard to the suitability of the dog for life in the community.
Run away fast if the owner says half jokingly, ‘you’d better be up to the job’, or ‘you will need to keep on top of him’.
He may be proud of his hard hunting dynamo of a dog, but as a breeder/trainer, he has the knowledge and experience to cope with him. Do you?
Ask the breeder some searching questions. “What are the best points of the stud dog?” for example. The words you are looking for are ‘biddable’, ‘trainable’, ‘calm’, ‘keen to please’ etc not necessarily a list of competitive awards, speed, or style.
Speed won’t help you when you are sat in the car park waiting for the dog to come back.
Some trainers will refer to an ‘honest’ dog. This is a good thing as it refers to a dog that works with the handler, rather than for himself.
Enquire as to what kind of problems the breeder encountered whilst training the pup’s mother (every dog has some problems).
What kind of characteristics are they breeding for? Careful selection will improve your chances of getting a puppy that will respond well to you and want to work with you. But remember that buying a puppy is always something of a gamble.
Taking an experienced person with you will help you choose a healthy puppy and possibly one with potential, but be aware that the experienced trainer is not necessarily looking for the same attributes that you are.
Unless he is going to be on the end of the phone every time you get into trouble, you need to rely to a great extent on your own judgement.
No matter how hard you try, there are no guarantees. No matter how carefully you choose, you could still end up with a very ‘hot-headed’ dog.
You need therefore to be aware of all the ways in which you can influence the outcome of your training by managing your puppy effectively from the very first day
Read up on rearing a gundog puppy. Arm yourself with every scrap of information you can lay your hands on and be very wary of any advice to let your puppy ‘have its head’ for the first six months unless you have a very experienced ‘mentor’ and are prepared to use some seriously firm methods later on.
What can I do before my puppy is five months old?
Forget about ‘walking the dog’. For a definition of what I mean by ‘walking’ see below.
Your puppy does not need walking.
What he needs is to believe without question that you are the centre of his universe. Treat every outing with your puppy seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, simply that you give him your full and undivided attention.
Think constantly about encouraging your puppy to ‘change direction’ Encourage your puppy to explore, but to do it close to you. This means never walking in a straight line with a spaniel puppy but rather take a few steps one way, then a few steps another. This is the most important piece of advice I can give to a new spaniel puppy owner and it bears repeating.
Keep changing direction!
Commit to keeping this up all the time and watch your dog follow your lead, learning to zig-zag and quarter his ground. This comes easily and naturally to a working bred spaniel. Especially when started young.
Your spaniel should be learning to take responsibility for finding and following you, not the other way around.
Whether or not he is intended to be a pet or a working dog, this is the best way to teach him to take his exercise in close proximity to you, without spoiling his pleasure in constantly moving and hunting.
Teach your puppy to walk to heel. You can start this as early as you like. It will not prevent a normal working Springer from hunting later on, provided you keep heelwork lessons short and age appropriate, and give your dog plenty of opportunity to use his nose at other times.
Keep away from game
Keep your spaniel puppy away from game and other wildlife. This is crucial. It includes rabbits, pheasants, squirrels etc.
This may mean being very picky about where you exercise your puppy. Of course if your Springer is intended for work, you do not want to keep him away from the scent of game, just from any chance of actually chasing it.
Ground with plenty of scent (not during heelwork) is great as it encourages your pup to get his nose down and follow it. But it is really important if you are training where there is plenty of rabbit activity for example, that you clear the ground of rabbits before taking your pup into it.
This may mean leaving him in a vehicle, or getting a friend to hold him, whilst you have a good stomp about your chosen training area. If you are not able or prepared to do this then you should be prepared for trouble!
Retraining a dog with an established chasing problem is a difficult and drawn out process. It may involve considerable force, and the owner of the dog will almost certainly need professional help. Success cannot always be guaranteed
Oh dear, I am already in trouble. Is it too late?
No. It is rarely too late. But you may be in for some hard work, and some lifestyle changes. Perhaps the first thing you should do, is to stop blaming yourself. It probably isn’t your fault.
In some respects the way we expect new gundog owners to cope is both unique and unreasonable. If we draw parallels with another popular form of animal training and look at the horse world, it may help you to see just how much has been expected of you.
It is not your fault
None of us could imagine a situation where someone that has never ridden a horse before would be encouraged to buy a thoroughbred racehorse, and not only learn to ride it, but break it in and train it as well. In fact, this would be quite ridiculous.
Yet we expect people with no experience whatsoever, to take home a young gundog puppy, often highly bred with Field Trials in mind, and not only learn to handle, but also to train it, for the most part with nothing more substantial to help them than a book.
Granted, if your spaniel falls on you, you are unlikely to die, but physical danger apart, the knowledge and skills involved is comparable. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel out of your depth with your rapidly maturing working-bred spaniel.
The shooting owner
For the owner that wants to work his dog in the shooting field, his solution is relatively straightforward. He must replace the problem behaviour (eg chasing) with an alternative (the stop). The reward for the dog that ‘stops’ is more hunting (in another direction) or a retrieve. Failure to stop, is not an option.
Installing the stop whistle in a dog that has never been allowed to chase is a breeze. Installing the stop whistle in a dog that has been chasing wildlife will almost always require expert help.
It is also likely to require some force.
The owner that wants to work the dog may well be sufficiently motivated to do what is necessary. Stop walking his dog, and start training him.
The pet owner
For the pet dog owner, it is often a very difficult dilemma, because his expectations of the dog are so far removed from dog’s natural capabilities. Family walks as we have seen are often the principle expectation of the pet dog owner.
Yet the problem Springer becomes more of a problem every time he is walked.
This is not his fault, and not really his owner’s fault either. The problem for the spaniel that is being kept as a pet, is that the owner knows what he does not want the dog to do (he does not want him to chase birds, or to go out of sight) but has no idea what he wants the dog to do instead.
Whereas the working gundog knows exactly what he must do in any given situation. If he smells a pheasant he must push him out of the bush. But when he sees the pheasant leave the ground he must sit. Simple!
Our gundogs have great natural instincts, together with an advanced ability to learn very specific skills such as “when I hear this whistle I must stop”
This makes them great team players. But to ask a dog to understand that he should not go ‘too far’ or ‘only chase a little way’ is too complex and abstract a concept. He needs clean cut boundaries.
“When X happens you must do Y, right here, right now”. This is what he understands.
The best way for any spaniel owner, even if the dog is intended as a pet, to avoid and eventually cure ‘chasing’ and ‘bolting’ episodes is to stop ‘walking’ the dog and start ‘training’ it – gundog style.
The solution for the pet dog owner is therefore the same as for the working dog owner but the pet dog owner may need more help and support to acquire the motivation to carry the training through. And to let go of that daily walk.
Perhaps we should make it clear at this point what we mean by a walk.
The definition of a ‘walk’
A family walk, even if you walk alone, has some defining characteristics when it comes to managing your dog. These characteristics include the objective of the walk, the way in which it is carried out and the lack of attention to distractions.
The objective of the ‘walk’ is normally relaxation/recreation and exercise.
Sadly, these objectives do not offer the best benefit to the untrained spaniel. There are other ways to give him exercise, and your relaxation and recreation are not exactly compatible with intense concentration on your dog.
It is your full attention and concentration that a Springer Spaniel really needs you to give him outdoors, for at least the first year of his life.
The style in which a walk is carried out is always linear.
That is to say, whilst you may be walking in a large circle, to all intents and purposes, from the dog’s point of view, you are travelling forwards, all the time in a linear fashion.
This is disadvantageous to any gundog because it encourages the dog to travel away from you over increasing distances, and more importantly makes you utterly predictable.
It is particularly disadvantageous to a spaniel, with his powerful hunting instincts. He now knows exactly where to find you at any given time.
There you will be, plodding along in the same old direction.
This gives him the security to use you as a base from which to explore further and further away.
Finally, and most importantly, the family walk typically pays no attention to the presence of wildlife.
To expect a young Springer to resist the temptation to chase any living thing he comes across on a walk is an extremely risky strategy as we have seen, yet many new spaniel owners fall into this trap.
I don’t want to stop walking the dog!
The ‘Stop walking the dog’ part seems to be a major sticking point for so many people with difficult Springers.
Frequently, their daily walk is a fairly miserable experience, stressful and pointless, spent in dreaded anticipation of the first ‘chase’ followed by maybe hours of calling and searching, fearing the worst, a phone call to say that their dog has been found dead on the road, or worse that he has caused a fatal accident.
People tell me that they spend hours sitting in the car park waiting for the dog to decide to turn up when he is ready to be chauffeured home.
Yet the next day, or a week later, they put themselves through all this again. They come up with the most feeble excuses for allowing their dog to get into a situation where it can take off like a half crazed lunatic, crossing roads or railway lines with total disregard.
And when given the simple information that they can stop walking the dog now, people fight this truth with unbelievable vigour.
A national myth
Part of the reason for this is that it seems to be ingrained into the public psyche that dogs must be walked every day. People seem to believe that terrible and dire things will happen to their dog if he does not have his daily walk.
I have known people who are seriously ill, take their dog out for a walk when they should be in bed, or even in hospital, simply because they fear the consequences if the walk is missed.
Of course, we must provide our dogs with adequate exercise, and if you do not have any access to a fair sized garden or nearby park for exercise purposes, then a regular walk is important for his long term health.
But just like people, it is the overall level of exercise that counts, not the level of exercise on any given day, or the exact manner in which it is taken.
Racing around your garden for twenty minutes is just as good for his cardiovascular system and his muscles as dragging you along the pavement, or chasing a deer through the forest for the same amount of time.
Not to mention safer and less traumatic.
And twenty minutes, two or three times a day, is just as beneficial for a young dog’s body, as a solid hour all in one go, and far better for his mind. His concentration span being fairly short.
Wear him out?
Another reason for obsessive walking seems to be a hope that if the dog is sufficiently tired, he will somehow become better behaved.
Does wearing a dog out make him easier to train in the long run? The short answer is:
People tend to see excessive ‘exercise’ as a cure for all sorts of behavioural problems which it rarely is. Unfortunately the hard facts are that the further you walk the dog every day, the fitter he will become, without any limit that you are capable of matching.
If your dog runs away when you take him for a walk, all that walks will produce is a fitter and more determined absconder.
Once really fit, most dogs could travel thirty or forty miles in a day without any trouble. So no matter how far you walk him every day, unless you are a fanatical marathon runner, you will quickly get to the point where your dog is no longer tired by your endeavours.
What are you going to do then?
Don’t look back
Perhaps the main reason for a refusal to stop walking the dog, is that it can be tough to accept that something you have put a lot of effort into, was actually not helping at all.
In truth, some of the worst behaved dogs are the most exercised. Dogs do not need to be allowed to race from one county to another each morning in order to remain fit, happy and healthy.
And all those times you dragged yourself out in the rain, or sat in the carpark waiting for his return, you could have been tucked up in bed with a good book, or better still, out gundog training.
But looking back is pointless. You need to move forwards
Of course some of you thoroughly enjoy walking the dog, but if this is the case, you are unlikely to be having serious difficulties managing him. The truth is, for many struggling dog owners, the day they decide to stop walking the dog and start training is the day they turn their dog’s life around.
So how should I exercise my spaniel?
As far as your dog’s exercise needs are concerned, access to a reasonably sized exercise area (such as a garden) where he can tear around several times a day without getting into trouble, combined with a good programme of gundog training designed for a spaniel will provide him with plenty of exercise.
By ‘training’ rather than ‘walking’ you will still be going out into the countryside, but now your trips outdoors will be planned with your dog’s needs in mind.
Your dog’s ‘training’ needs vary as he grows and will at first involve short outings to selected bits of countryside, where initially you will teach him to explore and to retrieve, and build his confidence, always in close proximity to you.
You can make these trips every day if you want to.
Later on he will need increasing access to countryside in which to advance his training, but by that time you will have a clearer idea of what is involved.
The sooner you get on with the job and get started with training, the sooner your spaniel can be taken out in the shooting field for a whole lifetime of sustained enjoyable exercise and fulfilling work, for both of you, man (or woman) and dog together. Gundog Training transforms people’s lives.
What are you waiting for?
Maybe you are concerned that gundog training just encourages dogs to hunt other animals.
The role of a spaniel is to ‘flush’ game so that it can be shot. However gundog training not only instils a high level of obedience in every participating dog, it specifically teaches the spaniel to hunt in a controlled manner, close to his handler, and to sit or stop whenever game is flushed from cover.
This eliminates the ‘chasing’ element from his natural repertoire of behaviours. Gundog work is founded on solid obedience and will improve the behaviour of any dog taking part.
Maybe you are worried too about getting involved with shooting or handling dead animals?
Well you can participate in the first four grades of the Gundog Club’s graded training scheme without any involvement in shooting. And all the retrieves are carried out using retrieving dummies. Real animals and birds are not involved.
By the time you get to the end of grade four, you will have an obedient dogs, and a good idea of what gundog work is all about, and whether you want to take it further.
There really is nothing to lose by giving it a go.
So how do I set about gundog training?
Your first task is to get a good recall established. If your dog has a major recall problem, (ie you can’t catch him once he is off the lead, or he will not come back until he is ready) you will not be able to take part in a gundog training course.
At least not yet.
This is because your dog would disrupt the training group and spoil it for everyone else.
Resolve any recall problems
My book Total Recall comes out in July 2012 and it contains a complete recall training programme for puppies and older dogs. You can pre-order now from Amazon.
You may also find it helpful to get some professional help from an experienced gundog trainer. You can find a list of instructors on the Gundog Club website.
If your dog recalls well except in the presence of wildlife (rabbits, squirrels etc) then you may well be able to join in a gundog training course or group. Again, you can book these directly with the Gundog Club
Gundog training is a lot of fun and a great way to make new friends and enjoy some healthy outdoor exercise with your spaniel. How far you want to take it, is entirely up to you.
More help and information
If you enjoy my articles, you may like my new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.
Next time:The responsibility for the welfare of the working spaniel lies ultimately in the hands of those that know them best. In the final instalment of this series we will be looking at what the working gundog community can do, to help improve the lot of these enchanting little dogs, and to ensure that they get the life that they deserve