by John McGonigle
These three qualities are the key to instilling good habits.
Congratulations! You selected and brought home your field-bred English springer spaniel or English cocker spaniel.
Your vet has given pup a green light regarding his health, and pup is making headway utilizing his crates in your home and vehicle. You are determined pup will become a good gun dog, finding, flushing and retrieving birds that fall to your favorite smoothbore.
While novices can do a commendable job training a gun dog, the job goes much smoother with knowledgeable help.
Hopefully in the search and purchasing process, one or more breeders invited you to some training sessions with them or with their dog-training club or group.
You should work actively to get such an invitation. At the very least, let those breeders know you are interested. Subtlety is not necessarily a virtue in this situation.
Jump at the opportunity and attend as many sessions as possible if those folks are knowledgeable and willing to have you.
That invitation is especially important if the group has training grounds and the capability to keep or obtain birds, and is set up to shoot birds. It is impossible to train gun dogs without birds.
At training sessions, remember to return your host’s generosity by assisting others in any way you can and offering your assistance before being asked. When it is time to use birds for your pup, be prepared to pay the going price for them.
Training groups are unlikely to attempt to profit from attendees regarding the use of birds, but birds and feed bills are steep, and users must pay their fair share. The cost of birds, though, is a minor price for the education that pup receives when working with them. Remember, half of “bird dog” is “bird.”
Importantly, do not bring your shotgun, or offer to bring your shotgun, to training sessions with a new group. You will be invited to bring a shotgun when the group thinks you are ready. The timing of the invitation varies, but it takes time to earn trust.
Here is the big secret about training gun dogs: We do not train them to hunt; we train them to be under our control.
The three most important things about training gun dogs are control, control, control. There are few problems you and pup cannot overcome if you can control him.
As long as you did a good job of selecting a good litter from good parents, your pup’s genetic background will teach him to hunt. Pup will have a good nose, good drive, a tendency to quarter, a tendency to retrieve and a strong tendency to try to please you.
Do not underestimate the critical value of that last characteristic. The dog that wants to please you outhunts the “loner” dog every time.
Here is what you owe pup: quality food and health care; good, safe, warm and dry quarters; consistent behavior; affection; a mild(ish) temperament; and fairness.
You should feed pup yourself unless that is impossible. The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and that is doubly true for gun dogs. Make use of that reality.
Do not be afraid to reward pup with treats, even though we were taught otherwise by many of the old training books and old trainers. Do not overdo the treats, though. Mix your rewards among treats, a pat on the head or a kind word. Do not worry; pup will get the message.
Walk pup yourself when he takes care of bodily functions because it allows you to observe his feces to make sure it is normal, indicating he is healthy. Bring pup inside immediately after he voids so he knows why he was taken outside. Wait several minutes and take pup back outside for a play session and some rough-housing. It helps you bond with pup, and vice-versa.
When walking pup in a field, zigzag back and forth across the field in a quartering pattern, the way pup should hunt when he is older. He will, of course, stay near you, so when you turn and go in the other direction, give your whistle two quick peeps.
Pup will turn when hearing the whistle, see you going the other way and will turn, too.
This drill is later formalized, and pup will learn to turn in the field whenever he hears two peeps of the whistle. Right now you are having fun while inserting information into pup’s all-absorbing brain; you are building habits.
Walk pup in as many different places and habitat types as you can so he can experience as much as possible and learn that nothing will hurt him while he is with you. Do not take him yet into heavy cover; there is time for that later. Take him near heavy cover, though, and notice how he explores it a little more each time as he grows older and more confident.
Walk pup along small streams and shallow ponds when it is warm enough. Let pup run a bit wild and overheat, and watch the water draw him in without any encouragement on your part. Again, we are providing experiences and giving pup habits that we can modify for our means as he gets older.
A spaniel’s primary work is on land, though they are also quite good in water. Spaniels are good at retrieving jump-shot ducks along small streams or from smallish ponds and lakes. They can also do a good job on ducks from a blind over small water in moderate temperatures.
I have heard of spaniels being successful with big waterfowl on big and very cold water, and I believe many of those stories. That does not make it right, however, to utilize your spaniel in overly harsh or dangerous conditions–remember, use good judgment and be fair to your dog.
Beginning when pup is quite young and small, toss a mini paint roller for pup in a hallway, basement or some closed-off area that restricts his movement. Get him excited over it and toss the roller only a short way, and pup will run and grab it. Call pup to you and love him up by petting him and telling him he is wonderful.
Two tosses at any one time is enough; more will bore him and often cause you headaches you do not need. This also works well in a basement, garage or small, fenced-in area outside. The main thing is to eliminate pup’s choices of where to take the roller, giving him just one place to go–to you. Again, we are building habits.
The short, quick retrieves are extended as time passes. The roller is exchanged for canvas dummies, and the drills become more structured. For now, though, get pup used to bringing the roller to you and getting loved up for it. What’s not to like?
You can start commanding “hup” (sit), “come,” “heel” and “no” when pup starts responding to his name. Keep lessons short and relaxed–no hollering and no hitting. Rather, take pup back to where his infraction occurred and force him (gently) to do it right. As time passes, the drills become more rigid as pup learns them and knows what to do.
There is no need to hurry with training pup because he is yours for life, and there is no sense pushing him faster than he is ready to learn. There is no reason for him to be hunting before age two, and pushing for that could be harmful.
Enjoy pup, and train with repetition and consistency to build habits that pup can fall back on throughout his entire life. You will both be happy with the time you spend together.