Gun Dog Training: Keeping Steady
February 16, 2016
Dave Granatir began hunting with family members over English springer spaniels in 1975. After moving to southeastern Pennsylvania he was able to get his own springers in 1997. "I had a lot to learn about training springers," said Granatir during a recent training session at his home.
Granatir knew a bit about learning since a tanking economy forced him to make a 180-degree career change; he came out on top. Granatir still hunts but is also heavily involved with AKC hunt tests and field trials. He is successful at both and also judges both activities regularly.
Many spaniel owners make a big deal out of steadying their dogs, fear the gun dog training process and just plain have trouble with it. Not Granatir, because he "gets it."
Being steady means that a spaniel will HUP, or sit, when it flushes a gamebird. "First, steadying a dog is not hard," says Granatir. "Further, every gun dog in the field should be steady for its own safety." He explained spaniels chasing flushed birds could leap after a low-flying bird and be shot, they could run across a road and be hit by a vehicle or run off a steep drop-off of terrain and be seriously injured.
"The beginning of having a steady dog is to teach it to hup and remain seated until you release him," Granatir says. "Again, it has nothing to do with birds.
"We do not teach pup to hup and stay, because hup means not only to hup but also remain in the hup position until released. Again, hup means sit and remain sitting until released by the handler — no matter what."
With your young pup on a 4-foot lead, briefly walk him around a fenced yard and stop. Pup will likely stop, but if not, just stop him using the lead. Hold the lead taut and keep pup's head up while pushing down on pup's rump to make him sit, at the same time commanding "hup."
Speak in your normal voice, including volume. Hold his rump down briefly and then let him stand up and walk away. Repeat the same process about a half-dozen times before letting pup off lead for five minutes or so.
As pup gets used to hupping, keep him seated several seconds longer than you did initially. Do this at least three times daily and build on the amount of time pup must remain seated, eventually reaching several minutes before moving on.
You know the rest of the drill: extend pup's time seated and teach him a hand signal — arm up with palm facing him, the traditional traffic cop's signal to stop — to go with the verbal command "hup," and step away from pup (holding the lead) while making him wait until commanded to be released.
Do this at least three times, five days a week. Work toward walking to the end of the lead while pup hups. After pup is hupping for a couple of minutes, switch to a 20-foot check cord and extend your distance.
In a few weeks go back to the short lead, move away from pup when he is hupped and drop the lead but make him remain seated. If pup moves, step quickly toward him and move him back to his original spot.
Do the drill without a lead or check cord, but stay close to pup at first to ensure he remains seated when he should. If he breaks or moves, move quickly to him, pick him up and say "no," then put him on his butt in his original position.
Remember to extend your distance from pup during these hup drills. Alternate calling pup to you and you going to him. Pet and praise him briefly, give him a sharp "NO" if he breaks or moves. Praising is important in the gun dog training process.
Pup will learn "hup" relatively quickly but he will need some reviews over time because "hup" is a lifetime command for pup. You must get to a point that no matter what pup is doing he will hup immediately upon command.
After pup is very good with the above drills, take him to the yard, hup him and give him a small treat for obeying. (Small pieces of cut-up hot dogs, kept in a sandwich baggie in a pocket, are good for this.) Take a step or two away from pup in his hupped position and toss another small treat several feet away from pup.
Move pup away from that spot and repeat the drill. Vary the timing of releasing pup for the treat, eventually making him wait a couple of minutes. We are definitely getting pup ready to be steady.
Granatir likes to save some London broil from supper and use it to seriously test pup's ability to absorb the lesson and show a willingness to obey under duress.
Repeat the drill above with hot dogs or London broil. Make sure you position yourself so you can catch pup if he breaks for the London broil before being released. Remember, the release is pup's name. Alternate waiting times and distances the treat is tossed. Do not forget to pet pup and love him up when he gets it right.
Regarding this process, Granatir says, "Once he is completely steady to London broil, you're on your way to having pup steady to birds."
Next, move to the field and use pigeons, including wing-clips, similarly to how you used the hot dogs, always keeping yourself between pup and the birds in case he breaks. If pup remains seated, release him fairly quickly and let him retrieve several wing-clips. Like all of our drills, we do them several times and move to something else. We do not want to bore pup or tire him overly.
Granatir recommends having a friend work with you when using the pigeons. "It makes it much easier to concentrate on the dog," he notes. "You don't steady your dog to birds in one day," he continues. "Be patient with pup, and go back to yard training if necessary."
He also suggests not shooting birds too soon, saying, "I want to be quite sure pup won't break. Once you use live flyers, don't shoot the first few — it avoids catastrophes. "Everything we teach pup is via conditioned response reinforced by repetition," Granatir concludes. "I do not want to beat myself or let my dogs beat me, so we work toward doing everything right the first time."