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Training Your Spaniel the U.K. Way

Training Your Spaniel the U.K. Way

My initial thought was that there's not much difference between hunting spaniels in the U.K. vs. U.S., but then I met Chris Lavier. She was the person who brought David Lisett across the pond to conduct spaniel training clinics at her training grounds in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Lisett, whom I nicknamed "the Spaniel Whisperer," is the head dog trainer at the Buccleuch Estate in Scotland, and I covered his training clinics in articles that appeared in the November 2010 and August 2012 issues of Gun Dog.

Chris has lived in northwestern Pennsylvania all her life. Lavier's father was an ardent upland bird hunter and springer enthusiast, so Chris enjoyed an early start in chasing bird dogs and getting comfortable handling a shotgun.

For more than a few decades she has owned, trained and bred her own springers. A retired anesthesiologist, Chris has been spending a week in England every November since 2001. It was while talking with and interviewing her that I came to know the differences between a British springer and a field-bred American springer — and more to the point, why those differences exist.

Even if Chris had been born rich enough to be one of the "guns" at a U.K. driven shoot, I don't think she would have done it. She goes to England every November because she wants to learn more about their dogs. Accordingly, she is there to act as a "beater" and, to a lesser extent, a "picker up."

On a few rare occasions she has been able to shoot as a part of a shooting day just for the beaters. For those among you into serious shotguns you know Lavier takes her sport seriously since she shoots both 12- and 20-gauge Cogswell & Harrison side-by-sides.

Invitation Only

In the mid-1990s Chris met an English dog trainer named Wendy Knight. Wendy had been invited to New York to conduct a training clinic by Fred Bradley. The clinic took place on Fred's training grounds near Copake, south of Albany. Bradley is a pupil/protégé of the late Ken Roebuck, Gun Dog's former long-time "Flush" columnist.

It was Knight who invited Chris to England in 2001 and since that time the two have become close friends. To act as a "beater" on a driven shoot in the U.K. you have to be invited, and it was through Knight that Lavier was invited to act as a beater on her November trips. Chris usually gets to "beat" for a couple of driven shoots during her vacation week, and there tend to be at least four "drives" each day. Chris has also worked with the "pickers up" on these driven shoots.

Obviously, then, Chris has seen many springers at work in the U.K. Coupled with her own training here in Pennsylvania, Chris has some unique perspective on the dogs and their training in both venues. Whether you have pointing dogs, retrievers or spaniels, you have a pretty good idea of how our training takes place here in the USA.

For most folks who own a bird dog over here, a place to train is not all that difficult to find. Much acreage is open to the public. Agreed, such places might not be overrun with wild birds, but you can often augment the natural supply with pen-reared birds of your own.

Other USA training areas might be leased by individuals or dog clubs. A few dog men own their own grounds where training can take place. Some of these have a fair supply of wild birds, while others have a minimal supply — but again, that can be supplemented with released birds.

The huge difference in Britain is that there are very few places where you can simply go out, ask permission and work your dog. For the most part, you are not going to receive permission. If there are any wild birds on the property you definitely are not going to be allowed to train there.

The same is true if an area contains pen-reared birds, which are mainly pheasants in the U.K. While pen-reared pheasants in the USA are released the day the birds are going to be hunted or maybe a day or two beforehand, in the U.K. they are turned loose in early summer, as soon as the birds are old enough to fend for themselves.

English Drive 

All the estates with pen-reared pheasants also have a "gamekeeper," and one of his main jobs (though he will have many others) will be varmint control. The vermin are strictly controlled so that as many pheasants as possible make it from July (or whenever they are released) all the way to November, December and January, when the driven shoots take place.

U.K. landowners are very dedicated to vermin control whereas here in the USA landowners don't give game-killing vermin much of a thought, except perhaps to complain about them.

Further, on these big U.K. estates (it takes a big estate to have a number of driven shoots each year) a tremendous number of pheasants are put out in the early summer, compared to the relatively few pheasants individual bird dog men put out on their own in the USA and the number that our game agencies put out. In fact, there are many who think that releasing pen-reared pheasants over here is a waste of money.

But pen-reared pheasants are big business in the U.K. The killed pheasants do not belong to the folks who shoot them, and on some shoots hundreds and hundreds might be shot, sometimes well over 100 on just one drive. These pheasants are sold to the market, thus some of the vast funds invested in the pheasants, feeding them, vermin control and other costs are recouped.

Here in Pennsylvania the limit on roosters is two a day. Say you and a buddy go out. You probably have at least two dogs, though they might not be running at the same time. At most you can kill two pheasants each (game farm birds excluded). You might spend four or five hours trying to kill four, but you may kill fewer or none. It's a little tough to give a dog a world of experience with that limited amount of bird contact.

But imagine you have your springer in the U.K. for the month of November and you and the dog can act as a beater and/or a picker-up for a month! As a picker-up your dog is going to experience virtually thousands of birds being killed — as well as be able to actually retrieve scores of birds every day — if not every drive.

Not all beaters have a dog with them. Some have springers and the like on a lead. A few, with perfectly trained dogs, might be allowed to have their springers work free during a drive. Since there is no shooting, "hup" training is especially essential with dogs moving along with the beaters. Not only are no birds shot by the beaters; all the dog sees is the bird flying off. So "hup" becomes easier to train.

The pickers-up and their dogs are well back from the guns on the shooting line. Further, no retrieving is done while the drive and shooting is still taking place. So the dog sits mannerly as you've told him or her. Other dogs are in the line as well, showing proper behavior.

This is the perfect scenario for the dog to learn to "mark." At the end of the drive the fetching starts. If the springer has marked well that dog can be given a line and can make marked retrieve after marked retrieve. Unfortunately, however, you cannot take your dog from the USA to the U.K. for the shooting season, since all incoming dogs face a six-month rabies quarantine.

A primary difference, then, between U.K. spaniels and U.S. spaniels is that the former are exposed to so many more birds every year, and throughout their lifetime. Notably, you have to have an excellent and a biddable dog to be invited to beat or pick up.

Short Casts  

Similarly, the guns on the shooting line have to produce acceptable results. This is one reason why shotgun instruction has been going on for so long in the U.K., and many of the instructional courses throw very high clay targets from high towers, thus simulating driven birds flying overhead.

But how do the springers get the training and experience that permits them to be invited as pick-up dogs in the U.K.? Many owners start by joining a gun dog club. There you and your dog are under the tutelage of a professional trainer who is associated with that dog club.

The actual training grounds may be relatively small, but a great deal of the early training centers around commands and yard work. Remember, dogs with the beaters or retrieving behind the gun line have to be perfectly mannered. Further, quartering training starts with minimal casts to the right and left.

By contrast, in the USA even puppies are encouraged to make quite wide casts one way, then a similar wide cast in the other direction. If even a relatively young puppy won't make huge quartering casts in the USA, such a dog is often given up on here as a field trial prospect. The feeling seems to be, the more "fire" the better, even if it has to be "dampened" considerably to bring the dog under control

We also seem enamored with making a springer champion at a very young age. In the U.K. they are much more patient about this aspect of training and champion making, thus the quartering training starts with very short casts right and very short casts left.

The shooting, the beating, the picking up — this is done by a relatively small number of people in the U.K., whereas here shooting and dog training is done by millions of our citizens. Also on driven shoots there is no hunting involved; it's beating to flush the birds and the guns shoot them.

Driving pheasants and other U.K. birds is not easy. It requires great knowledge and experience by the gamekeeper (one of his other jobs). Brought into consideration in driving is where the birds are, where you want them to go, the lay of the land, and so on. Obviously, a large work force is required, i.e., the beaters.

By contrast, typically in the USA we simply go hunting, alone or maybe with a buddy or buddies. It's easy. Pack the gun and dogs and you're on your way to an upland bird hunt. Waterfowling is much more involved, but a driven shoot in the U.K. takes months to orchestrate, and even on the day of the shoot many hours are involved by numerous personnel just getting everything lined up for the beaters to start.

Everything I've learned about springer training in the U.K. has come from Lavier. As I stated at the beginning I never knew there were so many differences in the dogs and the training methods.

From Lisett, I learned about spaniel whispering. Despite having hunted Scotland two different times myself — once after red grouse behind springers, the second time behind pointing dogs — Chris has taught me a great deal about springers and how those dogs are handled in the U.K.

As many of you are already aware, we here in the USA have been importing British bloodlines for decades — not only springers but also Labrador retrievers and cocker spaniels. They must being doing something right over there, where the training and the dogs are definitely different.

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