September 23, 2010
Young, inexperienced Max is more concerned with the water than holding the dummy properly.
One of my proudest moments occurred when hunting near a creek with my springer. I was able to send my dog across the creek to retrieve a pheasant lying in plain sight on the far side. Hunters had shot the bird several minutes earlier, and their dog would not cross the stream to make the retrieve. Going a long way either down or upstream to use a bridge was the only way they could have retrieved their bird without my dog's help.
I managed to remain modest (at least, I hope I did) while bathing in the glow of their gratitude and praise. But there's no great mystery here--spaniels love water; it's that simple. And the warm months of July and August are ideal for introducing pup to water and getting him swimming comfortably and confidently.
Water is not the primary work arena for spaniels, but being able to make water retrieves certainly has value. Even on upland birds where spaniels shine the occasional bird falls in, or across, water. Additionally, jump-shooting ducks on steams or ponds is a great way to spend time with pup, and he will ensure that more birds are brought to bag than when hunting alone. (Another benefit is the feathers you sometimes get from the odd wood duck bagged along a stream, which are perfect for tying certain trout flies.)
Water work is also a great way to condition your gun dog while keeping heat-related risks to a minimum. We will return to this point later. For pups and young dogs with little or no experience with water, a long walk along a creek or small stream is a great introduction to water. The occasional small tributary or trickling riffle joining the creek provides a perfect water entry for young spaniels. When you walk across a small trib, pup will willingly follow, likely without even slowing down.
Max experiences success, but still prefers solid ground.
The larger creek will have spots where the stream bank is low, even with the water level, which provides young spaniels many opportunities to walk in, splash in, play in and drink the water. Very shallow creek crossings allow you to cross and give pup a chance to follow you, splashing across the shallow water.
As long as the water is very shallow, continue walking and pup will assuredly follow, even if he is mildly concerned or tentative. This is not, however, the time to allow your pup to fall unexpectedly into a deep spot and go under. Swimming comes later.
An old, water-filled tub may be a pup's best friend on a hot training day.
Using the stream walk method of introducing pup to water will raise his body temperature from running along the stream, making short ventures into the woods or field, etc. Pup will quickly learn the cooling property of water on his own, and his desire to cool off from his romp will have him frolicking in the water in no time.
A pond or lake is another good spot to get pup into the water. Just be sure that you use an area where the shoreline is at water level, rather than at a steep bank. Also be sure the pond has a fairly solid bottom, is quite shallow near the water's edge and slopes downward gradually as it deepens.
Water lovers or not, pups can be put off by taking an unintended or surprise dunking.
Above all, do not force pup into the water!
I have seen others successfully introduce pup to water by having an adult, water-loving spaniel along. The experienced dog often tempts the youngster into the water.
I have only had one springer that did not enter water readily; though once we turned things around he became a true believer and was in and out of the water all the time.
Summer had arrived and I had experienced little success getting this pup into the water. I was confident that the problem was temporary so I was not concerned; too often we gun dog trainers insist on rushing things€¦to the detriment of our goals and our dogs.
My wife and I took our pup on a visit to a friend's lakeside cottage in the Pocono Mountains for several days and the water issue was solved before we returned home.
While I was taking a swim one day the pup escaped from my wife and raced to the water's edge, dancing animatedly for several feet up and down the shoreline, even going so far as to enter partway into the water.
I came toward him and his actions showed clearly that he wanted to join me but he still would not budge any farther into the water. I knelt down and called him excitingly to me, clapping my hands to encourage him. After several moments the pup took several large lunges and was swimming, but trying for all he was worth to keep his head high and out of the water. It was a short distance, but he did have to swim to reach me.
The real key, I believe, is what happened next. I grabbed pup and supported him under his chest with one hand, and petted his head with the other hand while praising him lavishly. He quickly made the transition into a water-loving spaniel.
Our gun dogs want to please us, which is an important point to remember.
Tossing a dummy next to a pond for a pup to retrieve morphs easily into tossing the dummy into very shallow water; the pup is very likely to retrieve the dummy from there as well. A couple of days of repetition advances to tossing the dummy into slightly deeper water, and if everything goes well, make later tosses into deeper water. But don't make the pup swim too far for the dummy, yet.
Water work at hunt tests help train a pup for steadiness, water retrieves with birds and off-season handling.
Another way to get a reluctant but bird-loving dog into the water is to toss birds into
the water. Many dogs that are not enthusiastic about retrieving dummies are crazy for birds.
Depending on pup's experience with birds, one can use frozen, refrigerated, warm, live wing-clipped or flying birds shot over the water to entice pup to go into the water. I would certainly hold off on the last two, however, until pup is pretty far along with training with birds.
Training gun dogs is a progression from basic lessons to the advanced, which builds pup's confidence and enables him to perform at ever-higher levels.
I was lucky for many years to have had complete access to a friend's property and ponds to train my gun dogs, including being able to shoot live birds over the dogs all year. I was truly blessed by the pond access, and I utilized his ponds for dog work three or four times a week during the summer.
Dog owners must exercise great care when working dogs in hot weather because getting them overheated can be very harmful. Water work helps prevent pup's internal body temperature from rising dramatically.
Swimming provides what is perhaps the perfect exercise--for man or dog--as it increases the heart rate, improves the respiratory/circulatory system and strengthens muscles, while moderating pup's body temperature.
Depending on how hot or humid it is, I have my gun dog(s) make water retrieves of various distances. I intersperse water retrieves with short to moderate length land retrieves. I curtail land retrieves when it is hotter and more humid.
Naturally it is best to train early during the summer, rather than later in the day, or even in the evening. If evening is the only time you have to train, do so, but again, be careful of pup's health.
In addition to conditioning, water retrieving is a great way to teach, repeat and ensure steadiness; it works better yet if you have two or more dogs.
Sit the dogs down, move between them and the water, and toss a dummy into the water.
Call one dog by name to send him on the retrieve. Make sure the other dog(s) remain steady. They will catch on quickly if you have been doing your other steadiness drills.
Two or three water workouts a week will help immeasurably when it comes time in the fall to prepare pup for hunting. It's also another great way to enjoy time with pup.