There is a great deal more to gundog training than rushing to introduce your dog to hunt, point and retrieve game.
Hundreds of handlers who train with us at Clicker Gundog have no set intention of working their dogs and will never need them to flush or pick a bird.
These pet gundog owners understand that they have chosen a gundog breed and want to do some fun training to give their dogs an appropriate outlet for their natural abilities.
It is much better to have a spaniel that wants to hunt with you for rabbit balls in the park than one that prefers to be three fields over chasing a squirrel.
That said, our pet gundogs were chiefly bred to work, and for many of our clients, field sports are a fond pastime. For me, nothing is more enjoyable than being out in the beating line with my dogs by my side.
For those of you who wish to work your retriever, spaniel or HPR - be that on a commercial shoot, small syndicate, or some rough shooting if you have access to the ground - you must introduce your gundog to game carefully.
In this blog, we’ll briefly examine what you can do to get started with your puppy or young dog, as well as how to progress with a mature, more experienced dog.
A basic introduction to live game
I have always been fortunate to have access to live game and have provided my dogs with very early and positive introductions to birds by taking them with me to the pen when I fill up the water bowls and feeders for the birds.
If you are lucky to know a friendly gamekeeper who will give you permission to access a pen, possibly in exchange for some free labour, then this is how I would introduce a puppy.
Let them take in the scent, and don’t worry if they flush at this early stage, as you want them to make the connection between the scent and the quarry.
Avoid putting in too much control at this stage, as you could sacrifice their hunting ability and desire. You want the dog to be relaxed and given a chance to use their instinct and learn for themselves. If you are worried about being unable to recall your dog, you could use a long line to retain some connection.
Awaken the hunting instinct with wings
If you are not fortunate to have access to live game to help develop and awaken the hunting instinct early on, you can use a wing to the same effect.
You can obtain dried pheasant wings from most gundog training equipment suppliers. We often have wings and pelts in stock in our small shop at the Clicker Gundog Training Centre.
You can then attach this to a pole and line. I use a bamboo cane from the garden, but you could also use a lunging whip. A fishing rod is excellent as you can use the reel to move the wing quickly.
Let the dog smell the wing and get interested in it before dragging it along the ground for them to follow. When they pounce, launch the wing into the air.
Treat this as a game! It doesn't matter if the dog catches the wing as it will only encourage them to work harder to get it, improving their hunting skill.
Introducing too much control at this stage could be the cause of stickiness, which is where the pointing dog fails to move forward with the handler to flush the birds, or blinking, which is where the hunting dog locates the game but fails to acknowledge it either by flushing, pointing or working up to the game. There will be plenty of time later to introduce controlled behaviours around game.
Repeat frequently but only for about five minutes at a time. You want to maintain interest and build motivation but not tire the dog out.
You can also use this wing on a string game to help teach your pointing dogs to hold their position for longer.
Retrieving with cold game
If your gundog has a reliable retrieve pattern and delivery to hand, then they’re ready to be introduced to the real thing. Many handlers get nervous at this stage, but if you have trained the retrieve well, you shouldn’t be.
The best way to approach it is to get your dog to pick up many different dummies. Introduce a variety of weights and shapes, make sure they will retrieve ones with toggles and streamers, try using bird-shaped ones with floppy necks and wings, and finally progress to fur and feathers wrapped around canvas.
Each article is designed to help the dog transition from something that bears no resemblance to game to the real thing. Finally, when you introduce cold game, it won’t be a massive jump from a boring green 1 lb canvas dummy.
When using cold game, make sure that it’s as clean as possible. Any blood or visible flesh could encourage young dogs to lick, bite or play with the bird instead of bringing it straight back.
If your dog isn’t interested in picking the bird or looks nervous about it, you could either go back to generalising your retrieve pattern to feather-covered dummies, or you could place the cold game in a sock so it still smells but doesn’t look intimidating.
One of the disadvantages of using cold game, whether laying a trail or putting out marks, memories, or blinds, is the scent left by your feet and hands. The inexperienced dog can start to hunt for your tracks instead of the game scent.
Live game training days
The best way to cement your hunting, pointing and retriever training before going on an actual shoot day is to practice everything you’ve learned on live and freshly shot game.
At Clicker Gundog, we run a small shoot just for training purposes. The group shoot over days are organised for handlers and their dogs looking to progress to the final stages of their training. All Guns are there for the benefit of the participants, who will also be taught about the etiquette, roles and responsibilities of game shooting in the UK.
If you think your dog is ready to be introduced to live game, why not join us in the 2023/24 shooting season? A complete list of dates and availability can be found here: https://clickergundog.co.uk/products/group-shoot-days