Most conversations involving dogs and jumping up revolve around wanting to discourage the behaviour.
While you’re unlikely to want your retriever, spaniel or HPR to learn how to put their muddy paws on your shoulders every time they see you, if you’re planning on working your dog in the field or participating in working tests and trials, you will need to train your gundog to jump over fences, walls and other obstacles on cue.
Some dogs are natural jumpers, and others are more cautious. Whichever gundog you have, it is important to teach both the skill of retrieving over obstacles safely.
Dedicating time to training will help build confidence and enjoyment for those nervous jumpers.
It will also reduce the long-term impact and risk of injury for the bold jumpers who tend to relish the challenge but are too busy going 100mph to focus on the jump, resulting in poor takeoff and landing.
In this month’s blog, we’ll cover how to build confidence with young dogs, how to teach mature dogs to jump safely, a note on genetics, the different types of field boundaries we have in the UK, and retrieving over obstacles.
What age can I teach my gundog to jump?
Before you teach your gundog the skill of jumping, you will need to be sure that they have finished growing completely and all their bones are fully mature and set. Growing bones have soft growth plates; if you teach a dog to jump too early, you risk damaging their bones for life.
You might be keen to ensure your puppy grows up able to tackle a range of obstacles with confidence and finesse.
Remember: there is plenty of time to develop this skill when the dog is ready. There is no need to rush and risk their health.
If you have previously been challenged by a dog that refused to jump and you really want to get started with a new pup, instead of heading straight to the jumping, you can introduce puppies and young dogs to the idea of obstacles.
Enrich their home environment with things they can climb on, balance on, and crawl through. Take them out to experience different terrains like mud, sand dunes, rocks, cover crops, etc.
This will begin to put in place the foundations that you can build on when the dog is old enough to start jumping.
Are some gundogs better at jumping?
The size of your gundog will dictate the maximum height they can jump safely, but genetics also play a part in this. Some dogs are natural climbers and can scale wire fences and hedges several feet taller than themselves.
When we went to see our second Vizsla, Denie, her dam was in a kennel in the garden with six-foot fencing and a wire roof. The explanation for the roof was that the bitch was an excellent climber, and the fence alone could not keep her in.
Denie, it appeared later, had inherited this skill, along with the ability to climb hedges. This was often encouraged in European HPRs, and there are some beautiful pictures in the old books of Vizsla climbing trees for a retrieve.
I also had a German Short Haired Pointer many years ago who developed the skill of using the wire to aid his climbing. Instead of actually jumping the fence, he climbed it, learning by experience where safely to put his feet, and would push himself off the at the top.
Spaniels seem to be very good at this, too. Where we used to go shooting in Wales, the Spaniels are brought up on grounds surrounded by sheep fencing. They all have naturally developed their own way of getting over.
How to teach your gundog to jump over obstacles safely
Before you start training your gundog to jump over obstacles safely, you will need to make or purchase some equipment that will allow you to adjust the height of the jump easily and gradually.
These days, you can easily pick up some inexpensive agility jumps. Still, you could also use two piles of bricks and a pole, horse jumps, or two electric fence posts that can easily be pushed into the ground and a suitable length of plastic pipe with string threaded through that can hook onto the poles.
Begin by placing the posts to your jump at 3 and 9 o’clock. Do not add the horizontal pole at this stage.
Set up two reinforcement points, such as food bowls, at 12 and 6 o’clock. Use them to encourage your dog to run confidently between the posts.
It is crucial at this stage that the dog is focused on looking ahead and not at you. If they are watching you, they will begin to jump twisted when you introduce the jump, which may cause injuries later on. Instead, move slowly behind the dog, letting them reach the reinforcement point ahead of you.
Once your dog is travelling confidently through the posts, introduce your jumping pole.
To begin with, place it on the floor between the two posts.
At this stage, just click your dog for stepping over it and pay them at the same reinforcement points as before.
Gradually increase the height of the jumping pole. Move it up in small increments at a time until the dog is jumping confidently.
Also, increase the distance of the reinforcement points from the jump as the height increases to allow your dog enough space to run up.
At this stage, you will want to click for the takeoff.
Most of the time, a poor landing occurs because of poor takeoff or because the dog has twisted mid-air to look at you. By consistently marking the takeoff with the clicker and ensuring you are not in the dog’s eye line as it jumps, the landings should take care of themselves.
When the jump is of consistent quality, you can introduce your cue, which is usually “over”.
If your dog begins to stumble at a particular height increment, stop and drop back a level. Make sure they are jumping confidently before moving up again. It might be that your dog has reached its maximum height.
Jumping fitness will be developed with practice, and the height may increase over the next few months. Now it is time to build strength and flexibility into the jumping by introducing your gundog to as many different types of jump as possible.
Should you encourage a gundog to jump over barbed wire?
Barbed wire fences are a major concern to our dogs. One wrong move can lead to dogs sustaining nasty cuts and injuries. That said, gundogs can still navigate these safely if they have been taught to jump confidently at their maximum height.
If you are nervous about your dog jumping over barbed wire, you can purchase fence protectors from all good field sports equipment stores. These are designed to fit in your pocket and can be fixed to the top of barbed wire fences, protecting you and your dog as you get over them. If you are out beating, you can use the plastic flags attached to the end of your stick to do the same job.
It is also worth noting that because of health and safety issues, often in competitions these days, the judges will check fences are clear before setting tests and asking participants to send their dogs.
Why some gundogs won’t jump over stone walls
I remember someone once told me that they had travelled a long way to go shooting with their dog on ground that was broken with stone walls instead of fences.
Having only been taught to jump stock fencing, the dog was at a complete loss as to how to get over the wall they had never encountered before. Because the dog couldn’t see through to the other side, from the dog's point of view, the stone created an impassible barrier that prevented any insight into what lay on the other side.
If you know you will be travelling to different parts of the country to work your dog, find out what obstacles will likely be in these places. You can then familiarise your dog with them in your jump training.
Retrieving over fences
You will need to consider that jumping while carrying something heavy will reduce the height at which your dog can safely jump.
If you don’t know what I mean, have a go yourself - drape something heavy around your neck and experience what impact this has on your ability to jump.
One of my previous dogs, Thorn, could easily scale a five-bar gate with confidence. One day, he cleared the gate on the way to a retrieve. Having picked the bird - a heavy old cock pheasant - Thorn decided on the return that the jump was too great. So, he put the bird down, jumped the gate, put his head through the gate, picked up the bird back up and completed the retrieve.
On this occasion, the bird was stoned dead, but it could quite easily have run off when he put it down. While not the most practical of scenarios, putting his safety first was a far more important and skilled decision.
If a working dog is unsure of their ability to make the return jump with game successfully, they will often look for an alternative way back. This may involve taking a long diversion, but if the dog and retrieve return safely, this has to be the priority.
In our one-to-one training sessions, group classes, workshops, and gundog camps, we can help retrievers, spaniels, and HPRs gain confidence retrieving over obstacles.
At the Clicker Gundog Training Centre, we have a purpose-built, height-adjustable jumping pen, a fun gundog scurry set up with bales, and fencing of various heights.
If you have a fully grown dog and would like to work on your jumping, Lynsey is holding a special barriers and jumps workshop on Saturday 20th April 2024.