Although you shouldn’t really start any formal training until a few months after you acquire a gundog pup, there is plenty you can be doing to nurture and develop their natural instincts. It is generally accepted that eight to twelve weeks of age is the most influential time in a pup’s development; this is when the puppies need to bond with you and see that you are their leader. This is when you can introduce them to the outside world, albeit initially in the confines of your garden. At this young age we are not exactly training the young pup, but we are starting to condition it.
Retrieving can be the biggest downfall of many novice trainers. Too many people throw retrieve after retrieve for their puppy, and no matter what breed you have this can lead to problems.
There are lots of retrieving dummies that are marketed for puppies, but at this stage anything that will interest the young dog will do – a rolled up sock, a dry rabbit skin, a tennis ball or a child’s teddy bear – anything that the dog will chase after and hopefully pick up. Do not worry at this stage if the pup does not come back; we are trying to get the dog to retrieve and the delivery will be worked work on a later date.
If the puppy does retrieve the object and brings it back to you, do not be too much of a hurry to take it away from the dog. Give it lots of praise and let it hold on to the retrieve. If you get success, finish the session immediately and do not be tempted to try another retrieve. There is a fine balance in keeping a puppy interested and keen, and over stimulating it and making it bored. You may well start to create problems that will then need remedial action. The key is ‘little and often’.
Once the pup has had all its jabs and is growing in confidence with its retrieving, try to stimulate the dogs nose. Do this by throwing the object into some very light cover such as rough grass with the wind blowing towards us, so if the young dog marks short (as they often do) hopefully the scent of the object will draw the dog on. By teaching the young dog to use its nose rather than its eyes, you will hopefully teach the dog that retrieving is a pleasure and a privilege, rather than a chore!
Even at a young age you can start to teach your little pup to sit, and the ideal time to do this is at feeding time. The first thing to realise is that dinner is very exciting for any dog, especially a puppy, and you will need a bit of patience and good timing.
When you have filled the dog bowl with food take it to the dogs feeding area and hold it slightly above the dog’s eye level and give the command “Sit”. Stay calm and be patient – as soon as the pup’s bottom hits the floor (and it will eventually) give the pup its food.
We are aiming to teach the dog by association – it sits and it gets it food. At this stage I don’t like to force the dog to sit by forcing down its back end: overzealous handling can easily damage young bones, muscles and ligaments.
Some gundog handlers do not like using treats to train their gundogs but it is worth keeping an open mind about all training techniques and use methods that suit not only you but also your dog.
As well as using feeding time to teach your pup to sit you can also use what are known as ‘high value’ food treats such as liver cake or sliced hot dogs. A note of warning: do not always use these treats, as the dogs can become so fixated on them it can cause issues later on in their training.
This method is slightly different – get the pup in front of you and get your chosen treat and hold it just in front of the dog’s nose, lift your hand and move over the back over the dogs head and again use the sit command, the action of moving your hand will make the pup lift its head and as you move it back the pup should naturally sit. If it does, give him the treat immediately. It doesn’t take many lessons before the dog really does cotton on to what is required; just don’t overdo the exercise as you may well end up boring the dog.
Getting your dog to come back to you is the backbone of all gundog training. In fact, it is the backbone of all dog training, and it is an exercise that you can start from a very early age. If you have been selective and careful in choosing your new gundog puppy, you will have chosen one from a litter that has been well socialised and is used to having a lot of human contact.
The best and easiest way to start recall conditioning is to sit on the floor and call the pup. Obviously at this stage it will not know its name, but if you use a slightly higher pitched voice this should attract the pup to you. Give it a lot of fuss and then wait for it to wander off and call it back again. You can also use the same phrase when calling the pup for feeding time.
The aim is to get the pup thinking that every time you call it something good is going to happen – that could be food, praise or a good stroke. Don’t keep calling it for no reason, as it won’t be long before the pup starts to ignore you.
All these early lessons may seem boring and it is easy to skip them and try to get on with more exciting exercises, but you have to think of gundog training along the lines of building a house: if the foundations are not solid the rest of the house will soon collapse. You have been warned.