Pete Carr shows you how to take the next step in training your gundog by introducing heelwork and dog box training
There are two schools of thought regarding heelwork with a young gundog. Some trainers prefer their dogs not to be restricted by a lead, as they feel it can take some of the drive out of them – especially the spaniel breeds. However, for practical reasons the vast majority of us need to get out dogs walking properly on a lead fairly early on in their training. Getting a dog to walk to heel is big money in the training world, and you only have to look at the number of harnesses, head collars and various gadgets that are available to help prevent your dog from pulling on the lead to realise that for many dog owners it is a real problem. From a shooting point of view, we normally require our dogs to walk on and off the lead at heel on our left side and this positioning of the dog has come about by tradition as most of us carry our gun in our right hand.
Obviously if you are left handed and do a lot of walked up shooting with one of the retrieving breeds you could just as easily teach your dog to walk to heel on your right hand side. When we train heelwork I do not look to be constantly correcting the dogs with the use of my voice. I like to them to hear me give the command “Heel!” as we set off. This command is not repeated until we re-start the exercise. I believe that this prevents the dog from needing constant verbal correction when we take the lead off later on.
The position of the lead is very important for this exercise. The traditional lead that is used for gundogs is a rope slip lead, which is positioned right up behind the ears and under the chin. At this point I must stress that we are not looking to strangle the dog, merely to maintain sufficient pressure to hold the lead in this position. The orientation of the lead is also vastly important. Whichever side you choose to walk the dog on, the leather weight should be next to your leg. This ensures that the slip lead does its job and releases when required.
The position of the hands is also important. Hold the handle of the lead in your right hand and use the left hand as the ‘control hand’, almost like a joystick. Rather than pulling back on the lead when controlling the heel position, look to pop the lead upwards and then release, repeating as necessary, keeping the dog’s head up and next to my leg. There is no need for aggressive snatching of the lead.
When teaching heelwork, keep changing direction in order to encourage your dog to focus on you. The turns should be quick, sharp manoeuvres. When the dog looks up, give them a verbal reward of “good dog” and then continue onwards without the need for any physical praise at this stage.
With the dog is on your left, start with the left turn, using your knee to push through him, making him understand that you wish to turn left therefore he needs to be in the correct position to avoid contact with my leg. When turning to the right, again use quick, sharp manoeuvres as well as popping the lead sideways towards me encouraging him with this action to instill confident and polished heelwork.
Once the dog has grasped the concept of walking tight next to my leg without the need for any correction via the lead, you can then look to take the lead out of your control, whilst still giving the dog the impression that you are still in control of him. Do this by wrapping the lead around his neck (again, not too tight) giving the heel command and walking him alongside. If he starts to stray slightly, use the left turn to re-affirm his position. If you have done your groundwork with the dog on the lead, you will find that many dogs will take to walking to heel with the lead wrapped around their neck quite well. The next stage is quite obvious, and that is to remove the lead altogether. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to rush on the next stage and make sure each section of the training is engrained in the dog before moving on.
DOG BOX DISCIPLINE
For practical reasons most of us need to take our dogs out in a vehicle on a fairly regular basis. As such, it makes sense to instill in them some proper dog box manners. Don’t automatically assume that your young gundog will be happy travelling in a car or truck. They can be like children – some are fine and others can get quite sick and some may even get very stressed. First of all, I would always recommend using a dox box or travelling crate. Most dogs are happier being contained rather than being thrown about loose in the back of a vehicle. Also, in the event of a rear-end accident, a good box will help to protect the dog from injury.
Security is another consideration, and with the number of gundog thefts it makes sense to be able to lock your valuable gundog in a box. Just a note of warning: Do not travel with your dog box locked just in case you need to get your dogs out in an emergency. It is also worth getting a box with an escape hatch just in case of an accident where you can’t get the car’s rear doors open or access the cage doors.
I like to get my dogs used to a box from a very early age. One way I achieve this is by feeding them in the box so they start to associate it with something nice. Let’s face it: The chances are the first time the dog went in a car was when you took it home and that can be pretty traumatic, and then the next time will be to the vet’s to get its jabs again. Not a nice experience.
Whilst the dogs are developing and growing I prefer to pick them up and put them in the box rather than trying to get them to jump. This is even more important when they come out, as it can be a long drop from the back of a pickup and the impact on a young dog’s shoulders and wrists can be considerable.
The next stage is to teach the dog some manners when coming out of the box. One of my pet hates is turning up at a shoot and seeing the backs of cars and trucks being opened and dogs piling out all over the place. It is a recipe for disaster. There are bound to be quads and shoot trailers being moved around and everyone is talking and greeting each other and the dogs will be sizing each other up sorting out pecking orders, it is far better to have your dog under control right from the start, you know where it is and it sets the tone of the day for the dog.
The first thing to teach your young gundog is not to burst out of the box as soon as you open the door. This is fairly easy. Start with the dog in the box and gradually open the cage door. As the dog tries to come out, quickly shut the door and give a firm “No” command. After repeating this a few times, most dogs cotton on and will stay back from the door. The next step is to hold the door open and make the dog sit in the box. Be ready to quickly shut the door if it makes a move to come out. The key to this is to extend the length of time you leave the door open so the dog doesn’t start to pre-empt you calling him out. Once the dog is happy to sit in the open box, you can call him to the door and put the lead on. I much prefer to have the dog on a lead and under control right from the beginning. On occasions I may put the lead back on the dog and then take it off again and shut the cage door. That way, the dog will not automatically think that every time you put the lead on he is going to be taken out. I know I repeat myself but keep them guessing and you will make far quicker progress with your dog’s training.