Throughout the early part of the summer our older, trained dogs take a well deserved break after a long autumn on Grouse and winter on pheasants. Weather permitting, they will spend their time loafing around in the sun, going for free running exercise and splashing about in nearby becks. We try to keep them reasonably fit but do not worry too much about any training. They will start to earn their keep grouse counting in mid July prior to the start of the season in August so we will step up some fitness training form early July.
The younger dogs will be doing more intensive basic training depending what level they are at. It is a common mistake, and one I have made often enough, to push a young dog to be ready for the start of the season or a particular trial when really a dog is ready when it is ready to perform the tasks you require for it. Progress is better made slowly with each lesson being learnt properly before moving the dog on to the next level. Due to Red grouse, Black Grouse, Curlew and other waders nesting, the dogs are kept off any ground where incubating hens or youngsters may be encountered and training is restricted to grass fields and quiet areas. Cockers can get very bored very quickly if you use the same place to carry out the same exercises so I try to vary it as much as I can within the areas I can train on.
Once I have a youngster of say seven months or so that is confident and bold and will hunt a certain amount and will retrieve nicely I start more formal training. This will include sitting to the whistle, sitting and staying and recall. During this basic training I look for signs that I am putting the dog under too much pressure and if I feel that I am I will back off a bit. I do not want to risk confusing or worrying the youngster too much. Young spaniels will often play up when you are trying to get them to sit away from you, often lying down, rolling on their back or crawling towards you. Some of them, and Cockers can be terrible for this, will immediately start to crawl towards you as soon as you sit them down and try to walk away. I am often amazed at the persistence of a young dog that after you have sat it down will again and again “commando crawl” towards you at high speed. You can replace it over and over and yet still it will come back to you.
Fortunately this makes me laugh and not get mad but you have to get round this problem some how. The most important consideration is to try to understand the dog and decide if it is either, a bit young and immature for what you are trying to do, or whether it is taking advantage of you and that you need insist that it does what it is told. Only you will really know this and you will have formed your opinion over the previous months of watching the pup grow up. On occasions I have had a young dog do this and given it the benefit of the doubt only to realise later that actually the dog was pushing its luck and was quite capable of sitting at a distance.
When the young dog is sitting both at my heel and at a distance I will steady it to the thrown dummy. Most take to this very quickly and there are a lot of ways of doing it. The easiest way I find is to start by sitting the dog in front of me and dropping the dummy over my shoulder so I am in between the dog and the dummy. Once the dog is happy with this you can increase the distance the dummy is thrown and also increase the temptation. Throughout this period I carefully watch the dog’s retrieving and if there is any sign that the dog is becoming reluctant or uncertain I will ease off it a little bit. In extreme circumstances I will let the dog run in just to regain its’ confidence before returning to steadiness training later. With the dog happily steady to the thrown dummy and then retrieving on command I will develop it into doing memory retrieves, sending it back and left and rights. I tend to do this in the same areas because the dog will quickly become used to finding dummies in certain places and gain confidence in the directions I am giving it. This part of the training is repetitive but hard work at this stage will pay dividends later on. I am hoping for a dog that will go away from me about fifty yards for a blind retrieve and also take directions left and right before I do more complicated exercises. With the dog retrieving confidently I will start retrieves over obstacles like becks, low walls and into cover to develop the experience of the dog.
As June drifts into July more ground becomes available due to the nesting season being over and most young ground nesting birds are on the wing. However, this often coincides with the hottest weather of the summer and I am very careful not to work the young dogs too much when it is hot. It can, in extreme cases, affect both their enthusiasm and ability to retrieve cleanly and dampen their drive for hunting. Very hot July days are better spent with the dogs relaxing in the kennels and me Sea Trout fishing at night! If the weather is very hot I tend to do short periods of training which often revolve around water, either easy water retrieves or allowing the dogs to cool down frequently. The older, more experienced dogs will often have to work in these conditions when they are on the Grouse moors but there is no point in stressing the youngsters unnecessarily. The basic training may have gone very smoothly and the dogs may be ready to be introduced to game or I might be struggling with the pupil taking one step forward and two steps backwards. However, if all has gone well I will take advantage of the training ground opening up and start to hunt the youngsters on gamey ground. Usually after a period of “square-bashing” the pupil will really enjoy this.
Most classic books on spaniel training will tell you to always quarter a young dog into wind and, whilst I would hesitate to argue with the experts, I do not always follow this advice for a couple of reasons. In the dim and distant background of most Cockers (and possibly Springers) there lurks Setters and Pointers. Sometimes this raises its’ head when young dogs lift their heads and air scent. If this starts to occur regularly I will hunt the dog downwind to prevent it doing this. I also want a dog to work the wind effectively and not hunt a windscreen wiper pattern regardless of the wind direction. My feeling is that the only way a dog can learn to do this is to have experience of doing it. It is not often in a trial that you get to work into a perfect headwind and for a picking-up dog I want a dog that can use its’ initiative and work the wind well to find Grouse. A dog that is experienced in working all sorts of wind conditions will have a much better chance of doing this. Having said that,a young and inexperienced dog has a much greater chance of finding game when it is hunting into wind. This especially applies to rabbits tucked into seats in white grass or heather but is equally applicable to all game.
If the young dog has some drive to hunt it is relatively simple to get it hunting and introduce it to the turn whistle. Keeping it close to me at all the time the scent on the ground will encourage the dog to hunt. If the dog fails to turn it can be corrected without squashing its’ enthusiasm too much. If the dog pulls on foot scent or pulls upwind on an air scent I will stop it and recall it to start off again. This is a long and painstaking period and you often have to go back several steps to reinforce some basics before continuing. There is no real shortcut and if you do skip this period of training you will encounter problems later on. Most of the problems people encounter with spaniel training are hunting too far away or hunting out of control. If the young dogs come across game during this period they will usually always stop to the whistle if this basic part has been correctly. If you are at all worried about this you can always clear the ground of game with an older dog first. Once I have got the young dog quartering properly I will start to incorporate retrieving exercises into the sessions. Using dummies I will give the dog memory retrieves and seen retrieves and eventually blind retrieves gradually building up to start shooting over the dog.
In the meantime the summer seems to be slipping by and the older dogs and myself will start a long series of four o’clock in the morning starts Grouse counting and then the season proper seems to slip seamlessly into the routine. The younger dogs take a bit of a back seat for a bit which is not a bad thing after a fairly intensive period for them.