Gundogs have been bred over many years for specific roles. They are divided into three main classifications: retrievers, spaniels, pointing and setter breeds. There are also HPR (hunt, point and retrieve) breeds such as the popular multi-skilled Weimaraner and Vizsla.
A retriever is a dog bred to primarily retrieve shot game back to its handler without damage. Popular retrieving breeds are the labrador and the golden retriever. Most gundogs will naturally retrieve a shot bird however regular training is needed to harness their natural instincts so they understand and respond to a range of advanced commands. Training is also a great bonding exercise for dog and handler, uniting them as a team and creating a stronger, close-knit relationship.
Handler sending his gundog out on a retrieve during a training session
A good working dog should come from working lines, it should have a pleasant temperament, be biddable, intelligent, friendly and strong. Retrievers are bred for their soft mouths so they carry game in their mouths without biting into it. This trait is particularly important as the majority of the game birds shot are destined for the table. A hard-mouthed dog renders the game unpresentable and unfit to eat. It is a serious fault in a gundog as a hard mouth is nearly always incurable.
Most gundog owners will start play training with their pup right away, keeping it fun based with a mixture of obedience work, lead walking, off lead, sit and stay, whistle work and come when called. Lead walking is a good start to building up a bond between you and your dog. The dog should be kept at heel and walk without tension in the lead. Lead walking gets the dog accustomed to the world outside by exposing him to other dogs, noises and smells. Each situation will give him a new experience and grow his confidence. Dog trainers say you can learn a lot about the temperament of a dog when it is on the lead as he should be paying attention to you, the handler, and not be distracted by others.
Up to the first 6 months of a gundog’s life all the training is fun based, from this point on the formal training usually starts. Training progresses from fetching a tennis ball and develops to retrieving a training dummy then, around the age of 9 months, they can move on to cold game. There are no set rules to indicate when different phases of training are introduced as dogs will develop at their own rate.
If you train your dog with others or at a gundog club, it creates an opportunity to meet other dogs. By exposing him to lots of different situations you are growing his experiences and building his confidence and, as a result, he could be easier to train. Additionally, experienced older dogs can be a positive influence on an immature youngster. A socialised dog is likely to be relaxed, ideally maturing into an obedient worker out in the field. As the training progresses the dog’s experience grows and he is introduced to the activities of the shooting field.
On a shoot day there will many dogs present, they will be part of the beating and picking-up teams and some of the guns may have their own dogs. Many people work their dogs around Scotland throughout the shooting season and are paid by the gamekeeper at the end of each day. Most handlers will tell you they do not do it for the money, it is more about enjoying the opportunity of working their dogs and the fun team environment on a shoot day. Picking-up or beating will give you and your dog valuable experience in working with game. A typical driven shoot day will normally consist of five or six drives with up to eight guns shooting. Each drive is carefully planned by the keeper, he assembles the beating team so they line out across an area working their dogs, usually spaniels, to flush the birds out from the undergrowth so the fly up and forward over the guns.
Keeping your dog under close control is highly important when you are on a shoot. If your dog is off the lead and running amok it may ruin a drive by scaring and flushing the birds either in the wrong direction or towards the guns before they are in position to shoot. This will result in disgruntled paying guests and an embarrassed gamekeeper who will no doubt ask you to leave and never return. However, a calm and well-trained retriever will stand out and be asked back. An obedient retriever will be a valued member of the picking-up team, working hard alongside his handler to ensure all shot and injured birds are retrieved.
Having a trained canine companion enhances your life in many ways as Fife based businessman Jim Kay discovered, he said: “I get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction seeing the dog doing what he has been told to do. My friend Lawrie Robertson introduced me to gundog training last year. I really look forward to the training sessions, I am very committed to them and feel strongly I owe it to the dog to train him.” Regular training sessions help the handler learn more about his dog and the dog will be more focussed as he is put to work using his natural instincts. Both dog and handler will be challenged and rewarded as the training progresses with different obstacles such as retrieves over fences, double and blind retrieves and water training.
“Since we started training, I have much more confidence in the dog’s ability to perform.” Jim also reaps the benefits from the gundog training as it fits in with his other hobbies. “I have my shooting and fishing so I am adding more to my categories but it all fits in together and has opened up a whole new sphere as though it is another world I did not know was out there. When I took my gundog out on a shoot day for the first time it was amazing test for us both and we had the added pressure of people watching us. He sat by my side, I shot and he had many great retrieves however he did let me down, but only the once, when a hare bolted and he ran off after it so we are working on that during our training sessions.”
Having a trained gundog adds another dimension to your shooting and no doubt enhances your overall enjoyment of a day’s sport. Many shooters say they feel a great sense of pride taking their dog with them on a shoot day. There is a feeling of completeness having your dog sitting at heel watching you shoot and patiently waiting for the command to do his work retrieving the birds.
“It makes such a difference to my shoot days, it is hugely satisfying seeing the work we have put into the training paying off,” said Jim. “We have been training for more than a year now and we have both made great progress. I am aiming for a controlled, disciplined dog to take out so I am not on edge all the time and I can make the most of my day and enjoy being out with my gun and dog.”
An additional bonus of the gundog training is the fitness increase for the handler. Regular walking is physically and mentally positive for everyone’s health. Jim’s wife, Liffy says, “The gundog training has actually helped Jim in many beneficial ways as it makes him take a break from his work. Jim is very busy so getting him away from work is always a challenge. The gundog training is not only relaxing for him, it is also very healthy because he is getting more exercise.”
Jim says: “When you take your dog for a walk it is much more interesting than being on your own plus you are inclined to get out more because you have a responsibility to give him regular exercise. Since I started the gundog training I also like to take a bag of dummies on our walks and use the opportunity to do some additional training.”
Lawrie Robertson has been training gundogs for more than forty years said: “Dog and handler get so much from the training sessions. I enjoy seeing my gundogs work and am confident in their abilities to do their job. I have always put a lot into their training and there is not much can beat having steady dogs walking to heel and shooting over them. It is rewarding to see all my training paying off when I shoot a bolting rabbit and the dogs sit and wait for my command. Its that investment you have made in their training that pays you back time and time again with tight teamwork.”
If you commit to training then the benefits for you and your dog are enormous. A trained gundog will be a pleasure to own and a perfect shooting companion.