Training A Dog
For Work And Pleasure 1984
An article commissioned by London Portrait Magazine
Many of us have taken on a young dog with high hopes of turning it into an obedient pet or a working gun dog. The best most of us achieve is an uneasy truce with little honour on either side!
CHRISTOPHER LONG, who owns and trained a remarkably obedient and delightful working spaniel, offers us new hope and an outline guide to dog training as yet another shooting season begins.
Left: The author and his two English Springer spaniels, Damsel and Springer ll, in August 2001.
By Christopher Long
hat four-legged furry 'fiend' we like to call man's best friend has been the despair of the best of us. Getting to grips with such a bundle of canine cunning which many would call sheer, animated bloody-mindedness has challenged and defeated families and sportsmen for centuries.
Yet, because we love them, we never give up trying, thank goodness. So, if you have plans to take on a dog and have the time and patience necessary, here are a few ideas that may get you off to a better start.
The author and his imaginatively named dog, Springer, in London in c. 1983.
For working purposes I would say of dogs that 'when they're good they're very, very good but when they're bad they're awful'. Bitches, on the other hand, tend to make more reliably good subjects for training. The best dogs are better than the best bitches and the best of the litter is usually the biggest, strongest and most energetic of either sex. Don't be tempted by the poor little runt. It will be poor, little and a runt when it grows up and probably neurotic too. Look for the strongest puppy that shoves all the others out of the way to get to the best nipple usually the one nearest the bitch's rear end. Bear in mind that a female will come on heat twice a year which can be a nuisance but the sexual and territorial competitiveness is more developed in the males which can be a drawback too.
Whether you intend to use your dog as an all-round gun-dog or simply have him as a friend at home, the same 'basic training' is equally useful. Most problem dogs are bored and insecure because their minds are not stretched enough and we have deprived them of the opportunity to live and survive on their instinctive wits in the wild.
Never under-estimate the intelligence or learning capacity of any dog. We scarcely scratch the surface of their capabilities. They all want to learn and once they learn something they never forget it though they may pretend to do so in order to exercise their brains by testing your determination.
There's no real substitute for training a dog yourself it has to be a very intensive, personal, one-to-one relationship which means that nobody else should ever be allowed to give him orders when he's young. And never give an order unless you mean him to obey. Dogs are pack animals which in the wild, live, hunt and breed according to their position in a strict hierarchical system. Your family now becomes his pack. He needs to know his position in the group and most of all he needs to know that you, as the leader of the pack, are God. Consistency is everything for the first year or so and the happiest dogs are those which know what you expect of them.
Slaley Hall in Northumberland where the author mis-spent many years with his gun and dog was set in some of the wildest of English rough-shooting land. Before the wide-spread commercialisation of shooting, from the 1960s onwards, and the consequent development of lucrative 'driven' shoots, the terrain itself largely dictated the best form of shooting and therefore the dogs required. Here at Slaley for example, where we found pigeon, snipe, hares, grouse, pheasant, etc., the land was ideal for rough shooting and 'walk-ups' of six to ten guns. This gave good scope for inexhaustible Springer Spaniels and the specialist Pointers, Setters and Retrievers. The ubiquitous Labrador became popular following the development, from the early 1900s, of more formal pheasant and partridge shooting on flatter, arable land.
This word should summon up visions of hell and eternal damnation in the minds of every dog. It's a word which must never be disobeyed a word that may mean the difference between life and death for him one day.
You'll never feel happy on the street, among traffic, on a shoot, where there are sheep, or where other dogs are spoiling for a fight unless you can freeze him in his tracks immediately and every time.
There are three good ways of teaching him this.
First, put a puppy on a lead and say Stay very firmly, pulling him up short on his choke-chain by your left heel so that he sits. The choke-chain must be light-weight and fitted the right way round so that it loosens as soon as you stop pulling. As you do this, point straight at his nose with your finger and give one only one longish, shrill single whistle. The reason for pointing and whistling at the same time will be explained later.
Keep him there until he's still and keep repeating the word Stay plus whistle and finger until he remains sitting. If he lies down instead, it doesn't really matter. Do this dozens of times on a single walk. He should catch on within a couple of days. To his dying day you should keep doing this from time to time at cross-roads or even when he's loose around the house.
A second method is: sit him half-way between you and a convenient pole with a long piece of string running from his choke-chain, round the pole and back to your hand. Make him Stay and if he tries running towards you, jerk him back and repeat the command plus whistle plus finger until he learns that you want him to stay there, away from you.
A third method is: sit him in a car with the door open or in a cardboard box without a lead and tell him to Stay for increasingly long periods, putting him back into his easily identifiable position every time he tries to move. Repeat the commands every time. Be firm, be patient, be consistent. Try and keep him there for five minutes if you can.
This is the hardest, most frustrating and most important exercise of all. But when you've taught him to stay when he's beside you, even when you carry on walking away from him or else quite suddenly when he's running around you know you've got a dog that's under control.
Dogs have superb hearing and sharp eyes. If you always make each command visual and audible you will be able to control him from a long way off. By using your voice, your hand and a whistle together during training he will associate each method equally with an order.
A whistled command will reach him even you can't see each other, in long grass, for example. A hand-signal saves you bellowing in the drawing room or across open fields and disturbing game or other people. Make sure you use all three together when he's young and practise them individually whenever you can later on.
The easiest lesson of all! Puppies will naturally scamper off and then come running back. After you've mastered STAY, call Come Here which he'll be dying to do anyway and combine the command with two short, sharp whistles and point your finger very clearly to the ground about three feet away from your left heel. Make a fuss of him when he comes. Don't shout at him when he doesn't. Just repeat the commands till he comes and go on practising it until he catches on.
You should now be able to stop him in his tracks and call him to your heel any time you wish and it shouldn't have taken more than a few days, though it'll need regular daily practice for several months.
This is the general release word meaning 'run away free'. Raise your arms like a scarecrow, whoosh him off and there's no need for a whistle command.
Now, try Stay Go On Come Here Stay in repeated succession. You should have a basically well-trained dog already. Keep practising it.
Whenever you take him out on a lead, make him walk beside you (on your left unless you're training him as a gun dog and you happen to carry your gun on your left arm). His nose should be close to your left hand. When he tries to pull ahead or away from you, say Heel and point to the ground about three feet to the left of your heel (as in Come Here) but there's no need for a whistle command.
This requires endless patience, very firm treatment and is best done with a choke-chain pulled lightly but as sharply as necessary whenever he puts any strain on it. Don't just pull. If you were being throttled you would try to get away. Just let the chain go loose for a second and give it a flick-jerk to grab his attention and repeat the Heel + finger command.
When he's caught on, take him off the lead for short spells until you can trust him to stay at heel.
Now you can practice Heel Stay (while you walk on ahead, which he won't like) Come Here Heel Go On Stay Come Here Heel.
You've now got a very well trained dog.
Tenant farmers, foresters, shepherds and other estate workers at the start of a rough shoot at Slaley Hall, Northumberland, in 1979. Seated left is Herbert 'Herbie' Purvis? who was the estate's head woodman. Seated right is the estate's head game-keeper Dennis Dodd whose father Bill, also a keeper, died suddenly in 1954 while shooting with Major Priestman at Styford near Corbridge. After WWll Dennis Dodd and Tommy Dodd were woodman and head woodman respectively, but following his father's death Dennis took charge of the Slaley Hall shoot along with additional land at Espershields, Winnow Hill and Ladycross Quarry. Twenty-five years later I was lucky enough to spend time shooting in the company of these men who knew intimately every inch of the surrounding 3,500 acres and whose gentle wit and profound knowledge of the countryside made every minute a delight regardless of the size of the bag. Days like this were usually followed by an evening of duck flighting as darkness settled over the lake.
[Vital members of the staff at Slaley Hall from the 1950s to the 1970s included: Thomas Kennedy (butler), Lance Robson (head gardener), Herbie Purvis (head woodman), Dennis Dodd (head keeper), Johnny Stoddard (maintenance), Doris Saville (parlour maid), Velma Dodd (kitchen maid), Annie Wilkinson (cook), Nancy Robson (housemaid), Arthur Wilson and Thomas Craig.]
By now you should have a dog aged six to twelve months and still at least a year away from being old enough to take out on a shoot or other work. If you don't plan to work your dog to a gun then don't teach him to retrieve things! There's nothing more tedious than a dog that insists on having balls and sticks thrown for him all day.
If he's to be used as a gun dog make absolutely sure he's word perfect on the basic training up to this stage. If you start him retrieving too early you could ruin all your work up to this point. Much depends on what dog you've got and what you want from him.
I have an English Springer Spaniel 'spaniel' deriving from the generic C15th Spanish espanõl hunting dog from which all spaniels, setters, pointers and retrievers have evolved. Springers have well-developed hunting and retrieving instincts and are keen swimmers though they were originally used to 'spring' game towards the gun before 'driven' shooting became the norm. They're tireless, energetic and strong-willed ideal rough-shoot, walk-up, flighting and moorland dogs.
Setters and pointers are very specialised breeds which nowadays are seldom trained as they should be and which I shall ignore for the purpose of this article. Retrievers do best what their name suggests and the ubiquitous Labrador has now become the general, all-purpose gun-dog.
The spaniels, retrievers and pointers all have instinctive hunting and retrieving abilities to a greater or lesser extent and all one needs to do is channel them in a disciplined manner. You can start on the drawing room floor with a bundle of old socks tied together into a knot. This must only be used for retrieving practice and never, never given to the dog as his own toy.
Dogs, like children, have an acute sense of possession. You have to exploit this. The socks represent a bird and that bird is always yours not his. Also, never throw anything for him which is his (e.g. a ball or a stick which he'll chew up and maul). He can do what he likes with his things but not with yours.
Tell him to Stay and then throw the 'retrieve' a few yards ahead of him, making sure he sees it fall. Make him Stay, looking at it. Never let him make a dash for it using a long lead to stop him if necessary. "Running-in is a cardinal sin".
Tell him to Go Fetch or any other word you choose because there's a lot of snobbishness about this! There's no need for hand signals or whistles. He'll run towards it and pick it up. He'll almost certainly turn to look at you as well. Tell him to Fetch It Back which you can combine with the two whistle blasts and pointing to the ground beside you which already means 'Come Here'.
When he approaches you, put out your hand towards him and tell him Give It To Me. If he does, take it from him gently and then make a fuss of him. If he doesn't, go on saying Give It To Me with your hand out until he does. The point here is that he must 'give' it to you you mustn't 'take' it from him. If he tries to play with it, take it away from him immediately and try again.
Be very patient, very gentle and very careful at this stage. This is really what a so-called 'soft-mouth' is all about teaching him that the retrieve is 'yours' not 'his'. Little and often is best at first, making absolutely sure that he comes to heel and stays beside you afterwards, each time. Forget about competition retrievers who have to approach you from behind or from the side. It couldn't matter less whether he sits or lies beside you either. You want a working dog, not a circus act.
Now increase the distance and the time he has to wait before 'going in'. At this stage you can make the retrieve more realistic by sticking some tail feathers firmly into each side of the bundled socks. Make the retrieve larger too, because the larger the retrieve the more difficult it is for a dog to bite or damage it 'it' being a bird.
Now introduce the vital word Dead. This tells him to drop the retrieve and to Stay.
You teach him this by pointing at him as soon as he picks it up and saying Dead at the same time, along with the single whistle blast that says 'stay'. Go on saying Dead and pointing at him until he puts it down. Then tell him to Come Here and Heel. If he picks up the retrieve, which all his instincts will want him to do, don't punish him or he'll think it's wrong to retrieve things for you. Just go on patiently trying again until he gets it right and you can make an enormous fuss of him.
Now, get him to Stay half-way to the retrieve (i.e. you want another shot).
Never at any stage in his training give him tit-bits or rewards. They don't help. He will be quite pleased enough to have pleased you. Tit-bits get confused in his mind with the retrieve which he might well find much more rewarding if it's dripping with blood. You'd then have lost all the progress you've made so far.
You should now be able to throw two retrieves and get him to Fetch Back one, leaving the other Dead. This is important so that he doesn't bring back some else's bird, doesn't retrieve a decoy which you want left there. It also stops him picking up a runner (an injured bird) which you would want to dispatch quickly and humanely yourself.
A full exercise at this stage, quite possible for a dog 18 months old, would be:
Stay Heel Stay (you walk on) Heel Stay Go On Stay Go On Stay Come Here Heel Stay Go Fetch Stay (half-way to the retrieve) Go Fetch Dead (after he's picked it up) Come Here (he leaves the retrieve where it was) Heel Go Fetch Fetch It Back Give It To Me Heel Stay.
An invaluable refinement is to get a dog to sit at 'Heel' without any command whenever you raise a gun to your shoulder. It's simple enough to teach him. Just say Stay whenever you lift a broom stick or a gun to your eye. Soon he'll stay at heel without you saying a word. The advantage of this is that when he automatically sits it gives you a vital fraction of a second to aim and fire without having to talk to the dog.
Also useful is telling a dog to Go Back, indicating the direction you want him to walk away from you. I can't remember how I taught my dog to do this but I suspect it was at that marvellous moment when I also easily taught him to go to the Left or to the Right by indicating with my arm quite simply because, by then, we had almost telepathic mutual understanding.
Being able to tell your dog to get Over or Under is useful too (at walls, hedges, fences, ditches) so that he can spring game to you from the other side or find a retrieve that he didn't see fall. Hence Go Back Over or Go Fetch Under, etc.
Most people find that a young, eager dog will train and work best if they take the edge off his energy for a while before starting work. There must also be a different sort of edge in your voice and commands that mean business. I growl and sound terribly fierce with my dog and he becomes instantly alert and responsive. I suppose I thus become the old, grey-muzzled leader of the pack who stands no nonsense from underlings because the survival of the whole pack depends upon hunting with absolute obedience and mutual co-operation.
No forgiveness is allowed excuses like I didn't hear or I don't quite understand or I've got a much better idea are never permitted. A heavy hand can sometimes comes into action but only now that he's already fully trained and only when I know that he knows that I know he understood perfectly well.
He's a hundred times happier when I'm asking for and getting his very best. For which I admire, respect and love him more than I can say.
This article was not published by London Portrait Magazine as intended.
It is dedicated to my own English Springer Spaniel who lived happily for 15 years (1975-90) despite his spectacularly unoriginal name 'Springer'. He was a liver-and white pure-bred descendent of great English working strains 'Shooting Star', 'Saighton' and 'O'Vara'. His best performances were at shoots on the Slaley Hall estate (see above), and by good fortune he turned out to be the most naturally gifted spaniel I have ever seen.
© (1984) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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