Now is the time to cut out those bad habits

Janet Menzies

Janet Menzies

Janet Menzies is the author of Training the Working Spaniel; From Puppy to Perfect; and PsychoDog. She has established her own champion line of working cocker spaniels under the Gournaycourt affix and also writes regularly for The Field magazine.

So that’s it, pheasant shooting over. Beaters’ day has been and gone, and there’s very little to soften the blow. But is it just me that sometimes hangs up my dog whistle with some relief? Of course, great fun was had by all, especially the dogs – and that’s when I wonder … Have the dogs been having rather too much fun?

Over the last couple of weeks, trying to keep the champion bitch steady has been increasingly stressful. And it’s not only me and my dogs that have had a few cringeworthy moments.

I’m afraid most dogs do get wilder as the winter progresses. There’s running-in, and chasing, and even barking! It’s not uncommon for the picking-up on a January shoot to consist of loads of dogs hooning round the place grabbing birds and dropping them when a “better” one comes by.

Switching, dropping and mouthing game needs to be sorted before it becomes a habit.

We may want just to forget these embarrassing moments and hope for better in the autumn, but unfortunately, if it isn’t solved straight away, it will come back double.

Correcting this is much better done at home in circumstances you can control. Out in the shooting field, you won’t have the opportunity, with the keeper in a hurry or your fellow guns wanting to chat.

What can you do?

Go back to some basics with your retrieving – especially throwing distractions while your dog is coming in with a retrieve. Lay a blind retrieve and send your dog. As he is coming back in, roll a tennis ball across his path as a strong temptation for him to switch.

Remember to throw or roll the tennis ball to one side or slightly behind you, so that you will have the chance to run between him and the ball and so prevent him as he tries to get it.

You can introduce distractions on the outrun and while hunting also. The main thing is to get the knack of placing yourself between the incoming dog and the distraction ball so you can correct him and send him back to the original retrieve.

A classic exercise for getting your dog to focus on the correct bird is the “Y”. Stand at the base of an imaginary letter Y with your dog. Throw a seen retrieve to the top of the right or left fork of the Y. Then throw a second retrieve to the other fork of the Y. Keep your dog sat steady.

Walk forward to the fork of the Y, the centre of the exercise. Now send your dog for the first retrieve. If he goes for the most recent retrieve instead, you are in position to stop him, turn him round (physically if necessary!) and send him for the original retrieve.

You can invent your own versions of these two basic exercises and if you have more than one dog, work them both on the exercise at once.

Try combining the exercises, with one dog sat watching while the other is sent for a particular retrieve, then stopped to let a distraction go by, and afterwards resumes the retrieve. On his return, the other dog could be sent to retrieve the distraction ball. Be insistent that your dogs perform these exercises 100% obediently – this is your chance to step in and correct your dog which you can’t do on the shooting field.

It will all make for paw-perfect precision picking-up next season.

Click here to read more from Janet.

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