Young Shots Journalist Jess Smith provides an insight into the delights and challenges of breeding and raising a gundog.

Raising a gundog

In late May 2021, my dad’s cocker spaniel went into labour, giving birth to her first puppy early in the morning and continuing labour throughout the day. By late evening we had five healthy puppies – four brown and one black. Then, at 1am, the sixth and final puppy arrived. At first, I thought she was light brown, but it quickly became apparent that this little bitch would be more of a golden colour; I instantly fell in love.

The task of raising puppies is certainly not an easy one. We were checking their weights daily, feeding them and cleaning them out constantly – puppies make a lot of mess. 

It was hard work but absolutely worth it. As they grew, their personalities began to shine through; some were boisterous and keen to destroy the entire house, while others were quieter and cuddly. Some were also significantly smarter than the rest… and then there was that one special little pup who just liked to sit in a box and glare at the others going about their shenanigans.

This litter was my opportunity to raise a puppy of my own. As fun as it may be, the process of raising a gundog is not always easy.

Choosing the right dog

When the puppies were about six weeks old, I decided it was time to choose the one that would become my gundog. It is important to consider what you want the dog for – beating, picking up, trialling or simply as a pet? Sometimes you can glean an idea of their nature by just watching them play with their siblings, but in most cases you just have to go with your gut.

At this point, I was already incredibly attached to the little golden bitch, but I didn’t want to make a rash decision based solely on emotion. I was looking for a beating dog and the puppy needed to be bright, easily trainable, brave, and energetic. There were three puppies that I felt fit the criteria – the little golden bitch being one of them.

After weeks of deliberating, I finally chose my puppy…and of course it had to be the little golden pup. To this day I am not a hundred per cent sure if my decision was biased, but she’s coming along beautifully.

Now that I had finally picked my puppy, the second hard decision in the process of raising a gundog stood before me – what should I call her? 

There were many names that I liked but none really suited her. I had nicknamed her Orange Dog, which seemed like a good temporary name until I came up with something else. The problem, however, was that I never did come up with a name. So, I can now proudly say that I have a lunatic cocker spaniel called Orange.

Training Orange

Part of raising a gundog is, of course, training. Teaching Orange to sit was relatively simple. I began by saying “sit” every time I wanted her to do so, and she learned the concept surprisingly quickly.

Next came the recall – arguably the most important command a dog should learn. The last thing you want is a dog running riot on a shoot day and having to chase after it, painfully aware of the keeper’s glare hot on your back. A fuming gamekeeper is not a good thing in any circumstance!

Thankfully, Orange being the special little dog she is, took to recall like a duck to water. I started by standing at one end of the kitchen while she was at the other. Then, I would call her name, she would cock her head, take one or two uncertain steps then race to me at full speed. She always received lots of praise and a treat. Once she got the hang of it at short distance, I started moving further away. She would always come charging to me to get her reward.

Keeping training fun

When it comes to training puppies, I stand by the old adage that less is more. I don’t like to do too much with a puppy, never pushing them, giving lots of praise and, quite frankly, just letting them be puppies. 

You don’t want a spaniel that’s already bored at four months old. You want them to be enthusiastic and excited to do their job, the last thing you want to do is shout commands at them non-stop. Dogs are incredibly bright animals, and just like humans, they will get bored with repetition, so always keep training fun!

As Orange progressed with her training, I introduced her to a placeboard that my dad and I had made from an old wooden pallet and rubber mats. At first, I only wanted Orange to get on the placeboard, for which she would be immediately rewarded. She picked this up very fast, so I then started asking her to sit. This taught her to sit and stay in one place. I then began to call her off the placeboard, which worked a treat! I am currently teaching her to go back to the placeboard while I stand at a distance.

When she was about five months old, I also started whistle training Orange. I would ask her to sit and once she sat, I would do one long blow of the whistle and reward her. At first this confused her slightly but quickly she realised what the whistle meant, and I no longer had to say “sit”. 

Using the same concept for whistling the recall, I would call her to me, then blow four sharp whistle pips. When she was by my feet, I gave her lots of praise. I’ve never had a dog pick up the whistle so fast – it took her just over a day.

Orange is showing huge amounts of promise with her training, and although the commands she is currently doing are quite basic, she has already come so far and I can’t wait for us to work together in the future.

If you are thinking about getting a new puppy, make sure to look for a reputable breeder and do your research about the breed first. You can find all the useful information and tips on the Kennel Club’s website.

Jess Smith

I'm 15 and live on a pheasant and partridge shoot in Derbyshire where my Dad is head gamekeeper. I've been home-educated my whole life and did two GCSE's early in year nine. My hobbies include coloured pencil animal art (which I now do as commissioned work) riding my horse Rupert, dog showing and video making. I'm incredibly passionate about the countryside and am exceedingly excited and grateful for this opportunity.

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