Well, the season is over and here we are again getting our dogs steady and ready for working tests on dummies. However good my relationship is with my dog, work in the field puts it under strain and the natural instinct of a dog takes over. The seasoned gundog, my lab Skyr, my most trustworthy dog, came to feel that she knew best when a bird was hit; and once they start managing themselves you no longer have an agreeable shooting companion.
There is no mystery to steadiness and whether you are training a young dog or reminding an older one whose standards have slipped, the strategy is roughly similar and a few key principles will see you home and dry. Heel work and training on dummies is not very exciting for those dogs that have worked the season on the real thing, but an eager gundog with a natural drive to retrieve can soon achieve the steadiness we first applied all those years ago, when we started on canvas dummies. We then progressed to covering the dummies with fur or feather, getting our dogs used to picking up the real thing, or used cold game, like a feral pigeon, which is a good training aid as their feathers are tight and less likely to shed in the dogs’ mouth like pheasants do.
Busy drives and the pressure to collect those running birds allowed our dogs to take the lead on more than one occasion! So, go back to basics with training as edging forward probably crept in over the season. Natural instinct to chase something that is moving, to capture it if possible and carry it off to some location of their own choosing will always be high on the agenda of a working dog. The chance of the scent and sight of game may still be possible during a test on dummies as most working tests are run on grounds that have had game on throughout the season. So, this is a challenge in itself but to test the training and handling of the competitive relationship between dog and handler using natural ground seems only right, highlighting the best at the end of the day.
Retrievers, in particular, need to appreciate that they are really pleasing you by sitting quietly, taking an interest but not acting on any stimuli. Going against the dog’s natural feelings and achieving that virtuous sequence involves breaking it down into its fundamental parts and making various triggers like the sound of a shot, or the sight of something flying or moving or a signal to do nothing. With a little imagination you can vary the elements of the sequence to keep the process interesting and stop developing expectations, which turn out to be correct, about what is going to happen next. In fact, if there is one principle which is a key to achieving steadiness in any breed of gundog, it is that if you ever get the sense that the dog is anticipating something, you must do the opposite. Don’t, for instance, get into the habit of giving your dog longer retrieves to collect and shorter ones which you collect yourself to instill steadiness. Because it won’t be long before your dog works out that a longer throw is for it and it takes off in anticipation of being sent.
Think about what you are trying to achieve or re-train rather than doing it by auto pilot and you won’t go far wrong. Always stay one step ahead of the dog: accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative and you can have a shooting companion and working test dog to be proud of.