5 commonly asked dog training questions... answered!

Three men loading a gun and a spaniel sat in front on a UK game shooting day

All your hard work on the training ground culminates in shoot days, but be sure not to overload your dog - Credit: Nick Ridley Photography

Gundog trainer Ryan Kay answers five of the most common questions he comes across during training sessions – from when to introduce gundogs to shoot days to the use of whistles

1) How long does it take to train a dog?
Well, you may just as well ask, ‘how long is a piece of string’?! To be fair, this is usually a question I get asked by people just venturing into the world of gundogs and becoming first-time dog owners. There are, of course, several factors that influence the length of time it takes to train a dog to the level where it can be described as a finished article, one being the actual definition of what a person calls a ‘finished article’. 

That’s to say, it is relative – the requisite skill level that you want your dog to reach will perhaps differ from other people. But the main considerations that determine how long it takes to train a dog are: the natural ability of the dog; the trainability of the dog; and the capabilities of the handler. Add to this, the breed (with all its inherent quirks); access to good and varied training facilities or grounds; and the amount of time the trainer/handler puts in.

Even after all that, there is another aspect that develops over time: the element of experience. For instance, I was co-judging an open cocker trial last week where there was one spaniel that hunted better than any other dog on the day. It also happened to be the oldest at around eight years old. Whilst other dogs were very well trained and schooled, they simply lacked the presence and guile of a dog that hunted in such a way that said, ‘I know what I’m doing – I’ve found and flushed a thousand pheasants’.

2) Can you work more than one dog at once?
In a word, no. I’m talking hunting breeds here, and the hunting aspect in particular as that is usually the area people are referring to when they ask this question. It’s not possible to hunt more than one dog at once effectively. Aiding and guiding more than one dog in an efficient search to find and produce game would require each dog to know when you’re aiding or directing them individually. And as dogs operate and communicate through body language in the first instance, each dog would need to know when you’re communicating to them or another dog. Then there’s the added confusion of using a whistle. If directed at one dog to signal it to turn, it would also turn the other when it didn’t need to.

It does, however, depend on your level of required hunting. Say, if your need is to simply use a recall in order to call several dogs back at once, then that’s fine. But I guarantee all the dogs you have loose in front of you are not working efficiently, nor are they working for you all the time. If you’re happy with chases, no matter how small, then you’ll achieve this perfectly when trying to hunt more than one dog at once! If you have a more sedate sort with less drive, then that’s perhaps all you require anyway and several of those sorts pottering about will get a job done. 

The ideal scenario is really to have one dog at heel whilst you hunt another one. I prefer this when beating, as I can concentrate on working one dog really well and the other gets to exercise a little control in the heel position. I also like to swap them over several times throughout a drive, as it tends to keep them keen whilst alternate resting periods assure they stay fresh.

3) Won’t my dog get confused if everyone is using the same whistle?
This question kind of leads on from the last one. It’s true that dogs may get confused by other folks’ whistles on a shoot day, especially one that’s very responsive. Invariably, I find it’s younger dogs that struggle with this. My older cockers have accumulated the experience of knowing where they expect their whistle command to come from, i.e. where their handler is, at all times. This indicates that they will respond to whistle commands from that direction only. 

When we’re hunting younger dogs in the beating line, my wife Alison and I try to make sure that we have several other beaters in between us. If we were next to each other in the beating line, because we have very similar whistle styles and the fact that all our dogs have been trained by both of us, we could cause mass confusion as they’d respond back and forth to both our whistles.

There’s also the added problem that practically everyone in the beating line with a spaniel will be using an Acme 210.5 and most of the retriever and HPR folk will be using an Acme 211.5. The main issue, though, is overuse of a whistle. There’s always one pied piper who constantly badgers their dog with excessive use of the whistle! However, thorough training, coupled with increased experience on your dog’s part, will ensure that it responds to your whistle only.

4) When can I take my dog on a shoot?
Another regular question, and my answer remains the same for any dog: you can take it right now! Whatever age it is, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is what you expose and reveal to it when you are there. 

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I maintain that drinks time is the perfect opportunity for pups and youngsters to get used to the sights and smells of the day, but that’s it. Don’t be tempted to take them on a drive or anywhere near your peg at four months of age! 

Drinks time will provide valuable encounters and learning experiences like getting used to the smell of spent cartridges and freshly shot warm game in the air. The more off-putting things to look out for are the likes of bullish and unruly dogs that are likely to be less than polite with a young puppy knocking around. 

But when is the best time to get them stuck into the real excitement of a drive or anticipation when sat at the peg? Well, that brings me back to a point from the first question; it depends on the handler and how well they’ve prepared the dog for the shooting field. 

In my mind, before you decide to engage your dog in any of the elements or disciplines of the shooting field, you need to at least be able to do two things solidly: stop the dog and steer it. 

As well as the Stop whistle, under the ‘stop’ remit also comes the practice of simply sitting and waiting. Under the ‘steer’ heading comes the recall. But if your steering and stopping is nailed on, your recall will rarely be needed.

5) Is my dog too old to train/re-train?
No. A dog is never too old to start training. However, it’s proven that the first 16 weeks of age are the most crucial. What it learns in this period will stay with it for life. Indeed, what is revealed to the dog throughout its first year is hugely important and will lay the foundations for the future. If you’ve taken on a rescue or an older dog that’s had little training, then yes it can be retrained, but what it has been exposed to and how often will determine how much there is to undo. Often, gundog training in the 70s and 80s involved a ‘breaking’ approach. The dog’s training didn’t start until later in life – sometimes not until they were a year old. In the eyes of many handlers, only then would the dog be old enough for a firmer approach. And because some dogs were simply kept in kennels and knew very little about life beyond their exercise yard, there were actually few habits to undo. So in reality, many methods involving less patience and more firmness worked to some extent – albeit to the dog’s detriment!

Dogs are willing to learn from the word go, so why not teach them via positive methods and encourage them from eight weeks of age? It is very possible to have a forward-going spaniel ready to be shot-over by its first birthday, with it only lacking in game experience; something that it’ll build on with each trip out. There’s no doubt that there are greater advantages to starting training from the first moment you have him, but be aware that he is learning all the time from everything you do and everything you don’t do.

It should also be noted that we’re very good at unwittingly undoing natural behaviour. For example, when it comes to retrieving, most dogs carry and bring items to their owner straight away, so the instinct is already there. Then, somewhere along the line, we may lose that and turn it into a run-past, a drop, or a straight forward bugger-off. So, whatever the age of your dog, always keep your objectives in sight and take the time to look back and see how far you’ve come. You may want to seek the help of a good trainer, and if this is one which has been recommended to you, so much the better. Most of all, enjoy the training journey – it’s often the best part!