Hands-on with pups – How You Should Play It By Jeremy Hunt
For those lucky enough to have planned the arrival of their new puppy in early summer there’s certainly no better time to start building the close bond between you.
The importance of early stages
Time spent with puppies now will prove to be invaluable as more formal training is introduced later.
But therein lies an issue, or even a trap, that many inadvertently fall into and which can undermine rather than strengthen the positive relationship that needs to be forged in the earliest stages.
I spend a lot of time with pups. Just sitting on the ground, playing with them, getting them used to my hands on them, being very tactile with them and talking and encouraging them to be as playful and as happy as they want to be.
So don’t be in too much of a hurry to get pups to do things they are certainly physically, and undoubtedly mentally, incapable of.
Most pups will arrive in their new home at around eight weeks old. Some will move straight into the house where they will have to learn to adapt to a domestic lifestyle, others will be kennelled, hopefully with another tolerant dog for company rather than being alone.
Allow young pups plenty of time to settle into their new surroundings and into a routine that is very different to the one they’ve known for the first few weeks of life. But once accustomed to you and the new environment it’s time to get down to some real bonding.
Don’t rush to retrieve…
Unfortunately, there is a great temptation to start throwing things for pups just to put the new owner’s mind at rest that they have bought a dog that will retrieve rather than one that won’t.
My response to that is do NOT start throwing anything and if you are concerned about the future ability of your pup you shouldn’t have bought it in the first place.
In this modern, techno-driven society of ours it appears getting things done as quickly as possible is considered efficient and correct. As far as training gundogs is concerned that is definitely not the case and yet there is an almost frenetic desire on the part of new owners to start what is often termed “play training” with new pups.
It may be casually undertaken with the best of intentions but it’s not necessary – and there are certainly far more important and fundamental matters that need to be addressed and ones that will lay a much stronger foundation for the dog’s future working life with its new owner.
Methods of training
We now appear to have two very distinct approaches to training gundogs. One is driven by the belief that dominance will achieve an obedient and respectful dog that through subservience will learn its craft – that being the preferred option to be being persistently scolded or worse.
The other is a training approach based on “team building”; there may only be two members of this team but each has an equally important part to play in building a bond of total trust and understanding and allowing it to thrive.
When more formal training does get underway you will inevitably, from time to time, get things wrong and likewise so will your dog. But you are on this journey as a partnership from the outset and you will each learn from your mistakes so don’t be in too much of a rush to move off the starting blocks with young pups.
There are very good reasons why these summer months of puppyhood are so vital and so relevant to the whole training process. The temptation is to crack on with training too quickly with the misguided intention of having a youngster that hits the autumn at a “primed” stage when it can be left to tick-over during the winter shooting season and then picked up again in the spring for some final polish.
While I am not advocating no training at all during the summer, what I am suggesting is spending more time just being with the pup, developing a relationship based on physical contact, establishing good manners and a keenness to respond to you and to your voice.
Everything in a pup’s brain in the early stages of its life is about play. So that’s the place you need to go to and you need to go to it at “puppy level”.
Towering over a pup will do nothing to your relationship. Get down and get physical with pups. Get them in your space, let them feel confident and safe around you, let them scramble all over you and give them lots of physical contact and lots of vocal encouragement.
There seems to be a feeling that this sort of approach is “girly” and that it could even be detrimental to the pup’s mental development. That’s ill-informed and incorrect.
Trying to get young pups to retrieve – even though it may only be a sock or a rolled up cap – and then even worse trying to restrain them because it’s felt it will start to teach them to be steady – is futile and counter-productive. Restraining too early leads to frustration in an immature puppy’s brain and inevitably that frustration is vented by a squeak or a yelp – and there you have the makings of a whining adult dog.
Throwing the most innocuous items may seem like a good idea but in most cases the pup will get bored with it, decide to run off in the opposite direction or become pre-occupied with an interesting smell. You are in unchartered waters and feebly trying to focus an undeveloped brain onto an exercise it cannot comprehend.
And do NOT try to start lead training with young pups. The resistance shown by a pup to go in the opposite direction from you will create what is probably the first conflict between the two of you – and that’s the very last thing you need.
Get pups to follow you off the lead, use treats if you need to, use vocal encouragement by the bucket-load. When you get to five or six months with a pup that is biddable, adores you and just wants to be with you, slipping a lead around its neck is no big deal.
There’s no resistance, no conflict just a desire to follow and gaze up at you in adoration. And it’s as easy as that because you have laid the foundations of trust and you have avoided anything that could put you both at odds with one another.
So by the end of the summer, with a puppy’s brain beginning to look and assess everything with a greater degree of understanding and awareness, the time is right to start some very rudimentary retrieving and some un-pressured and happy lead work.
If you have spent the summer wisely and allowed these precious months to nurture your relationship, the rate of progress in the initial training stages will amaze you.
Winter may seem to offer little in the way of time for the useful training of youngsters but what time you do have to devote to your new recruit should set you on a steady rate of forward progress, rather than trying to correct issues borne out of doing too much too soon in the summer.