The new season is almost upon us and for many the first grouse will soon be filling the game bag marking a fresh start, not only for guns but also for young dogs.
But while you may be eager to try out your new youngster, either at the peg or in the picking-up team, patience will definitely prove to be a virtue.
The start of the new season is a time when the most sensible approach to the next stage of your gundog’s education is all about making the transition from training ground to shooting field a seamless and positive experience.
Good things take time
Don’t be in a rush to put your new dog to the test! If you’ve invested much time and effort over many months and feel confident that you have a young dog ready to start some real work, don’t put at risk all you have achieved.
I tend not to adhere to the term “risk assessment” otherwise daily life would become unbearable, but when it comes to writing a date in the diary for that first shoot day for you and your new dog, take time to think through some of the situations you could well find yourself in.
Even the most accomplished of youngsters need a careful and un-stressful introduction to the real thing. Where young dogs have come through their summer training with flying colours – and may even have notched up a good result at the local gundog club’s working test – they are still a long way from coping with the unpredictabilities of a real shooting day.
Every dog has its day
So I hear you ask “so when IS the right time to start working a newly trained youngster?”
The answer is not about the timing – in terms of the age of the dog or the amount of time he has been in training – it’s about ensuring that the first few outings provide a careful and considerate introduction to “real work.”
For guns with new dogs keen to get them to the peg there is nothing to be gained by spoiling a good day’s shooting because an eye has to be kept constantly on the dog.
More likely than not it will be pegged down for safety but as you concentrate on your shooting it’s impossible to monitor how their dog is reacting. More importantly it’s not possible to be able to appropriately address those reactions. Failing to do this will sow the seeds for all sorts of problems later on.
For a gun with a new dog – no matter whether the dog has been trained at home or has been away to a professional – there needs to be at least a couple of days spent on the side-lines of the shoot day to allow the dog to soak up the atmosphere of everything that’s happening.
People, other dogs, gun-shots, birds – in general enough to blow the mind of the most successful dummy-dog! Remind yourself that this is a far cry from anything he will have experienced before. This is for real so take your new dog from the shallows of the training pool very carefully and take your time to wade out into the deep end.
Even the steadiest of dogs on dummies and cold game often turn into very different machines on those first shoot days.
Doggy do’s and dont’s
It’s good manners to get the OK from whoever’s running the picking-up team so that everyone is clear that your presence is going it be more decorative than functional.
Your job has a simple remit: to add the final touches of steadiness and confidence to your training regime with the aim of producing you a reliable and steady gundog to work with for many years to come.
Just remember that cutting corners at this final hurdle can undo so much good. It may appear that my approach is over-cautious but so many potentially good dogs are spoiled every season by being allowed to see and do too much too soon.
Remember to think ahead about the day itself and what you want your dog to gain from this initial experience. No one will know your dog’s temperament better than you – it may be sensitive, submissive or even dominant. So be mindful from the very start when you first get your dog out of the vehicle.
Don’t just allow it to leap out uncontrolled or it is likely to be faced with other loose dogs milling around (something I find frustratingly annoying) and plunged into a potentially intimidating situation for a “fresher”.
I don’t want a kindly, genuine youngster to suddenly find itself having to ward off the attentions of other dogs as soon as it has left the dog box. So be aware of these sorts of situations and be supportive of the young dog if it’s necessary. You have been the partner in all the other training situations you encountered as a “team” and now is probably the most important part of it all, so don’t get cocky and think it doesn’t matter – it does.
Most youngsters are over-awed by these first shoot days, so to march around with a dog on the end of a lead assuming that all is well is ill-advised. Your sole focus for the day – or probably better to be half a day to be absolutely right – should be the dog.
You need to be aware of how it reacts to all the things it encounters and be there to teach, to maintain steadiness and to support any uneasiness or hesitancy.
Keep it simple
You may or may not decide to try a simple retrieve – as always I advise trying something where the dog has clearly seen the mark of the fall, the game is not too large or awkward to carry and most importantly is very dead.
But for most of the time you need to be on hand to defuse any over-excitement that can build-up and to achieve a calm and steady state of mind in the dog. Speak to the dog and maintain as much contact as necessary during the drive; and from time to time walk around in a circle and bring the dog back to where you were; it’s no use allowing a young dog to become fixed, rigid and in a state of high excitement as the first birds fall,.
Walking around in a circle “breaks the fixation” and calms the dog. Everything you are trying to do on this day is to inure the dog’s mind to all the temptations and excitement.
A maiden voyage with you at the tiller, rather than simply at the peg, will pay handsome dividends in the long term working life of your new gundog.