From eight weeks to nine months
From the moment you collect your puppy you start training and there is no strict timetable as all dogs progress at different speeds. All training is done gently, with consistency, patience but most of all with kindness. The puppy first learns its new name through ‘play training’ and that magic word ‘NO’. Introduce the recall by holding your arms outstretched and by using the command ‘COME’ giving the puppy loads of praise when it does come. The sit is taught by holding the puppy’s food above its head and when it sits (which it must do to look up at its food bowl) you say the word ‘SIT’ and put the flat of you hand up in the air. If the puppy is progressing well introduce the whistle, alternating with verbal or hand signals, with rapid pips for come (so pup, pup, pup becomes peep, peep, peep) and a long blast for sit.
You should also start heelwork on lead in order to teach the puppy the heel position, which should be with its head just in front of your leg. I use a very light material slip lead about 1cm wide and keep putting this on and taking it off the puppy. If the puppy is OK with this game I gently stand up and start to walk saying ‘HEEL’. Usually the puppy follows for a few seconds and then dashes off at which point I stand stock still and make no attempt to pull or check the lead. Quickly bend down and recall the puppy giving lost of praise and encouragement. Repeat the procedure, if the puppy is getting in any way upset stop and try again another time.
Very quickly an intelligent puppy will learn that it is creating the situation with the tight lead and not you. In three or four days, using very short sessions, your puppy will have learnt never to pull on the lead again. Praise the puppy whenever it is in the correct position and say no when it is not.
Introduce water as soon as you can by letting the puppy play in and near shallow water, preferably in the company of an older dog. Gradually increase the depth of water available for play BUT make no attempt at this stage to retrieve from water, just let the puppy play. Introduce loud noises and/or gunfire from a starting pistol, you will need to get a friend to stand at the other end of a field to make the noise whilst you play with puppy. If the dog acknowledges the noise and is not concerned, praise to dog and carry on playing. If it is concerned reassure the dog, divert its attention and try again another day as you can make a puppy gun nervous by rushing to quickly.
Continue the play training, which is starting to build the all-important bond with your puppy. Start retrieving by playing with balls (no smaller that tennis balls for the obvious reasons), its toys or puppy dummies.
I do not worry too much about steadiness at this stage, I want the dog to chase, run and have fun. Start on short grass or indoors, throw the object and then hold your hand still whilst pointing at the object and say ‘GO BACK’ as the puppy chases in. Hopefully the puppy will run straight back with its new trophy, hold your hands down low and if the puppy gives up the retrieve you say ‘DEAD’ so it is learning to retrieve in an unpressured and relaxed way. If the puppy does not come straight back, get up and walk away, then the puppy will almost certainly follow you and you can praise it for coming. If it then gives up the dummy readily praise it again. Now start throwing the object (use different objects each session so it will not learn just to retrieve, for instance, balls) gently into longer grass or in the edge of a hedge/bush but always upwind of the dog. As the puppy gets really close to it say ‘HI-LOST’. Do not put any pressure on the puppy at this stage, if it does not want to play, leave and try again later but if you succeed give the puppy loads of praise. As the puppy grows in confidence you can make the retrieves more difficult, you can start using the wind to help or hinder.
By now the puppy is five or six months old and should be ready for more formal training. Start to separate the training from play and exercise and have specific short periods for training. Begin working the young dog in company, either your own older trained dogs or go to classes. Progress the heel work off the lead, use distractions such as balls and dummies to heel around to start to build in steadiness. Practise in different training areas on longer grass, in woods, thicker cover or beside water.
If things go horribly wrong do not be afraid of going right back to the start, as has already been said there is no set timetable to the play training, different dogs will progress at different speeds, even litter mates. By now you should be insisting on a one-command strategy, if the dog fails to obey a command then stop and the correct it immediately; do not go on and on repeating the command. Very slowly introduce dried pheasant wings, feather and fur covered dummies as alternatives to ordinary dummies in the next series of exercises. A gentle introduction to woodcock wings or covered dummies will be very beneficial later on. The vast majority of problems in training are caused through pushing the dog too far or too fast when it is not yet ready. Genuine inherited problems such as hard mouth and gun shyness (not gun nervousness which is training induced) are nearly always incurable.
Begin to introduce directional work, sit the puppy in front of you, back up one pace and repeat your sit command with any combination of hand, verbal or whistle command. Place or throw an object a couple of feet to the right, pause, look at the object and cast the puppy with the command ‘OUT’ whilst holding the right arm out horizontally. Try to the left and then, if you are still succeeding, try one to the right and one to the left. BUT once the puppy has picked the chosen retrieve pick the other one up immediately, never send it for the second retrieve. Now start to increase the distance between you and puppy NOT the puppy and the retrieve. If successful start to increase the length of retrieve as well but do not always throw each, i.e. the left and the right, the same distance from the puppy so sometimes it gets the closer one and sometimes the further one but not both at this stage.
Introduce controlled retrieves by which I mean strict formal precise retrieves. These will help you develop advanced heelwork, steadiness, marking and memory, distance control, back command and blinds in addition to the retrieve and present.
- Controlled retrieve one: sit the dog, remove the lead, and heel the dog 20 feet in a straight line along a hedge. Stop the dog; throw a dummy a couple of feet in front of the dog. Pause. Heel the dog back to your start position, turn and face the dummy. Pause. Cast the dog for the retrieve and insist on a good sit and present. Repeat the exercise in different directions i.e. hedge on the left or on the right, using different combinations of verbal, hand and whistle signals.
- Controlled retrieve two: sit the dog, remove the lead, and heel the dog 20 feet in a straight line along a hedge. Stop the dog; throw a dummy a couple of feet in front of the dog. Pause. Leave the dog there and return to your start position, turn and face the dog. Pause. Recall the dog. Pause. Heel the dog and cast the dog for the retrieve. Repeat with different directions and alternate with exercise one so the dog doesn’t start anticipating your actions.
- Controlled retrieve three: sit the dog, remove the lead, and heel the dog 20 feet in a straight line along a hedge. Stop the dog; throw a dummy a couple of feet in front of the dog. Pause. Leave the dog there and return to your start position, turn and face the dog. Pause. Recall the dog but stop the dog half way back. Pause. Cast the dog for the retrieve by saying ‘GO BACK’ and raising you hand vertically in the air from your knee to as high as you can reach. If the dog does not understand, take a pace towards the dog and try the go back again. If successful repeat the exercise, keeping the dummy the same distance from the dog but increase the distance between you and the dog. Alternate between all the exercises. If the dog starts to anticipate the retrieve after the recall, put in another recall.
Use these exercises to start to increase the length of retrieve, incorporate rights or lefts with backs. When the dog is returning with a retrieve get someone to put a blind in the same spot and repeat the exercise but pretend to throw a dummy towards the location of the blind and cast the dog back. If successful, build on the distance for the blinds and incorporate rights, lefts or backs with blinds to make the exercises more complicated. Don’t be too repetitive, as the dog will start to anticipate, work in different directions and use different terrain, uphill and downhill. Start to use cover, hedges and ditches to make some of the retrieves more difficult, i.e. a mark in the open and blind in cover, in a ditch or through a hedge.
If the dog is handling blinds confidently try extending the distance by putting out five or six blinds, about 5 yards apart, along a hedge in a straight line. When you send the dog make each retrieve a separate retrieve, pause between each retrieve and set the dog up properly. Start extending the distance to the first blind and then the distance between blinds. If the dog is progressing, start from the middle of a field and cast into a corner, using two hedges to guide the dog on a straight line.
As far as jumping is concerned, you do not actually teach a dog to jump, you teach a dog to jump ‘on command’ and I use ‘OVER’. If you threw a piece of raw filet steak over a small fence the dog would be over before you could say the word. So the training element is getting the dog to jump when commanded and to build its confidence to tackle larger and larger jumps with heavier and heavier objects. Start with tennis balls over small jumps and work up to hare dummies over stock fences, five bar gates and stonewalls.
Once you are happy the dog is 100% on the above you can start to introduce water work but this can create enormous problems unless tackled slowly and progressively. Treat water as an obstacle to the retrieve, not as a different type of retrieve and so always send the dog over the water not into it. After all you didn’t learn to swim by being asked to jump into the deep end of the pool. Start with a marked retrieve over small shallow stream then gradually increase the width and depth alternating with blinds and marks. Do not over face the dog as it may start to squeak or, if the water is deep, to shake before it presents so be prepared to go back to the shallow bit. Always keep in mind that it is the retrieve itself that is paramount and do not accept poor presentation, dropping the dummy or shaking, I teach the dog to shake on command after the retrieve. Once you start on deeper water try to encourage the dog to make a gentle entry rather than hurling itself in. Show the dog that the dummy will be carried away by moving water in a river or by wind on a lake.
At nine months or so, if everything has progressed without a hitch, cold game can be used prior to the introduction to the shooting field. BUT remember the best way to ruin a well-trained dog is to take it shooting so the introduction must slow and gentle. If the dog has sat quietly and patiently throughout the whole day it may be rewarded with a carefully set up retrieve, in the open on a dead bird that has been down some time.
Bruce Ross-Smith 2017