The Trouble With Springers was originally published on the totallygundogs website. We are currently moving our library of hunting dog content to Dogsnet, you can check out that link for an update. This article contains information and help for those who share their lives with an English Springer Spaniel from working lines.
The Trouble With Springers was originally published in four parts, and they have been combined here. It’s worth bearing in mind that this information was published over a decade ago and both my own training methods, and training methods within the wider hunting dog community have changed. Much of the content is still relevant though. And I hope you enjoy it!
No doubt your Springer is the ‘Bees Knees’.
He comes when he is called, hunts within gunshot, and is steady to shot, flush and fall. Yes?
Well, you are probably a committed field trialer. Or perhaps you have at least five years gundog training experience under your belt.
If not, you are a member of one of the smallest minorities in the country.
Springers are (in) trouble
The fact is that for a lot of inexperienced dog owners, Springers are ‘trouble’. And all to often they are ‘in trouble’ too.
For many working bred springer pups end up in rescue centres.
This series of articles about Springers takes a hard look at the working Springer Spaniel’s place in society.
It asks why we let so many working Springers down. It also asks “what can be done about it?”.
A lot of people are struggling with Springers
When the Gundog Club was launched in 2006 those involved, including myself, were shocked at the number of people who were struggling with their dogs to the point of despair.
Before the Gundog Club arrived, there was no central source of information and advice for hunting dog owners, and the need for such a service became immediately clear. It was in fact overwhelming for our small team of staff.
Over the intervening years the Gundog Club has received a sobering amount of requests for help. There are a lot of very concerned dog owners out there that have bought themselves a whole bundle of trouble.
These people are not for the most part, the owners of lively young Labradors, the nation’s favourite pet hunting companion, so often exuberant and destructive when young.
They are not the owners of the cheeky and mischievous working English Cocker rapidly growing in popularity and sometimes labelled as ‘difficult’. On the contrary, the people in trouble, over 90% of them, are the owners of English Springer Spaniels.
Out of control!
When the phone rings, the conversation usually begins like this:
“ I have a Springer Spaniel, and he is 8 months old”.
Sometimes it is 10 months or 12 months but you get the picture.
In most cases, what is happening is that the dog is being taken for a walk in the countryside and he is ‘running away’. And I am not talking about a few minutes, or a couple of hundred yards here.
We are talking hours and miles.
In almost every case the running away is triggered by chasing something. It can be something as small as a bee, or as big as a deer. It is all the same to the dog.
And of course, once the chase has begun, inevitably more wildlife is disturbed and one chase leads to another and another.
The problem pet
Most working bred Springer pups are actually purchased as pets. But by the time that their pet is approaching a year old, many Springer owners are experiencing difficulties.
There are those that are aware that the problem lies partly in their dog’s genes, and they wonder if his talents might be appreciated elsewhere.
As a result, some people that have bought working bred Springers as pets, will phone the Gundog Club towards the end of their pup’s first year.
They are ringing to inform the GC, they say, that they are about to do the hunting community a big favour by offering their wild and talented little hunter up as a working dog.
They have prepared themselves to give up the dog that they love.
They may well be in tears at this point.
He is far too good for a pet they will tell us, and needs to work.
On further gentle questioning, it is revealed that this dog needs to work so much, that he usually does it in the next county, and returns home at his pleasure.
Letting them down gently
The person on the other end of the phone will try to let the troubled owner down gently.
They explain that in fact, a working dog needs a far higher standard of obedience than a pet dog, and that a solid recall is the foundation of basic gun dog obedience.
They ask them to consider keeping the dog and attempting to retrain the recall themselves, with the help of a professional trainer if at all possible.
They remind them that another inexperienced trainer would have the same trouble with the dog as they are, and might not cope.
They tell them the truth – that Springers like these, once passed on by those that raised them from a puppy and really love them, often get passed on again.
Unwanted and undesirable
The owners of these young tearaways can usually see that the dog needs an experienced hand and are unable initially to understand why experienced trainers will not be beating a path to their door and fighting each other for the privilege of adopting their ‘failed pet’.
The reason that their pet is now ‘undesirable’ needs some explaining.
The problem is that the many hours of training required to reverse the damage they have done by allowing their dog to experience the joys of self-employment, works out fairly expensive.
Most trainers do not have the time to indulge in re-habilitating an out of control spaniel, when it is easier and quicker to train a young, unspoilt puppy.
The bitter truth is – not only will no-one will be parting with good money in exchange for a delinquent absconder, the hapless owner is going to have serious difficulty even giving him away.
What can the owner do?
The poor owner may find some comfort in learning that this is a very common problem. There are many people out there going through the same thing.
It isn’t their fault and they are not alone.
It usually rapidly becomes clear that they love the dog really, and don’t want to part with it at all.
But they are at the end of their tether, and…. what can they do?
Well there is hope. And we will look at the solutions and opportunities for those that are struggling with their pet Springer below. But for now, let’s look at another group of dog owners that are struggling with Springers
It is not just people that buy Springers as pets that get into trouble. The relatively small proportion of people that buy springers in order to work them can also find themselves in deep water.
Many working bred Springer pups are sold to potentially ‘working’ homes. Of these, a small proportion end up in experienced hands, and get the guidance and training that they need.
Much of the time however, it is a very different story. The pup is purchased, and taken away to start his new ‘dual purpose’ life as working dog whilst living in the comfort of his new family home.
What could be better you might think. However, the novice working dog owner often departs from the breeder with more than just a new puppy. He frequently departs with a very important piece of advice etched into his brain.
“Get your puppy hunting”
If he does not get this advice from his breeder, the new owner will undoubtedly read it somewhere before his puppy has even reached the tender age of 3 or 4 months old. For him, this piece of advice is could be the worst advice he will ever be given. Especially when it is accompanied by the dire warning.
“Don’t teach any heelwork until all other training is nearly finished”
Of course a spaniel’s job is to hunt, and hunting is the absolute ‘raison d’etre’ of every working spaniel. Of course we need to build our spaniel puppies’ confidence up with lots of opportunities to explore different kinds of undergrowth and terrain.
A passion for hunting
Spaniels need to be bold, and confident, and not fearful of leaves, or mud or puddles. However, nature, with a little help from selective breeding, has provided our working Springer Spaniels with some excellent hunting instincts.
For every Springer Spaniel puppy whose owner is concerned over its lack of hunting ability, there are a hundred, if not a thousand, owners that are in total despair over their own inability to stop their spaniel hunting the length and breadth of the county on every trip to the countryside.
Taken in context advice to get puppies hunting before discipline is instilled, is actually perfectly reasonable.
But very often, this advice is neither given, nor taken, in context, and is not accompanied by the information necessary for the owner to make appropriate decisions on how to manage his dog. Particularly with regard to keeping a spaniel close, and making sure that all the fun experiences he has take place around his owner.
Many times, when a new Springer Spaniel puppy is purchased, the story goes like this.
Flash the perfect puppy Goes Home
The new owner begins to settle in with his beautiful puppy. At the moment eight week old ‘Flash’s’ only interest lies in his dinner bowl and sleeping on someone’s lap.
But the next shooting season beckons and as Flash snores contentedly, the new owner is troubled from time to time by worrying images of his spaniel ‘Flash’ in nine month’s time sitting obstinately at the edge of bramble bush with his nose in the air whilst several rabbits, or an entire flock of pheasant skip around inside.
“What if Flash won’t hunt!”
These disconcerting images become more elaborate over the next few weeks and in the scene in the poor owner’s head ‘Flash’ and the rabbits are soon joined by a large band of onlookers rolling around with laughter at the useless spaniel.
Flash goes hunting
The new owner is determined that his dog will be the best hunter in the county. He will make sure that there is no terrain, no cover, no bush or hedge that Flash will not tear apart in his relentless search for game.
His dog will be ‘Flash the hero’, the ‘dog of the day’.
Incidentally, this also fits in very nicely with the owner’s plans to get more exercise and lose the extra few pounds he put on over Christmas. Together, he and Flash will explore the world on their daily expeditions and form a bond.
Man and dog together.
Flash the hero
For the next few weeks this little working Springer puppy is encouraged to hunt, and to hunt, and to hunt some more.
Mindful of the fact that he must not curb young Flash’s enthusiasm, our keen new trainer is thoroughly enjoying his relaxing daily strolls, whilst he watches the puppy dash here and there with his well-bred nose firmly glued to the ground.
The first flush of summer
Then one summer morning, whilst dashing through some long grass, our ‘Flash’ makes his first flush.
A rabbit springs up right under his nose and the pup is off! Our new trainer has read the books, he knows he mustn’t chase the puppy, but waits patiently for Flash to come back, which he does quite quickly as the rabbit disappears down a nearby burrow.
Our trainer returns home, congratulating himself on his puppy’s excellent working prospects totally unaware that inside his puppy, a spark has been ignited, and burning flame has begun to grow.
Flash has discovered ‘the meaning of life’. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Time for some brakes and steering
At this point, the experienced trainer would take a good look at six month old Flash, judge correctly that his hunting instinct is well and truly alive, and start installing some brakes and steering into the little chap.
He would probably avoid any more contact with game until Flash is well and truly under control, and even then, game would be introduced under completely controlled conditions.
But Flash’s owner, and most other Springer owners, is blissfully unaware of exactly what he has started.
Flash on the brink
The daily walks continue.
Over the next few days Flash begins hunting further and further away from his owner, and chasing more and more wildlife on every outing. Flash’s recall begins to fail, and he disappears for longer and longer each time.
Now eager to install some discipline, Flash’s owner has begun training in the garden at home, where Flash is actually a model student. He comes when he is called, and he sits and stays when he is told.
But outdoors, in the countryside, it is a very different matter.
Flash out of control
Flash is now in heaven. Every day is the best day of his life so far. His owner, is becoming completely insignificant and will remain so until the object of Flash’s desire is airborn, long underground, or until ‘Flash’ has run himself right off his legs.
The owner’s dreams of a bond, man and dog together, are fast becoming a distant memory.
It becomes clear that taking Flash shooting this winter would be a disaster, and for the owner that fails to appreciate this, a disaster is a certainty, as Flash ‘runs riot’.
Flash the embarrassment
The owner’s previous worries about Flash ‘not-hunting’ pale into insignificance compared with the embarrassment that ensues when Flash is released into the beating line of his local shoot.
Heelwork becomes a battle of wills as ‘Flash’ tries to get to where the hunting starts more quickly and his owner tries to keep him under control.
Flash the nuisance
Walking on a lead is not much fun now with a very fit 30lb rabbit-obsessed dog dragging people along in his wake. Other members of the family have even less control over Flash than the owner does, and as the months progress, the puppy with the bright future becomes an excitable, out of control, millstone around the family’s neck.
Flash the unwanted dog
Where Flash will end up is anyone’s guess, but all too often Springer pups like Flash end up being passed from pillar to post in a downward spiral of naughtiness. The lucky ones end up at rescue homes. The very lucky ones end up in rescue homes that really understand working bred gundogs.
Of course not all Springer Spaniel puppies, whether purchased for work or as pets end up becoming a miserable problem for their owners. Many are much valued and much loved members of a family.
The problem is, that this scenario is all too familiar, and all too often ends up with the dog being dumped, rehomed, or even put to sleep.
Education and information
All those that care about gundogs would like to see fewer working Springers in Rescue Centres, and the key to that may well be better information and advice.
Both to those responsible for breeding these amazing little dogs, and to people that are considering buying a working Springer, long before they take their puppy home.
In the ‘old days’ (those of us over fifty will remember) working spaniels of all varieties were often allowed to run pretty wild for the first few months.
At eight months old or so discipline would be introduced. Much spaniel control at this point was achieved by some fairly tough handling.
It was not called ‘dog-breaking’ in some circles without good reason. With some dogs it would require very tough handling indeed.
This was not commented on, or protested against.
It is tempting to pass judgement retrospectively, but it was what it was.
Dogs learnt in the space of a very few weeks, to behave appropriately.
Modern dog owners
Times have changed in many ways. Nowadays, rough treatment of any kind towards animals is simply not acceptable to most people. Most of us want to train largely with rewards without harsh punishment, and many people are not happy to use any force at all in training their dogs.
Unfortunately many are not equipped with the knowledge and information required to train effectively without force.
The nature of the working springer
There is no doubt that the nature of a seriously hard hunting spaniel makes any degree of control very difficult to achieve without some force once the dog has experienced the ‘thrill of the chase’.
It is also interesting to note that there are Springers being bred nowadays that are ‘softer’ in temperament, more biddable, more easily trained. But that many, Springers from working lines are still fairly tough and independent characters.
The spaniel and owner combination
These are two undeniable facts – In recent times
- Dog owner’s attitudes toward training methods have changed
- The nature of many working spaniels remains largely unchanged
These two facts are inextricably linked, because to successfully train a Springer Spaniel with little or no force, requires a very different approach to his management than was used in times gone by.
A major part of training without force lies in preventing bad habits from forming.
Social change needs to be recognised
The changes in social attitude towards dog training often go unrecognised by those dishing out both puppies, and advice.
As a result, there are a lot of spaniels out there that have had a barrowload of fun chasing everything from butterflies to the neighbours cat, in their own backyard, and even more fun chasing every living thing in the countryside from squirrels to cyclists, by the time their owners seek help.
Those selling puppies have a responsibility to recognise that their buyers may not be willing or able to use the same methods that they use themselves. These buyers need advice on effective training without force that they are seldom receiving.
Expectations of the new spaniel owner
It is worth remembering that in addition to his preference for non-aversive training methods, the modern dog owner also has some fairly specific requirements and expectations of life with a dog.
- His first expectation is that he will be able to go for walks with his dog.
- His second expectation is usually that the walks will be enjoyable!
By enjoyable, he means ‘relaxing’. This is relevant as we shall see later. The average prospective puppy buyer expects that his adult dog will be willing to romp around fairly close to him on a walk, without any significant input from his owner. The reality as we have seen is often far removed from the dream. Now let’s look at what the dog expects.
Expectations of the spaniel puppy
A small puppy expects to stay close to its protector. That’s you! This phase lasts in some dogs, a lifetime, in most others just a few months.
In some Springers, it is over in a heartbeat.
Somewhere between three and six months old, as his confidence grows, this hunting dog begins to lose his fear of losing his protector (you) and his ‘hunting drive’ starts to ‘kick in’.
Hunting drive kicks in
Hunting drive is an inborn instinct or urge to hunt. And most working bred Springers have this instinct in generous quanitites. The instinct can be enhanced further, especially by letting the dog chase game, as most inexperienced owners soon discover by accident.
Once a pup experiences a flush, and a chase, from that day on, his expectations of a walk are radically different from yours.
Expectations of the young Springer
For the young dog, every walk now becomes an uncontrolled hunt, and is preceded by the expectation of a hunt. The thrill of chasing begins to overwhelm the puppy’s unguided mind.
He loses interest in anything that is not hunting.
He becomes excitable in the car, excitable in the house, deaf to your shouts and whistles, and that is just the start. Running away, serious, risky, running away, comes next. Perhaps worst of all, the good dog, is now a ‘bad dog’. He is disapproved of much of the time. And he knows it.
We need to bear in mind, that for a spaniel, the ‘chase’ itself is the most intensely rewarding experience on earth for the dog. Once he has experienced a good chase or two, nothing you can offer him as a reward for not chasing can now compete.
You are probably going to have to deter him with punishment in order to be successful in gaining control. The more ‘chases’ the dog has had, the more determined he becomes.
Chasing becomes like a ‘drug’ to the dog.
And with some spaniels, any punishment meted out now, may have to be more severe than most of us would care to contemplate to have any effect on a hardened chaser.
But why are we seeing such a particular problem with Springers? Why does the Gundog Club receive only a fraction of the number of calls for help from Labrador owners or Cocker owners? Both these breeds vastly outnumber Springers in popularity as family dogs. For the answer to this question we need to look at the unique nature of some of our working bred Springers today.
What’s up with springers?
Some Springers are extremely biddable. Let’s not overlook this fact. These Springers adore their owners, come when they are called and lead generally blameless lives whilst their smug owners think the rest of you are just incompetent.
But it is the ‘other Springers’ that we are concerned about. Why are so many people struggling with this fantastic little ‘all-round’ gundog much loved by experienced gundog trainers and the field trial community.
What is it about Springers that causes so many inexperienced trainers to come to grief? What makes them more difficult to deal with than other gundog breeds?
There are two particular characteristics of some Springers that seems to cause real problems for inexperienced owners. The first of these characteristics is the sheer intensity of their ‘hunting drive’. The second is a lack of what can be described as ‘social drive’ A social drive is the urge to seek out company. In a dog’s case, this would usually be human company.
Intense hunting drive
Hunting drive’ is important in all gundogs as it powers both the flush and the retrieve. Without it, young Flash will remain sitting outside that bramble bush while your mates look on and mock.
Some experienced trainers will say that you can’t have too much drive, but that is simply not true for the vast majority of owners.
In some Springers, this drive is so strong that it overwhelms the dog, and in the process overwhelms the owner. And whilst drives are ‘inborn’ and ‘inherited’, the strength of the drive increases with every single chase.
This intense drive may in some young Springers be characterized by the dog physically ‘freezing’ up like a pointer. In the younger pup this reaction is usually triggered by a visual stimulus – the sight of a moving object, even a speck of dancing light can do it.
Later on it may be triggered by scent.
Indeed some spaniels and retrievers too will ‘point’ at game just like their long-legged cousins. Not all Springers that ‘freeze’ will be problem dogs and not all problem dogs will ‘freeze’ up, but those that do need watching carefully. If restrained, the ‘intense’ dog’s rigid body posture may be accompanied by visible trembling or shaking, and the dog will be impervious to any stimulus other than the one his whole being is focused on at that moment.
You can talk to him, tap him, or offer him his favourite three course meal but once this dog is ‘locked on’ to a ball, a butterfly, a leaf or even a splash of sunlight, he is lost to the world and everything else in it. This does not bode well for an inexperienced owner. If your dog behaves in this way, it is important to get some experienced training advice as soon as possible.
We all know dogs that are very sociable, very keen to be with people and these are often gundogs. We also all know breeds of dog that tend to be more ‘aloof’ and disinterested in people generally, some of the herding breed have this characteristic.
But this ‘aloofness’ can also occur in Springers. It isn’t that some Springers don’t like people, just that they can ‘take them or leave them’, and when outdoors, they are quite happy to leave them.
This is in stark contrast to the craving for human approval that tends to come ready installed in most (not all) working cockers.
It is interesting to note, that if you trip over whilst out in the countryside with a half grown untrained Spaniel, and end up sprawled on the ground, you will often get one of two very different reactions. Either the dog will seize the opportunity to jump all over your head and shower you with affection, or he will take the opportunity of your momentary embarrasment, to disappear over the horizon.
The vast majority of Cocker Spaniels cannot resist an opportunity to wriggle and squirm all over you. They seem to derive an intense pleasure from human contact. Hunting is a joy to them, but human contact comes first.
Some Springers are also like this, but many others take a different approach. If you are foolish enough to waste good hunting time sitting on the ground, nursing a grazed knee, don’t expect him to wait around for you. As far as he is concerned, you can catch up when you are done lazing about.
Here comes trouble
When a powerful hunting drive is coupled with a tendency to lack the very strong need for human companionship present in many other gundog breeds, the inexperienced gundog owner is in real trouble. These two characteristics seem to come together more often in Springers than in any other gundog breed.
Combine this ‘take you or leave you’ attitude with the degree of independence that emerges in all dogs toward eight months of age and mix it in with the confidence that comes from the excessive amount of freedom often offered by the inexperienced spaniel owner, and you have your problem dog in the making. As a result, there are Springers not much more than a year old, that are ‘out of control’ in many families and what happens to them next is a lottery.
But it needn’t be like this.
If we are aware of the natural characteristics of the Springer, of his intensity, of this ‘self-centred’ aspect to many a Springer’s character, we can take action with our puppies that will dramatically alter the outcome of our training.
I have been looking at the problems that many people experience when they take on their first working Springer Spaniel.
Not only in purely pet homes, but also homes where there is every intention to train the spaniel for fieldwork.
I have also been looking at how traditional advice together with modern attitudes and preferences towards dog training methods are contributing to problems people are experiencing with these uniquely intense little hunting dogs.
The sad truth is that rescue centres are kept very busy caring for and re-homing Springer Spaniels, many of them clearly from working lines.
Out of control
One thing is certain. These dogs are not in rescue centres because their heelwork has been overdone, or because their hunting isn’t up to standard.
Some are there because they are a victim of circumstance, families breaking up due to divorce, or perhaps the death of an owner.
But many are there because their owners cannot cope with them.
They are there because they are ‘out of control’.
In this section, we take a look at what those owning, or thinking of owning, a working bred Springer Spaniel, can do to avoid getting themselves into difficulties with their young dog.
Thinking of buying a Springer puppy?
How can you tell if a Springer is really the right dog for you? Well, the key lies in being well informed and objective about the nature and attributes of the working Springer Spaniel.
Then you will be able to ask yourself some questions and to answer them truthfully.
- Will the primary role of your Springer be to accompany you on long walks in the countryside?
- Do you intend to walk your dog with family and friends?
If you answer yes to either of these two questions, for example a Springer might not be the right dog for you.
An ideal home?
Many people think that a Springer is an ideal dog for a home where long family walks are the norm. After all, this is a dog that needs exercise, and lots of it.
But, a young working bred Springer may need you to focus totally on him, for much of the first year at all times when he is running free out of doors.
Failure to do this can be disastrous.
It is very difficult for anyone to sustain this kind of concentration for periods of an hour or more, and interesting walks often last this long. It is worth noting that experienced Spaniel trainers run their young dogs for short periods of time, no more than 20 minutes or so.
This is not just to keep up the dog’s speed and prevent him from dawdling (though it serves this purpose too) it is also to stop the handler’s brain from melting!
It is also worth considering that it is very difficult to focus 100% on a dog whilst you have people with you. They will inevitably expect a share of your attention.
These things are very important as they are such a major part of many people’s expectations when they are choosing their first dog.
The right home!
There are some more, equally important questions you should ask
- Do you really want a dog whose primary instinct is to find, flush (and even catch) live animals?
- Are you willing to focus on your dog 100% of the time you are outdoors for the next year or so?
- Are you willing to work hard on training your dog, and to learn fast?
- Are you interested in the Springer’s role as a gundog, and in what gundog training can do for your Springer?
- Are you willing and able to get help if and when you need it whilst training your Springer?
If you can honestly answer yes to these five questions, then a Springer may be the dog for you.
It is worth remembering that although the act of chasing is not the working Springer’s function, it is his natural instinct. The working dog that stops to every flush and turns to hunt away on command has had many, many hours of hard work and attention put into him.
Unfortunately, with a hard-hunting dog, there is no ‘half way house’. Your dog is either under control, or it isn’t. And getting that control takes a lot of effort.
You need to be prepared for that.
If you are committed to training entirely without aversives you may find a Springer more challenging than some other breeds. You will need to be ruthless about controlling his environment and making sure you never expose him to any ‘accidental rewards’ that you cannot compete with.
The right puppy
Whatever your chosen methods, if you still think a Springer is for you, then it will help you greatly if you work hard at increasing your chances of finding the right puppy.
Not all working Springers have the very ‘intense’ hunting drive we have described here. Some are more ‘laid back’ and trainable, and are far more suitable for many owners.
Don’t worry too much about buying acres of red ink on a pedigree. What works best for a field trial kennels won’t necessarily work best in your world.
If you know of a nice Springer, whose behaviour you admire, find out where it came from. Buying a brother or sister from the same parents, even if they are from a different litter, gives you the best chance of a similar puppy as siblings share a lot of genes.
Don’t be too influenced by the behaviour of dogs that have been trained by experts.
You need a dog that can be trained by you.
Finding your puppy
Never, ever buy a puppy without meeting its mother, and wherever possible meet its father too. Make sure that they and any other related adult dogs in the kennels, are the sort of dogs you would want to live with.
Steer clear of dogs that seem disinterested in people. A well-trained good tempered gundog won’t leap all over you (unless perhaps it’s a cocker!) but it will be pleased to see you and happy for you to stroke it, tail wagging furiously.
Beware the puppy whose mother regards you with suspicion, or with a stiffened body posture, and rigid tail.
If the puppies are very young, it could be that she is overprotective because her pups are close, if so, ask to see her and interact with her well away from her puppies, but err on the side of caution.
‘Run away’ fast if there is any sign of aggression or nervousness in the other dogs in the kennels.
You are looking for a friendly dog. One that loves people, and actively seeks out their company. This is as important when it comes to training, as it is with regard to the suitability of the dog for life in the community.
Run away fast if the owner says half jokingly, ‘you’d better be up to the job’, or ‘you will need to keep on top of him’.
He may be proud of his hard hunting dynamo of a dog, but as a breeder/trainer, he has the knowledge and experience to cope with him. Do you?
Ask the breeder some searching questions. “What are the best points of the stud dog?” for example. The words you are looking for are ‘biddable’, ‘trainable’, ‘calm’, ‘keen to please’ etc not necessarily a list of competitive awards, speed, or style.
Speed won’t help you when you are sat in the car park waiting for the dog to come back.
Some trainers will refer to an ‘honest’ dog. This is a good thing as it refers to a dog that works with the handler, rather than for himself.
Enquire as to what kind of problems the breeder encountered whilst training the pup’s mother (every dog has some problems).
What kind of characteristics are they breeding for? Careful selection will improve your chances of getting a puppy that will respond well to you and want to work with you. But remember that buying a puppy is always something of a gamble.
Taking an experienced person with you will help you choose a healthy puppy and possibly one with potential, but be aware that the experienced trainer is not necessarily looking for the same attributes that you are.
Unless he is going to be on the end of the phone every time you get into trouble, you need to rely to a great extent on your own judgement.
No matter how hard you try, there are no guarantees. No matter how carefully you choose, you could still end up with a very ‘hot-headed’ dog.
You need therefore to be aware of all the ways in which you can influence the outcome of your training by managing your puppy effectively from the very first day
Read up on rearing a gundog puppy. Arm yourself with every scrap of information you can lay your hands on and be very wary of any advice to let your puppy ‘have its head’ for the first six months unless you have a very experienced ‘mentor’ and are prepared to use some seriously firm methods later on.
What can I do before my puppy is five months old?
Forget about ‘walking the dog’. For a definition of what I mean by ‘walking’ see below.
Your puppy does not need walking.
What he needs is to believe without question that you are the centre of his universe. Treat every outing with your puppy seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, simply that you give him your full and undivided attention.
Think constantly about encouraging your puppy to ‘change direction’ Encourage your puppy to explore, but to do it close to you. This means never walking in a straight line with a spaniel puppy but rather take a few steps one way, then a few steps another. This is the most important piece of advice I can give to a new spaniel puppy owner and it bears repeating.
Keep changing direction!
Commit to keeping this up all the time and watch your dog follow your lead, learning to zig-zag and quarter his ground. This comes easily and naturally to a working bred spaniel. Especially when started young.
Your spaniel should be learning to take responsibility for finding and following you, not the other way around.
Whether or not he is intended to be a pet or a working dog, this is the best way to teach him to take his exercise in close proximity to you, without spoiling his pleasure in constantly moving and hunting.
Teach your puppy to walk to heel. You can start this as early as you like. It will not prevent a normal working Springer from hunting later on, provided you keep heelwork lessons short and age appropriate, and give your dog plenty of opportunity to use his nose at other times.
Keep away from game
Keep your spaniel puppy away from game and other wildlife. This is crucial. It includes rabbits, pheasants, squirrels etc.
This may mean being very picky about where you exercise your puppy. Of course if your Springer is intended for work, you do not want to keep him away from the scent of game, just from any chance of actually chasing it.
Ground with plenty of scent (not during heelwork) is great as it encourages your pup to get his nose down and follow it. But it is really important if you are training where there is plenty of rabbit activity for example, that you clear the ground of rabbits before taking your pup into it.
This may mean leaving him in a vehicle, or getting a friend to hold him, whilst you have a good stomp about your chosen training area. If you are not able or prepared to do this then you should be prepared for trouble!
Retraining a dog with an established chasing problem is a difficult and drawn out process. It may involve considerable force, and the owner of the dog will almost certainly need professional help. Success cannot always be guaranteed
Oh dear, I am already in trouble. Is it too late?
No. It is rarely too late. But you may be in for some hard work, and some lifestyle changes. Perhaps the first thing you should do, is to stop blaming yourself. It probably isn’t your fault.
In some respects the way we expect new gundog owners to cope is both unique and unreasonable. If we draw parallels with another popular form of animal training and look at the horse world, it may help you to see just how much has been expected of you.
It is not your fault
None of us could imagine a situation where someone that has never ridden a horse before would be encouraged to buy a thoroughbred racehorse, and not only learn to ride it, but break it in and train it as well. In fact, this would be quite ridiculous.
Yet we expect people with no experience whatsoever, to take home a young gundog puppy, often highly bred with Field Trials in mind, and not only learn to handle, but also to train it, for the most part with nothing more substantial to help them than a book.
Granted, if your spaniel falls on you, you are unlikely to die, but physical danger apart, the knowledge and skills involved is comparable. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel out of your depth with your rapidly maturing working-bred spaniel.
The shooting owner
For the owner that wants to work his dog in the shooting field, his solution is relatively straightforward. He must replace the problem behaviour (eg chasing) with an alternative (the stop). The reward for the dog that ‘stops’ is more hunting (in another direction) or a retrieve. Failure to stop, is not an option.
Installing the stop whistle in a dog that has never been allowed to chase is a breeze. Installing the stop whistle in a dog that has been chasing wildlife will almost always require expert help.
It is also likely to require some force.
The owner that wants to work the dog may well be sufficiently motivated to do what is necessary. Stop walking his dog, and start training him.
The pet owner
For the pet dog owner, it is often a very difficult dilemma, because his expectations of the dog are so far removed from dog’s natural capabilities. Family walks as we have seen are often the principle expectation of the pet dog owner.
Yet the problem Springer becomes more of a problem every time he is walked.
This is not his fault, and not really his owner’s fault either. The problem for the spaniel that is being kept as a pet, is that the owner knows what he does not want the dog to do (he does not want him to chase birds, or to go out of sight) but has no idea what he wants the dog to do instead.
Whereas the working gundog knows exactly what he must do in any given situation. If he smells a pheasant he must push him out of the bush. But when he sees the pheasant leave the ground he must sit. Simple!
Our gundogs have great natural instincts, together with an advanced ability to learn very specific skills such as “when I hear this whistle I must stop”
This makes them great team players. But to ask a dog to understand that he should not go ‘too far’ or ‘only chase a little way’ is too complex and abstract a concept. He needs clean cut boundaries.
“When X happens you must do Y, right here, right now”. This is what he understands.
The best way for any spaniel owner, even if the dog is intended as a pet, to avoid and eventually cure ‘chasing’ and ‘bolting’ episodes is to stop ‘walking’ the dog and start ‘training’ it – gundog style.
The solution for the pet dog owner is therefore the same as for the working dog owner but the pet dog owner may need more help and support to acquire the motivation to carry the training through. And to let go of that daily walk.
Perhaps we should make it clear at this point what we mean by a walk.
The definition of a ‘walk’
A family walk, even if you walk alone, has some defining characteristics when it comes to managing your dog. These characteristics include the objective of the walk, the way in which it is carried out and the lack of attention to distractions.
The objective of the ‘walk’ is normally relaxation/recreation and exercise.
Sadly, these objectives do not offer the best benefit to the untrained spaniel. There are other ways to give him exercise, and your relaxation and recreation are not exactly compatible with intense concentration on your dog.
It is your full attention and concentration that a Springer Spaniel really needs you to give him outdoors, for at least the first year of his life.
The style in which a walk is carried out is always linear.
That is to say, whilst you may be walking in a large circle, to all intents and purposes, from the dog’s point of view, you are travelling forwards, all the time in a linear fashion.
This is disadvantageous to any gundog because it encourages the dog to travel away from you over increasing distances, and more importantly makes you utterly predictable.
It is particularly disadvantageous to a spaniel, with his powerful hunting instincts. He now knows exactly where to find you at any given time.
There you will be, plodding along in the same old direction.
This gives him the security to use you as a base from which to explore further and further away.
Finally, and most importantly, the family walk typically pays no attention to the presence of wildlife.
To expect a young Springer to resist the temptation to chase any living thing he comes across on a walk is an extremely risky strategy as we have seen, yet many new spaniel owners fall into this trap.
I don’t want to stop walking the dog!
The ‘Stop walking the dog’ part seems to be a major sticking point for so many people with difficult Springers.
Frequently, their daily walk is a fairly miserable experience, stressful and pointless, spent in dreaded anticipation of the first ‘chase’ followed by maybe hours of calling and searching, fearing the worst, a phone call to say that their dog has been found dead on the road, or worse that he has caused a fatal accident.
People tell me that they spend hours sitting in the car park waiting for the dog to decide to turn up when he is ready to be chauffeured home.
Yet the next day, or a week later, they put themselves through all this again. They come up with the most feeble excuses for allowing their dog to get into a situation where it can take off like a half crazed lunatic, crossing roads or railway lines with total disregard.
And when given the simple information that they can stop walking the dog now, people fight this truth with unbelievable vigor.
A national myth
Part of the reason for this is that it seems to be ingrained into the public psyche that dogs must be walked every day. People seem to believe that terrible and dire things will happen to their dog if he does not have his daily walk.
I have known people who are seriously ill, take their dog out for a walk when they should be in bed, or even in hospital, simply because they fear the consequences if the walk is missed.
Of course, we must provide our dogs with adequate exercise, and if you do not have any access to a fair sized garden or nearby park for exercise purposes, then a regular walk is important for his long term health.
But just like people, it is the overall level of exercise that counts, not the level of exercise on any given day, or the exact manner in which it is taken.
Racing around your garden for twenty minutes is just as good for his cardiovascular system and his muscles as dragging you along the pavement, or chasing a deer through the forest for the same amount of time.
Not to mention safer and less traumatic.
And twenty minutes, two or three times a day, is just as beneficial for a young dog’s body, as a solid hour all in one go, and far better for his mind. His concentration span being fairly short.
Wear him out?
Another reason for obsessive walking seems to be a hope that if the dog is sufficiently tired, he will somehow become better behaved.
Does wearing a dog out make him easier to train in the long run? The short and definitive answer is:
People tend to see excessive ‘exercise’ as a cure for all sorts of behavioural problems which it rarely is. Unfortunately the hard facts are that the further you walk the dog every day, the fitter he will become, without any limit that you are capable of matching.
If your dog runs away when you take him for a walk, all that walks will produce is a fitter and more determined absconder.
Once really fit, most dogs could travel thirty or forty miles in a day without any trouble. So no matter how far you walk him every day, unless you are a fanatical marathon runner, you will quickly get to the point where your dog is no longer tired by your endeavours.
What are you going to do then?
Don’t look back
Perhaps the main reason for a refusal to stop walking the dog, is that it can be tough to accept that something you have put a lot of effort into, was actually not helping at all.
In truth, some of the worst behaved dogs are the most exercised. Dogs do not need to be allowed to race from one county to another each morning in order to remain fit, happy and healthy.
And all those times you dragged yourself out in the rain, or sat in the carpark waiting for his return, you could have been tucked up in bed with a good book, or better still, out gundog training.
But looking back is pointless. You need to move forwards
Of course some of you thoroughly enjoy walking the dog, but if this is the case, you are unlikely to be having serious difficulties managing him. The truth is, for many struggling dog owners, the day they decide to stop walking the dog and start training is the day they turn their dog’s life around.
So how should I exercise my spaniel?
As far as your dog’s exercise needs are concerned, access to a reasonably sized exercise area (such as a garden) where he can tear around several times a day without getting into trouble, combined with a good programme of gundog training designed for a spaniel will provide him with plenty of exercise.
By ‘training’ rather than ‘walking’ you will still be going out into the countryside, but now your trips outdoors will be planned with your dog’s needs in mind.
Your dog’s ‘training’ needs vary as he grows and will at first involve short outings to selected bits of countryside, where initially you will teach him to explore and to retrieve, and build his confidence, always in close proximity to you.
You can make these trips every day if you want to.
Later on he will need increasing access to countryside in which to advance his training, but by that time you will have a clearer idea of what is involved.
The sooner you get on with the job and get started with training, the sooner your spaniel can be taken out in the shooting field for a whole lifetime of sustained enjoyable exercise and fulfilling work, for both of you, man (or woman) and dog together. Gundog Training transforms people’s lives.
What are you waiting for?
Maybe you are concerned that gundog training just encourages dogs to hunt other animals.
The role of a spaniel is to ‘flush’ game so that it can be shot. However gundog training not only instils a high level of obedience in every participating dog, it specifically teaches the spaniel to hunt in a controlled manner, close to his handler, and to sit or stop whenever game is flushed from cover.
This eliminates the ‘chasing’ element from his natural repertoire of behaviours. Gundog work is founded on solid obedience and will improve the behaviour of any dog taking part.
Maybe you are worried too about getting involved with shooting or handling dead animals?
Well you can participate in the first four grades of the Gundog Club’s graded training scheme without any involvement in shooting. And all the retrieves are carried out using retrieving dummies. Real animals and birds are not involved.
By the time you get to the end of grade four, you will have an obedient dogs, and a good idea of what gundog work is all about, and whether you want to take it further.
There really is nothing to lose by giving it a go.
So how do I set about gundog training?
Your first task is to get a good recall established. If your dog has a major recall problem, (ie you can’t catch him once he is off the lead, or he will not come back until he is ready) you will not be able to take part in a gundog training course.
At least not yet.
This is because your dog would disrupt the training group and spoil it for everyone else.
Resolve any recall problems
My book Total Recall contains a complete recall training programme for puppies and older dogs. You can pre-order now from Amazon.
You may also find it helpful to get some professional help from an experienced gundog trainer. You can find a list of instructors in the UK on the Gundog Club website.
If your dog recalls well except in the presence of wildlife (rabbits, squirrels etc) then you may well be able to join in a gundog training course or group. Again, you can book these directly with the Gundog Club
Gundog training is a lot of fun and a great way to make new friends and enjoy some healthy outdoor exercise with your spaniel. How far you want to take it, is entirely up to you.
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