It's just a throw to the right...
Introductory gun dog classes: Week 4

Dog sitting with ball in her mouth

This is the fourth in a short series of articles about taking an introductory gun dog class run by The Friendly Dog Club over summer 2018. To see how we did from the start of the course, click here.

By Andy Clayton

It’s week four of the summer gun dog classes being held by The Friendly Dog Club. You can see real progress from all of the participants week by week.

Since the last session, I’ve been taking Amber through continued “look at me” whistle training (she’s really starting to grasp it now) as well as continuing to have a go at memory fetch, bolting rabbit (with a toy), directions, distraction stay and the brand new reverse retrieve.

I always do some training with Amber on our daily walks so finding the time to practise isn’t difficult. If you build training into your routine then it becomes “the norm”. Typically we’ll go to the local woods or the beach where Amber can run about with her sister and then we can do some training before she scampers off again to search for something in the undergrowth that she probably shouldn’t be munching.

Here we are at home having a go at the reverse retrieve:

and this is on the beach having a go at throwing the ball off to one side, sending Amber away to fetch it but stopping her before she gets to it (with my other cocker acting in a supervisory capacity):

Having done no whistle training before, I'm really pleased with how she's getting on.

Bolting ball
I’ve mentioned bolting rabbit in past blogs. This is where something will shoot past the dog (the “bolting rabbit”) and they should ignore it. Clearly a very important aspect of gun dog work. There’s a piece of equipment for trying this out, however we’re not quite ready for that yet. This week, we moved beyond throwing a toy past our dog and started using a ball. For most dogs, this is much more of a challenge as the ball will roll ahead whereas a toy will simply land in one place.

I was pleased with Amber when we had a go at this. Her “leave it” is very good and she will keep a close eye on my treat bag me. I’m intrigued to see how she will do with the proper “bolting rabbit” equipment as this will be far more of a distraction!

Formal retrieve
Retrieving is an important part of gun dog work, so in the lesson this week we all had a go at this to see how we’re getting on (see pic at the top of the article). Amber, being an old timer, normally takes this task in her stride, however she found the agility equipment distracting and a very interesting scent on the other side of the field far more enticing than fetching the ball for me. She needed a little encouragement to get back to the task in hand. Having distractions is no bad thing as it’s precisely what would happen on a shoot.

Directional retrieve
One of this week’s new activities was directing our dogs to retrieve an item thrown off to one side. We went to our right this week and will go left next week.

The concept is the same as the reverse retrieve except that we’re now throwing out to the side and that means we need to direct our dog to where the target item has landed. This directional instruction is an extension of the work we started last week to move between place boards.

That’s the way to do it
With her young working cocker Spook, Gemma demonstrated what we’re ultimately aiming for. With her puppy sitting facing her at a short distance, she asked him to stay and then threw one target item out to her right and another to her left. She then sent her pup out to retrieve the item on her right. When he got half way to his target Gemma blew her whistle to get his attention before asking him to fetch the item on her left instead. Spook is only 9 months old however he performed with aplomb! It’s so impressive to watch how it should be done and it’s something to aim for in the weeks ahead.

And what about that whistle?
If you’ve read my previous blogs, you may recall that I was unsure about some aspects of whistle work. We’d been told to “peep” our whistle to get our dog’s attention, however many of us (me included) have been “peeping” our whistle to ask our dogs to return to our side. This seemed slightly counter intuitive to me, on the one hand “peeping” to ask our dog to “stop and look” and on the other hand also peeping to say “come here”.

I finally asked Gemma’s advice about this after this week’s lesson and as is usually the case with training, this was totally “my bad”!

The whole purpose of the whistle in gun dog training is to ask the dog to stop what they’re doing and look at you to await their next instruction. So when it comes to the recall, the peep is to get them to look at you and then what I should be doing is to recall Amber to me in whatever way I would do normally. If this involves peeping the whistle 3 times, then fine, but similarly it could simply be opening my arms wide, gurning, doing the hokey cokey or whatever other method I may have used to train my furball to return to me for a lovely smelly piece of sausage.

Every owner knows their own dog and what works for them. I’ve given this a good deal of thought since the lesson and have decided to use the whistle solely to get Amber’s attention. To avoid confusing her, I’m no longer using it to ask her to come back to me (even though it has been with a different number of “peeps”). She recalls very well if I simply open my hands wide. Another thing that works well is to put my hand anywhere in the vicinity of my treat bag at which point Amber runs back to me like a Grand National winner so that she doesn’t miss out on an opportunity to help me lighten my load a little.

Final thoughts
Another really enjoyable lesson this week. There’s a great bunch of people involved with the course, both trainers, handlers and dogs and everyone is having a great time. A shout out to Gemma’s training sidekicks, Kate and Rachel who have been helping to keep things running smoothly.

Until next time!

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