In The Country Magazine
Ben Starns, Tanglefield Gundogs Collaboration

Off-season Opportunities

Gamekeepers across the country are relaxing. The final whistles have been blown on the final drives. Gun dogs in their plenty are wondering why their masters aren’t getting dressed in strange socks and topping up hip flasks each morning. To be honest it was a welcome relief from the constant wet clothes and endless pork pies but, that doesn’t mean my work is over. In fact, it’s only just begun.

I won’t be the only one that had enjoyable moments and those memorable retrieves this season, but I am also confident that I’m not the only one who wished people hadn’t been looking when ‘Fluffy’ went AWOL and returned holding the farmer’s prized bantams. The Summer season really is the time to tidy up those self-employed dogs, mine have done their tax returns. 

Opportunities for socialising, improving your knowledge and your gun dog’s ability, really are a must at this time of year. Ultimately we want to enjoy the company of both our peg dogs and our picking up dogs. A good beating dog will earn you serious respect when it is under control and doing it’s job with enthusiasm. The contrary can also be said, ruin a drive and it’s curtains for another invite. You may also find yourself enjoying an early bath. If you’ve paid good money for a peg on the Estate of your dreams, a wayward peg dog can spoil your day pretty quickly.

So what’s first?

Go back to basics. All the simple things, like heel work, recall and general retrieving will have become a bit ‘baggy’ during the season and Summer offers you a less pressured time to resolve and refresh those skills. If you are the proud owner of a young dog, now is the time to get your new partner ready for the forthcoming shooting season which is really only a few months away. 

Something people often forger and also something to think about throughout the year, especially throughout the Summer season is ‘steadiness training’. It’s incredibly satisfying to get a first retrieve delivered to hand but then in the heat of the moment, you ignore the all of the steadiness training, done so at your own peril! An enthusiastic pooch will quickly learn that the sound of a shot (anyone’s shot) means retrieve and can quickly learn to ‘run in‘ which is akin to blowing out the candles on someone else’s birthday cake!

Manners mean everything in the training plan. Throw more dummies than the dog is allowed to retrieve. My rule of thumb for an over enthusiastic retriever is, to only retrieve two out of every ten thrown dummies, collecting the others myself. Training a dog in general, can be a bit of a minefield and with ample books, DVD’s and the internet available for varies pieces of advice, you can quickly get the basics under your belt. At this point I would advise you exercise relative caution. You are entering the realms of learning to drive by distance learning. The most efficient way to learn new skills or to tidy up those that have been forgotten, selectively or by your canine companion, is to seek assistance from an experienced trainer. This doesn’t always need to be expensive. I highly recommend seeking out your local Gundog Club. Most clubs run progressive training for both new and experienced dogs and offer a few hours of group training for just a few pounds.

The trainers are selected from experienced successful competitors and often a ‘Gun Dog Celebrity’ will be drafted in. Clubs will run specific training days, such as water training and offer access to numerous training grounds to broaden your dog’s experiences. The Utility Gundog Society have branches across the country as do the United Retriever Club. Often a quick and easy Google search will throw up details of your nearest club. It goes without saying, there are many.

Members With Benefits. Being a member of a gundog club also has many additional benefits. Firstly, the social aspect and connections are endless. I have been the very lucky recipient of invites to various social events, had offers of subsidised shooting to shoot at Field Trials and training days. I have also spent time in the company of many wonderful people, for me, this let me on to my next great discovery… competing.

The Summer months are full of various levels of working tests. In short, a working test is a number of scenarios where you compete against other handlers using canvas dummies, to score the most points for your dogs work. Now, even if you are not very competitive, these tests are a good marker for where you are at  with your training and how your dog will likely respond to you once the season starts.

The tests often replicate shoot day scenarios with shot and sometimes even cold game. These gave me ideas for training and led me to improve the abilities of my dogs and also my own skills in terms of reading the dog’s body language and to realise when perhaps, the whistle isn’t my magic wand. In my experience, the tests tend to be low pressure competitions with like-minded people who are just looking to improve their knowledge and test themselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon. You’d be surprised at how much cake is on offer too! 

Let’s work on the basis that you’ve joined a club, tried a few tests and training days, and it’s all going well. You may even have a rosette or two by now. The next thing to consider is field trialling. Many of the Gundog Clubs plan Field Trial days in addition to Shoot Days with live game to practice prior to entering your first Field Trial or just to get ready for the forthcoming season. These are great opportunities to give your dog some exposure to live game before a real shoot day. This reduces the pressure on both you and your dog and will allow you to ‘proof the pudding’ so to speak. These days allow a certain amount of expectation that the dogs will need to be trained during the day as they won’t be ‘match fit‘ just yet.

Taking all this into consideration there is one common theme. The Spring and Summer months really is the time to train your dog. A good friend of mine once told me that it takes two summer’s to train a dog properly. He was definitely right! Take the off-season to train your dog, bond with it during those Summer evenings and dry weekends. You will both get more out of the shooting season and the investment will pay dividends. Now grab your whistle and lead, and get going!

You can follow Ben’s Instagram account dedicated to his gun dogs at: @tanglefieldgundogs

Until next time…

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*Note: Images within this article have been sourced from royalty free site, Pixabay. They are not my own.

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