Shooting Dogs and The Close Season

Shooting Dogs and The Close Season

By Stan Rawlinson

Breeding Specialisation
Todays working dogs are the product of countless years of specialised breeding, which has resulted in dogs with an instinctual flair for hunting and retrieving. Their very fibre vibrates with the need to find their quarry. You can see their pleasure; it is palpable the pleasure they eschew when they are working. Even the occasional ones that are sometimes fractious with other dogs forget their animosity as soon as they start hunting in earnest.

And what strange mechanism allows our dogs to sense that this is the day, that we are going out beating, shooting, stalking or whatever type of hunting we do, because sense it they certainly do. I used to think it was the way I dressed, So I put on my shooting and beating gear on for a couple of weeks to test this theory, and they still sensed the days when I actually was going to work them.

I think we must give little clues with our body language, subtle nuances that we cannot detect, but their heightened awareness and ability allows them to read it as clear as if we had it stamped on our foreheads.

Ownership is a Privilege
That to me is the joy of owning these magnificent animals, to see them doing what nature intended gives me more pleasure than other pastime I can think off. Though I no longer train gundogs, my profession has taken me into the psychological aspects of why our pets behave the way they do. Irrespective of what I do now, for me the working dog still embodies the spirit of what dogs are all about.

These are the high performance sports cars of the canine world. Forget the pampered pooches recently seen at Crufts, though some undoubtedly do work, in the main our working strains are a very different animal to their show-ring counterpart. Just look at the Labradors and Springer’s, put the two side by side with the working strain. If you did not know better you might be excused into thinking, they were different breeds.

We see far more working dogs today than at any other time in recent history, reflecting the change in our working environment, class system and new found affluence. No longer the domain of the landed gentry, shooting hunting and fishing is enjoyed by a wide swathe of the population from postmen to politicians lawyers to labourers.

This in itself causes something of a conundrum. The large shoots kept packs of working dogs under the tutelage of the head-keepers or under-keepers. Some of the larger estates had dogmen specifically employed to train, breed, and exercise these animals.

Today most of the working dogs are owned by individuals rather than the landowners, and that in itself causes problems for the wellbeing both physically and mentally for our working dogs during the close season.

Keeping the Dogs Occupied
The large estates had the facilities to keep their dogs sharp and fit, by working them on the areas of the land where sporting game was not laid down, and where breeding birds would generally not be disturbed. Now that most shoots are fairly small, keepers are not overly enamoured with people training their dogs over their precious land, especially at this time of year when the birds start to nest up.

One minute the dogs are working once or even twice a week then suddenly 1st of February and the end of life as we know it. Few shoots start to shoot their pheasants before late October, so the effective season runs from November to end of January, a paltry three months. Isn’t it time that our season was realigned to the reality of the breeding cycles of our game birds? I am sure that point has been raised in ST on many occasions.

It is like allowing our kids free rein in Disneyland for a day or two each week, then after a few months saying that they cannot go anymore. They would probably get morose and upset wondering what they had done wrong. To some extent that happens to our dogs. I have seen dogs get depressed, confused, frustrated and in some cases difficult to handle when the season comes to a close, come to think of it, I have seen quite a few people do the same.

I have a couple of friends that work their dogs on a commercial shoot in Surrey whose whole lives and work is based on ”The Season” they work flat out February to October so they can take the time out to indulge their passion for shooting, beating, and picking up.

I also used to pick up at the same shoot, but unfortunately found the keeper so foul mouthed and abusive to everyone, that I felt I could no longer offer my services. I am sure he will know who I am talking about, and so will the rest of the team who always read ST.

Some dogs start to get strange quirky habits, like shadow chasing staring at walls and other obsessive compulsive disorders. In February the days are so short that unless we are retired or out of work it is very difficult to give our dogs the type of stimulation that helps them overcome the post season doldrums.

It is almost a punishment for them. I remember when I was in the Army. I was posted to a place called Falingbostal, it was the back of beyond with nothing to do other than patrol the then East German border, it felt like a punishment posting as if we being made to atone for some unknown misdemeanour.

Maybe our dogs do feel the same way? I am aware that we cannot be anthropomorphic, and assume dogs have the cognisant abilities of humans, though just occasionally I have thought that one or two dogs appeared smarter than their owners. Certainly, when it came to common sense.

I believe there are a number of things you can do to help your dog over this difficult period. I see many shoots that do not see other members or beaters until the next season. Why not arrange a number of meets with the dogs the beaters and the guns, have a walk together over part of the shoot or other land that may be available that will not cause any nuisance or disturbance. The dogs will think that they are back in harness and will love the couple of hours of exercise and work. Meeting the people and dogs they had worked with during the season perks the dogs up enormously and it does us good as well.

Keep Up The Training
It is difficult sometimes when lots of other pet dogs are roaming and interfering, so it is best to try and find some isolated spots to do some dummy work, hidden retrieves, and send aways, keep it varied and interesting. Do not constantly do the same exercises in the same order, do a couple of very different actions and exercises that may not me shooting related. Teaching you dog a few silly tricks can be rewarding to the dog, always finish all exercises and training on a high. If the dog cannot get a particular requirement then finish on one that he can do with lots of praise.

Remember, If a dog cannot get a particular training exercise it is not the dogs fault it is normally yours, I see people getting frustrated with their dogs because they do not get a complicated command,. I always say if the dog cannot understand your wishes then you have gone to far too fast. Go back a few stages and take it nice and easy.

Make Feeding Interesting
Scatter feed your dog instead of feeding in a bowl, scatter the food in the garden the kitchen or the kennel this will make the dog have to work and hunt out the food. There are also specialised shaped balls and activity cubes that dispense kibble and treats. These have to be manipulated by the dogs to get their treats, it makes the dog have to work for it and stimulates mental callisthenics easing boredom and lethargy.

Sometimes small things make all the difference try putting a cupful of sugar in a juggernauts fuel tank or a tiny speck of grit in a grandfather clock mechanism, from such a small ingress the affects can be quite dramatic. It could be a small simple thing that may make all the difference to the mental wellbeing of your dog. So the above ideas are well worth trying.

Work Ethics
Sometimes all it needs simply have your dog earn his use of your resources. He’s hungry? No problem, he simply has to sit before his bowl is put down. He wants to play fetch? Great! He has to “down” before you throw the dummy. Want to go for a walk ? He has to sit to get his lead put on, and has to sit while the front door is opened. He has to sit and wait while the car door is opened and listen for the word (I use “good”) that means “get into the car”. When you return he has to wait for the word that means “get out of the car” even if the door is wide open. Enforce the new rules, but keep in mind that your dogs only doing what it’s been taught to do and its going to need some time to get the hang of it all.

What you will find is the dog starts to get with the program and looks forward to the expectations of behaviour. He will be stimulated by the need to do certain actions before he gets the resources he wants, whether that is exercise, food, or attention.

This simple little exercise can often have an enormous effect on your pets self esteem, put some or all of the above things in place and I will be surprised if you do not see a more relaxed and well-behaved dog on the first day of the next season. Bird flu willing.

Stan Rawlinson
Dog Behaviourist and Obedience Trainer, who has owned and worked dogs for over 25 years, starting with gundogs then moving to the behavioural and obedience side of training companion dogs. He now has a successful practice covering Greater London, Surrey, and Middlesex.

Stan is recommended by numerous Vets, Rescue Centres, and Charities. He writes articles and comments on behavioural issues and techniques for dog magazines including Our Dogs, Dogs Monthly and K9 Magazine and Shooting Times.

He is also the founder member of PAACT The Professional Association of Applied Canine Trainers

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