Making the most of their instinct to retrieve, Rob Hardy trains Labradors to work as gun dogs.
A well-trained gun dog is an essential companion in the field. Able, and willing, to retrieve game undamaged, they play an invaluable role. With their soft mouths, gentle manners and keenness to learn, Labradors have proved themselves ideal
for this job.
Rob Hardy has been training gundogs for himself and friends for more than 20 years. “I get great satisfaction from seeing these dogs progress through each stage,” he says.
Today, as well as being used for retrieving game, gun dogs take part in Field Trials that test their abilities and obedience. Some dogs only ever compete in these events, and never go out with the guns. Rob, however, believes that there is no happier dog than a gun dog on a shoot.
“They are doing what they have been bred for,” he says. “I get so much pleasure from the dog’s enthusiasm. No one should go shooting without a dog in case the game isn’t dead. It may fall somewhere a human cannot access. If someone does not have the means to retrieve the game
they shoot, then they should not be out shooting in the first place.”
Before retrieval training can start, the dog must have mastered the basic obedience rules. It must be able to walk to heel, both on and off the lead. It is essential a gun dog can sit quietly, without reacting to any activity going on around it. Finally the dog must return to the owner when called. As well as voice commands, Rob trains his dogs to respond to a whistle command that means stop. The dog gets to associate the sound with ‘sit’ through Rob blowing the whistle and then saying the command. Eventually the verbal command is dropped and the dog sits on a single whistle blast. “We use the whistle in the field because it carries much further than a voice and is less disturbing to game,” he says.
Training to retrieve
Teaching basic obedience constitutes four-fifths of the dog’s training. Only when that is completed can work start on the final fifth, the retrieval training.
Rob demonstrates the training he goes through with his own dog, Dee. He starts by getting her to retrieve a ball or a dummy. “Tennis balls are good to begin with, especially for puppies, as they can pick them up easily,” he says. “They also roll, leave a bit of a scent trail from your hands and you can use them in short grass so the dog needs to hunt for it a bit more.”
Traditional retrieving dummies are usually made from a canvas-type material. They weigh approximately 1-1.5lb (453-680g), about half the weight of a cock pheasant. “Dummies are very useful as they train the dog to pick up something that is floppy and to get it balanced properly in their mouth,” he says. “This helps prevent them picking the bird up by the wing later on. I would use a small puppy dummy or old stuffed sock from around six months of age. Then, as the dog grows and gets stronger, I move up to a bigger dummy. I still use a ball as well.”
He places himself between Dee and where he is going to throw the ball. This allows him to cut her off if she moves towards it before he gives permission. The dog is asked to sit, then the ball is thrown a short distance. Backing towards it, Rob gives
the hand signal that tells Dee not to move. He picks up the ball, still facing her. He then returns to praise her while she remains sitting.
From this initial move, he progresses to throwing the ball around her, and retrieving it himself while she remains sitting. As long as Dee obeys, he returns to praise her. If she moves, he gently but firmly places her back on the spot he told her to sit at and repeats the command. He will continue to do this as necessary until she remains steady.
“The biggest problem with retrieving is that people try to do too much for too long and the dog becomes bored. They spit the ball or dummy out and run off. To avoid this, I keep training sessions short, to between 10 and 15 minutes.”
Controlling the dog
Once satisfied the dog has mastered sitting while the ball is thrown, Rob moves on. He throws the ball, then uses his hand to point the dog in the right direction. At the same time, he moves his leg forward to channel her towards the dummy.
“I start with short distances, 10-15 yards,” he advises. “It is easier to control a dog at a shorter distance so all lessons start close. The distance increases slowly only when the dog is working perfectly at the shorter distance.”
When Dee picks the dummy up, he puts a hand on her and guides her in to him. He praises her and strokes her under the chin. She lifts her head, and he gently takes the dummy.
Whistle at the ready
Rob always has his whistle in his mouth before he sends a dog off. Because his dogs are trained to know that the whistle means stop, he can quickly regain control if things go wrong. “To begin with I always make the dog sit and then walk out to it. As she gains experience, I allow her to stop and look at me, before giving the next command. This is because in the advanced training, I teach a dog to follow my hand signal to go left, right or back. That way I can handle her to retrieve at distance and over obstacles.
“I have a second whistle command that I use when the dog is returning from a retrieve,” he says. “As soon as Dee picks up the dummy, I give lots of quick pips on the whistle. This attracts her attention, so she is less likely to run off with the dummy.
“The dog might not always go straight to the dummy. The wind can play a part
in this, or perhaps she might go too far
out in one direction. It is important not to assume the dog has made a mistake. There is a ‘hi lost’ command used to tell the dog it is hunting in the right area. This verbal command says, ‘you’re in the right area, keep looking’. The dog eventually learns that when you give the command it is in the correct area to find the retrieve. It then hunts there more carefully.”
The next stage involves tying a few feathers or pheasant wings to the dummy. This gets the dog accustomed to their texture. From there, they move to what is known as cold game. This is a bird that has been shot beforehand and allowed to go cold so that it is stiffer.
Finally, if the dog is to work in the field, it is time to move onto warm game. This can take up to two years for a Labrador. “It sounds a long time but a healthy gun dog can work for 10 years,
so it is a small investment in the scheme
of things,” says Rob. “Correctly trained, your dog and you will have many years of pleasure as a working partnership.”
“My first ever gun dog was a Lab, so I have always had a soft spot for the breed. They are easy to train, compared to other breeds, have a fantastic nature and a will to please. They have the ability to switch on and off, which makes them the ideal gun dog. One moment they are active,
the next happy to sit patiently by you.
This makes them the perfect choice for anyone who wants a family pet they can also work occasionally.”
Types of shoot
Field Trial: This is a competitive event where gun dogs compete against one another in conditions resembling a day’s shooting in the field. They can involve one or more challenges to reflect the experience of the dogs taking part.
Driven shooting: Event where shooters and dogs stand in a line at a peg. Pheasants are driven towards them by beaters.
Rough shooting: Shooters walk along a hedgerow and the birds are shot as
they fly away.
Getting used to noise
Another essential part of the training is to accustom the dog to the sound of a shotgun. This is done gradually, to prevent the dog from becoming gun shy. “I start to get my dogs used to noise at an early age,” says Rob. “When they are puppies, I might clap my hands or bang a bowl while they are eating or otherwise distracted. This makes the sound more of a background noise than anything more direct.
“Then I move on to clapping my hands while standing some distance away. From there I advance to a blank-firing pistol. I start with the small, short type that make a little popping noise. Then I gradually work up to those that produce more of a crack. This gets progressively closer, with a louder blank when the dog is totally comfortable with the sound. The timescale totally depends on the dog. Some can get used to it within a couple of weeks, others can take months.”
Picking a puppy
“When picking a puppy to train as a gun dog, ideally one is chosen that comes from working stock,” says Rob Hardy. “Such dogs will have come from generations that are responsive and easy to train. A good breeder or trainer will always try to improve on this, so the
dogs continue to get even better further on down the line.”
Rob’s current gun dog is Dee, a six-year-old black Labrador. She is from working stock. Her father was the 2010 retriever champion.
“All the usual socialisation rules apply with puppies. This includes meeting people, other dogs, getting used to the car, traffic and so on,” he says. “Living with the family is fine. It is, however, important to always remember that this is a gun dog and certain games are to be avoided. There should be no tugging games, which can make them hard-mouthed. This is the term used when a dog grips an object too hard. In the case of game for the table, it could damage it.
“The only retrieving should be done in a controlled situation, so that also means no ball throwing by the children.
“The dog should not be allowed to run wild outside in a field or wood. He does not know the difference from a weekend walk in the woods and a day in the woods shooting. If the dog is to run free, it should be at a location totally different from a shooting situation, on
a beach for instance. This way it holds no connection to the dog’s ‘work place’.”
Labradors tend to mature quite quickly compared to other gun dog breeds. By six
to nine months, they can be ready for their formal training, but it depends on the individual dog.
It is possible to have a Labrador trained as a gun dog by about 18 months of age.
Words: Karen Young Photography: Richard Faulks