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Under Cover...

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

The shooting season is now in full swing here and we have started on the pheasants. The weather has turned colder (at last!) and the dogs are settling in to their working and trialling routine well. My two year old dog; Keepa has been coming on well over the summer and I am now looking to run him in a trial at some point this season. For this I need him to be ready and have plenty of picking up experience. He has now completed a few training days and three full days picking up. There is nothing like the real thing to prepare a dog for their trialling career. I have a full team of experienced dogs which means I can pick and choose the retrieves I ask Keepa to do and hence work him on the elements that he needs. For example, on Thursday I sent him for a blind retrieve along a drilled field and into a thick hedge with a deep ditch. He ran to the area beautifully and then followed the fall of the field instead of tackling the cover straight on. It became apparent that when he could mark a bird falling into cover he was happy to hold a line but on a blind he was often thrown going into cover. This quite clearly needs work before we even think about a trial entry!

A dog boldly entering and hunting cover is something much desired whether you are beating, picking up or dogging in. My open trialling bitch Nala is renowned for being ‘fearless’ in cover, she seems to actively enjoy hunting in thick brambles. I never seemed to particularly have to encourage this, so the question remains that perhaps this ‘fearlessness’ is in the genes more than a trained skill. However, having seen Keepa hunt for a marked retrieve in cover I know that he has that drive and ability so he simply needs confidence and training. I get rather frustrated when I hear handlers exclaim that their dogs will hunt cover but only when they know a bird is in there. Some feel this is the sign of a intelligent dog; to me this screams the dog is either lazy or lacks faith in the handler and prefers to work alone rather than as a team. I want my dogs smashing through cover having the belief that when I say to hunt there they have confidence in their team mate. So how can I help Keepa achieve this?

To begin with now I have the opportunity to practice these things in a real live game situation it is important that I ensure the retrieves I choose are a success. Every time he goes into cover he needs to as a minimum find scent if not the retrieve. So for now if there is a chance that there is not a bird in the cover I will send another dog. This way his confidence should not be knocked. If there is a clear mark into it I will send him. At home there is plenty I can be doing as well to help train for this. The first thing is to find various forms of cover. This includes everything from hedges, woodland, brambles, ditches etc. Now the shooting season is underway it is slightly harder as my ground for training is covered in birds! Once I have found some suitable areas I start by putting simple marked retrieves into cover. Once he is confidently going in I start to send him as memories and switch from where I send him from altering not only the angle but also distance. It is important to remember that things like stinging nettles can be very unpleasant for dogs and whilst my older dogs will happily hunt in them I do not ask them to pick dummies out of them. They have learnt over the years that the sting is often worth it as birds can be hidden in there, however a bird is the ultimate rewards. A canvas dummy will always hold less excitement for them. So rather than have the dog ‘fail’ or start to take odd lines I will not train much in cover that could put them off. Once I feel he is taking direction into cover I start to make the retrieves more difficult. I use smaller objects such as tennis balls and canvas discs so he really has to hunt hard for them. If he keeps pulling out to hunt around it I call him up and give him a mark. Or I move myself closer to give him verbal encouragement telling him he’s a good boy as he hunts and holds the area.

All of this hunting in cover can have a draw back. Sometimes there will be retrieves where I need him to run straight through the cover to retrieve from the other side. Some dogs find it difficult to ignore their desire to put their noses down and hunt when in cover and ignore the handler when they attempt to push the dog out to the other side. Particularly if there is a lot of scent. It is important He understands the difference of what I want him to do. When I cast him and want him to hunt in the cover I use the hunt whistle so he knows to put his nose down and begin hunting. Now that I want him to continue running through to the other side I again begin with simple marked retrieves. The first cover I choose to do this is always somewhere where I can see him the whole way. This is vital as if he goes wrong I need to know so I can immediately step in and help. As he enters the cover rather than blow the hunt whistle I put in the ‘back’ command. This is to encourage him and hopefully make it clear what I want. As he gets more confident with both tasks I will start to mix them up with blind retrieves. For example I put two retrieves out at the same time. One in the cover and one out the other side. I don’t want to teach him to run over game so ask him to hunt in the cover first and then send for the retrieve across the other side for the second retrieve. I need to repeat this exercise over the coming months with different retrieves and different ground ensuring he always gets a success.

Briar is now nine months old and really growing. She is already as tall as her mother and starting to fill out nicely. At her age the physical side of her exercise is still limited as her joints form and she grows. So I am still focusing on the basic skills including heel, sit and recall. Her drive for retrieving has increased ten fold and her personality is really beginning to show. She has bags of drive and has really started to understand the different components of the retrieve. She now understand that she only ever gets sent for a retrieve when she is on my left. Because I have always enforced this it means she is desperate to get pole position which is exactly what I want. She is also starting to slightly ‘push the boundaries’ as she get more confidence. I use this term lightly as it is rare that a dog so young is deliberately ‘naughty’. It is more a case of the dog not understanding or getting confused. However sometimes there are cases where the dog is aware of what is required and the desire of doing something else takes over. Briar is so keen to retrieve that she sometimes forgets her sit and runs in. Whilst this is not a desirable behaviour I want to encourage I also must be careful not to quash her drive for the job. So as she runs in I interrupt her by clapping my hands and say no. As she glances at me I encourage her back and tell her she is good for coming to me. I then walk out myself and pick up the retrieve and start again. So she doesn’t get the retrieve when she runs in but the way I stop her is relatively gently. If the dog ignores the attempt to stop them then I would use a half training slip lead/collar so I have something to hold to stop the dog. I have also started to introduce her to very simple memory retrieves. This helps to enforce the steadiness. For the time being I am only doing memory retrieves in open easy ground. Partly because she is only a baby but also because when I cast her for the retrieve I want her to focus on where I am sending her and not my hand. In open ground I can make sure she can see the dummy I am sending her back for.

At this stage of her training and life there is plenty of new experiences I have planned for her. For example picking feather and fir, hearing bangs, seeing live game running around, jumping, cover etc. All of these things are important if I want a effective, obedient good all round shooting dog. However there is by no means a rush to introduce them. Their joints are still soft, their hearing and personalities still sensitive and so in a attempt to introduce them in a hurry can ultimately result in causing more harm than good. I know of many many dogs ruined when rushed into things and don’t know of any that have been ruined when the handler has taken their time. To this end Briar still has plenty of play time, enjoys chewing her toys and being a puppy.

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