They are the most popular dogs in the UK – for good reason. But that’s not to say that problems don’t occur. Vicky Payne looks at how to overcome common gundog issues…
Gundog breeds and their crosses make up a large proportion of the canine population. The Kennel Club registration figures for 2014 show the most popular three breeds are from the gundog group. Labradors top the list with nearly 35,000 puppy registrations, followed by 22,000 Cocker Spaniels, and over 10,500 English Springers.
Gundogs are an attractive group for pet owners, as they are perceived as being friendly with people, sociable with other dogs, and easy to train. The most common breeds are also readily available and not too expensive to buy.
A proportion of people buy gundogs to train for their traditional role of finding and retrieving game birds in the shooting field, but the majority want an active pet for company at home and long country walks. Sadly, many owners don’t fully understand what their dog has been bred to do, and what he needs to do to be happy, and gundog training books can provide confusing advice on the ‘dos and don’ts’, which can lead to behavioural problems. The good news is: many problems can be overcome quite quickly.
“MY LABRADOR CHEWS UP ALL OUR STUFF”
Dogs find chewing innately rewarding, but modern processed petfoods don’t provide enough of a jaw workout for most gundog breeds, so the dog finds something else to chew, such as furniture or shoes.
This is easily remedied by providing chew toys (such as knotted ropes or stuffed food toys), but I sometimes meet resistance from gundog owners. Many will have been told that allowing their dog to chew will mean it becomes ‘hard mouthed’ and therefore likely to damage game in the shooting field. Quite apart from the fact that most pet gundogs won’t be working in the shooting field, dogs can learn to differentiate between ‘chew objects’ and ‘retrieve objects’. As long as the two are distinct in type and presented to the dog differently, there is no need to deny chew toys.
“MY SPRINGER PULLS ON THE LEAD”
Gundogs just want to get out there and do fun stuff, so it’s not surprising they start pulling on the lead. Unfortunately, the owner usually lets them pull until they get to the ‘fun stuff’ and then lets the dog off with a relieved sigh. This means pulling works for the dog, because he gets to the fun stuff quicker!
Lead training a gundog is no different to any other type of dog, but I have found some catch on more quickly if the reward is to chase a ball, or be allowed to sniff rather than being given a treat. Slip leads are common on the shooting field, as the dog doesn’t wear a collar while he is working and the slip lead is easy to slip on and off. However, the slip lead is not a training aid and as training loose lead walking can be boring for many dogs and owners, I recommend the use of a broad, flat collar when teaching loose leading, and a headcollar or harness when you simply need to get from A to B.
“I’VE BEEN TOLD NOT TO TRAIN HIM UNTIL HE’S SIX MONTHS OLD”
This is something I often hear when working with gundog owners, and it’s written in many gundog training books. Although it may be true that some professionals don’t start formal training until dogs are six months, they all start gently moulding the pup’s behaviour through play from a very young age. As long as the ‘training’ is fun, you should start as soon as the puppy comes home.
It is also often said that too much training too young means the dog loses its ‘drive’. The drive is hardwired in your dog’s brain, so early training will not take away the enthusiasm of a pet gundog, just make him more manageable. Tossing parts of his dinner, a tasty treat or toy in long grass will give him an outlet for this natural urge to hunt. By meeting these needs, he will be a happier, more relaxed pet.
“I CAN’T LET OUR VIZSLA OFF THE LEAD”
Most owners are aware that gundogs need quite a lot of exercise and allow their dogs to run free from an early age. This can quickly lead to recall breaking down because sniffing rabbit smells and chasing squirrels up trees is far more rewarding than going back to the owner for a cube of cheese.
Recall training is no different for gundogs than any other breed, but owners get frustrated because they can’t burn enough of the dog’s energy during the time he can’t go off-lead.
My solution to this problem is to introduce hunting games on a harness and long line or extending lead. Instead of throwing balls, owners should hide balls in long grass and encourage the dog to find them, or they can drag toys to lay trails for the dog to follow. This sort of hunting game is great fun for gundogs, and it is really tiring. In my experience, 20 minutes of a tough hunting game tires a dog out as much as an hour of running!
“OUR COCKER GROWLS IF WE GO NEAR HIS FOOD OR TOYS”
Guarding food and toys is quite common in gundog breeds, as they need a degree of possessiveness to perform the job they were selectively bred to do. This can be frightening and dangerous. Safety must always be the first consideration, so seek advice from a professional.
CAPBT members will take a holistic approach to this problem by first addressing your dog’s breed-specific needs and making sure these are met. This will improve the dog’s general mood state and I am sure we all know that when our mood is good, we are less emotionally reactive.
Having addressed his mood, we look at the emotional state immediately before, during and after the unwanted behaviour, and consider what internal and external factors are likely to be rewarding him.
If your dog does guard his food or toys, remember that any confrontation is likely to make matters worse, so don’t try to remove his food while he is eating or corner him to get something from him. It is far better – and safer – to teach him to accept your presence around his food bowl by adding a tasty treat to the bowl, or encouraging him to swap something he has stolen for one of his own treasured toys.
Gundogs have been bred to hunt and retrieve for people for hundreds of years. Using these instincts during training, on walks, and at home makes for happier, calmer pet gundogs and owners.
-Vicky Payne BVetMed, DipCABT, MRCVS (First Published in Dogs Monthly)