Training a dog requires commitment on the part of the owner, in terms of time, persistence and resolve. Training a dog to be a gundog – a companion for hunting – requires those same characteristics. Like any other challenging task, the rewards are commensurate with the effort put forth. If you have ever watched a well trained gundog in action – perhaps in person, or on some of the trials televised on a sports or hunting channel – and thought your dog would never be able to even remotely perform in a similar fashion, it may be time to reconsider that position.
Of course, it makes sense to work with a dog whose breed characteristics lend it towards being a gundog. It is unfair to expect a dog that has been bred to be a lapdog (such as the toy-sized Chinese Crested) to be a gundog – most of the game a hunter targets is larger than a toy-sized dog, for one thing. While almost every breed retains some instinct to hunt, there are several breeds that have been created more specifically for this task – most of the spaniels and retrievers fall into this category. Some dog breeds have been bred to have “soft mouths”, so that when they retrieve the game, their carry the game in their mouths gingerly.
Clearly, developing a dog to be a gun dog starts with selecting a dog that has that potential. Still, breed history and characteristics only provides a point of guidance to the owner about a dog’s potential general characteristics. Every dog is an individual. A dog who is not evenly tempered – that is, a dog who is too aggressive or too shy – might eventually manage to be a good gun dog, but the owner should recognize what he or she is starting with and adjust expectations accordingly.
Spaniels and retrievers, along with pointers and setters, are typically excellent to work with as gun dogs. These breeds typically have been bred through many generations to be loyal, easily trained dogs; if for some reason a particular dog does not reach your expectations as a hunting companion, the dog is still likely to be an excellent family pet. While purchasing a puppy from a champion line of gundogs may give your dog a leg up, there is no guarantee. Every puppy and dog is unique.
If you are relatively new to hunting with dogs, it is strongly recommended to work with a professional trainer experienced in this arena. If you have worked through the training and bonding of less than three gundogs in the capacity you expect for your newest gundog, then getting a trainer is critical. Too often, early training errors have to do with missed cues, missed body language and incorrect timing between the human and the dog. Having a professional trainer to work with you will help you in identifying any training errors you might make.
Two points to keep in mind when training a dog who will eventually be trained as a gundog or hunting dog:
A rock-solid recall (“come”) command is critical. Your dog is going to be going out into fields, streams, woods and forests, without any physical connection between you. In other words, there is no leash. Your dog needs to know, no matter what distraction is before him, that when you call out for him to return, he needs to do so – on the first call. His life may literally depend on this; the last thing you want is a gundog that sets off to retrieve game and detours to attack something larger – such as a bear or a mountain lion. The result is not likely to be in your dog’s favor.
Part and parcel of having a solid recall command is ensuring your dog has solid basic obedience skills – both verbally and through hand signals. Your dog may be ranging far a-field at times; if your voice (or whistle) doesn’t reach your dogs ears, then you want your dog to be able to pick up on hand signals. This also means your dog needs to be able to realize when he hasn’t received a signal from you for some time, then he should automatically look towards you for confirmation of your expectations.
With a solid obedience background, your dog will have a solid foundation to become a good gundog. Work with a trainer with good references and a solid history of training gundogs such as your dog. Patiently work with your dog over time, and you will likely end up with a gundog that others envy.