Poppy has just had her first full day on the shooting field, and I am delighted with her attitude, calm disposition and prodigious ability. Actually, she was praised highly by all who saw her work, and procured instantly two invitations for me and herself to attend shoots in the near future. This pleased me enormously, but rather dismayed my husband as I will be accompanying him a lot in the future!
She is now 11 months old, and I have so far refrained from sending her away to boarding school, or from involving anyone else in her training: but have enjoyed many a conversation with other Cocker Spaniel owners, and have freely discussed the finer points of training with them, with varying degrees of usefulness. It may well be a case of the blind leading the blind here, but I am quietly confident that everything is progressing rather satisfactorily, whilst flying solo, so to speak.
My approach to training her has not wavered at all. Using the same mindset with which I used to train my Horse up to Advanced Medium Dressage standard, I try to go through basic obedience every single day, and maintain an absolute consistency in whistle and hand commands. It is not rocket Science. What you should aim for is being able to control the dog every step of the way, in particular sit or stop, come back, turn left or right, hunt, seek and fetch nicely to hand. It is vital that these lessons and reinforcements of discipline are always fun for the dog, and that your charge is always very keen to please. Much fuss and fulsome praise should be freely given at all times. I do not offer food as a treat, rather a kind word and copious stroking with lots of smiling. Many Cocker Spaniel owners recognise that these are very sensitive little dogs who are desperate to please, and who do not take kindly to any punishment. A telling off is sometimes required, and with Poppy, a strong verbal ticking off has proved more than enough chastisement. I am sure that there may be much harder spaniels around who may benefit from a good shaking or similar, but this is not one of them. I rather think that if she was to receive a smack from the hand she would rush back in terror to her kennel! If only my Patterdales were so sensitive. For them a good hiding is no worry whatsoever and a price well worth paying for their chicken killing pastime.
Many people have told me that I shouldn’t let Poppy retrieve any freshly killed game in her first year, and, heaven forbid, no runners at all, or that she is still much too young just now to go out on the shooting field, or that I should really concentrate on her retrieving skills rather than her hunting skills, or that she shouldn’t sit still near the guns for at least two years, and on and on… I have decided to let her be the judge of what is right, and to be very sensitive to the matter of which task she is very comfortable with carrying out. She got the opportunity to retrieve a freshly killed rabbit a couple of months ago, and she did so on command and very calmly, same with a pigeon. Just incorporated as part of the everyday training, and no undue fuss was made. She was allowed to go out last weekend when the early morning ducks were being shot next door, and I was more than happy to let her sit with me beside another picker -up and observe. I kept her on the lead and she remained calm even when the other dogs all ran in.
It didn’t matter at all that she didn’t get a retrieve that morning. I was just happy that she was obedient when I did let her off the lead, and that she was starting to see what a shooting day really entailed.
When we got back, I gently placed a mallard on the grass and got her to quietly retrieve it to my hand. Then she went straight back to her kennel for a bit of quiet reflection.
Yesterday, she had a full days shooting in Cambridgeshire. We quietly sat away from the guns and the other Pickers up, at least 50 yards from the action. For this first drive I kept her lead on and sat on the grass beside her. I do not rate the use of Dummy Launchers at all, and this was the first real test of her making the connection between a loud bang and birds dropping out of the sky. She is not stupid. It took around 5 minutes for her to realise what was happening, and she wasn’t so close to the noise that it could frighten her. When shooting stopped, I removed her lead and walked up to the guns and she picked up around half a dozen partridges like a pro. The second drive was a Bonanza. After the first ten minutes of partridges raining down right beside us, I took my heart in my hands and removed her lead whilst sitting beside her and the shooting continuing for another 30 minutes. Not a flicker of a desire to run in like some crazy spaniel! At the end of the drive, she calmly accompanied me at heel to look for and retrieve beautifully a brace of runners in the ditch some several hundred yards away, leaving the myriads of shot birds lying on the ploughed field next to where we had been sitting for the hungry Professional Pickers up. There was no point in exhausting her by collecting all the easy birds! The rest of the day just got better and better….