A Basis for Success in the Field
by Ann Strathern
It was a cold November morning. The canoe glided quietly down river. Aboard, two friends aided by their female Labrador were intent on the day’s adventure. Suddenly, a pair of mallards took flight from the edge of the river. The hunter in front raised up to take the first shot. As the gun fired, the black bitch stood, trembling with excitement. At the second shot, the lead duck dropped, the hunter in the rear shot and the dog lunged over the side, out of control with the excitement to retrieve. The canoe flipped and all but one shotgun ended up on the water: one very happy Lab with duck in mouth: two wet, miserable friends, left scrambling to find their lost equipment.
An exaggeration? Not at all. This is a true, graphic example of the necessity to have obedience-trained dogs as hunting companions.
A Primer for Hunting Dogs
Obedience goes hand-in-hand with Hunting Tests or Field Trials for Retrievers. The testing of natural ability, linked with trainability, is what these trials are set up to evaluate. A dog that has had basic obedience training is one step ahead on its way to becoming a hunting dog. A dog with the advanced training of the Open and Utility obedience classes has an even bigger advantage than the puppy fresh from a field background with no experience at all.
A dog can have all the desire and birdiness in the world, and still be so totally obnoxious in the blind that a day’s hunt is ruined. The handler, instead of concentrating on his shot, is constantly heeling the dog and putting him in a sit-stay (or tying him up), as the incoming ducks are flared and head to someone else’s set of decoys. If these commands had been taught and learned, the adventure would have been fun instead of torture.
An immense amount of pleasure and satisfaction can be obtained from walking through a field with a dog quartering in front that will stand and watch a flushed bird. The hunter can concentrate on the bird and not on whether the dog’s head is going to get in the line of fire!
The basic lessons taught in obedience are a necessary part of the preparation of a gun/hunting dog. In the Novice class, a dog is taught to heel at your side (on and off lead), sit automatically when you halt, sit and stay where told as you walk off, and come when he is called. It is obvious that all of these lessons are necessary for the simplest hunting situations. The “group sits” and “down stays” teach the dog that he is to remain in the original position no matter what kind of commotion happens, whether it is a child leaning over the ring dripping an ice cream cone onto his back, or a flight of ducks landing in the decoys 20 feet in front of him.
In the Open class, the dog must retrieve on the flat, retrieve over a high jump, drop on recall and jump a broad jump on command. The retrieve is hopefully instinctive in our Goldens, but they must wait until they are told to fetch before they are allowed to move. Just think how much this simple lesson would have helped our two boating friends!
Many times a pheasant sets his wings and ends up on the other side of a fence after being shot. The gun dog must bring the bird back over the fence, if he cannot get through it. Hence, the lesson on retrieving over a high jump. Frequently, it is necessary to put a dog on a “sit-stay” as you ford a stream, get into a boat, or go through a barbed wire fence. The dog must sit and wait until you give the command to jump, allowing you time enough to get out of his way so that you don’t end up in the stream or wrapped up in the barbed wire. Hence the broad jump lesson.
Lessons For The Field
The out of sight, “sits” and “downs” in the Open class are utilized when a dog is set out in the open to see the fall of the birds, but the hunter must be hidden. Often, the blind that the hunter sets up is surrounded by cattails or other brush and it would be nearly impossible for the dog to mark the fall of a bird. Rather than waste time trying to handle the dog to all of the falls, or let him roam around hunting birds, it is wiser to have him sit quietly outside the blind and watch all the action.
The lessons taught to a Utility Dog are a stepping stone for more advanced training of a hunting dog. The signal exercise teaches the dog to watch the handler for directions. The directed retrieve of the gloves is a basic exercise to teach “taking a line”, the beginning of a blind retrieve. Directed jumping is an expansion of fundamental blind training, to stop and change direction on command. And finally, scent discrimination teaches a dog to be selective with his nose. If he is trailing a crippled pheasant, he is not likely to be distracted by a rabbit crossing his path.
The hunting tests for Retrievers are set up to test all of these situations, and others, that one might experience in a day’s hunting with your favorite canine companion. Ultimately, when scoring a dog, a judge asks himself, “Would I want to go hunting with this dog?” Obviously, all things considered, the dog that has been a pleasure to work with would get a resounding yes to the question.
If there is a moral here, it would be, give those hunting dogs obedience lessons, and bring out those obedience dogs to field training sessions. Remember, they are already one step ahead!