During recent months, this series has described the journey of a novice trainer doing his best to train his young gundog. With things now starting to fall into place, I feel that I have done something right, and shooting over Magnum could have already taken place on a couple of occasions, if I’d had my shotgun with me. I now realize that watching your dog develop, and bringing him up to a certain standard, be it field trial or SA Versatile Hunting Dog Association (SAVHDA) standard, is far more import- ant than pulling the trigger. I’d like to share the training methods I followed and, of course, the mistakes I made on the way.
The first training stage begins at the kennel/breeder, as you will collect your pup only after eight weeks at the earliest. This is why it’s very important to buy your pup from a reputable breeder or kennel. Try to stay away from the “backyard breeders”.
Once you have your pup, carry out the normal elementary training step, using a pigeon wing on a fishing rod and line (see photo 1), up until an age of around nine weeks. Present the wing to him, and if he is steady, leave it; when he pounces or tries to catch it, pull it away. Do this a maximum of five times every other day. If he performs a perfect point the third time, take it away and praise the pup. Leave him knowing that he did it correctly and with a bit of excitement. It’s important that your pup should not catch the wing, but if it does happen, it’s not a train-smash. As long as your pup’s got that hunting instinct you’re on the right track.
My mistake as a novice was that I carried on with this for about 14 weeks. I was just so pleased with him that I could not resist sharing it with every single family member and friend, since I’m the only one with a gundog. The problem with overdoing this is that you are teaching your pup to point only what he sees (called ‘sight point’) when you actually want him to use his nose to find hidden birds in the future.
The next stage was presenting live pigeons in the hand until the pup settles and then letting the bird flush (see photo 2). Ideally you want your gundog to sit/stay on flush. At this stage I wasn’t too concerned with that and was more impressed with his following the direction in which the pigeon flew (aka ‘flight path’). You need not do this exercise too often, but like anything else in gundog training, if you go to the next stage but feel your pup is not ready, go back to the previous training. A while ago, during veld training, someone told the group that his (mature-aged) dog refuses to point pigeons. I tried the abovementioned method three times on his dog and next moment it was pointing pigeons in traps like a master. Even when you are doing trap training, if you feel your pup is losing interest, try this method and you’ll soon see in his eyes that your pup means business again.
The next step, which took place on the same day, involved a pigeon in a trap and Magnum on a short leash (see photo 3). Remember to hide the trap in the grass, as you don’t want to teach your pup to sight-point (see photo 4). Take note of the wind and make sure you walk your pup downwind of the trap so that he starts learning to use his nose to find birds. This is where I began giving him the command “Go!” I stood on his right side while he was obeying the “Sit!” command, and tapped him on his head to signal him to commence the hunt on the word “Go!” I then say, “Soek… soek… soek…” to get him to look for birds. When he gets close, your pup might try to catch the pigeon in the trap. Hold the leash tight and give the “Whoa” or “Steady” command. This will teach him that the idea is not to catch the bird but to show it to you. Don’t keep him in this position too long, and be sure to release the bird.
At this stage you can start giving him the “Sit” command on the flush. He won’t do it of his own accord, so you’ll have to give the command and force him to sit. I feel that I didn’t do this exercise enough, because for a while, Magnum just wanted to kill the pigeons instead of pointing them. It’s very important not to discipline or punish your dog around birds, as he might avoid the birds in order to avoid being punished. This is called “blinking” the bird or the trap.
For the next exercise we used almost the same technique, only with the 9-metre leash (see photo 5). Remember to note the wind direction and to hide the trap in the grass. Always walk your pup into the wind when doing this exercise. Don’t let him see where the trap is when the pigeon is being placed inside it, and if you are doing the exercise more than once, as you should, move the trap. Again, from the “Sit” command, I tap him on the back of his head as I give the “Go!” command followed by, “Soek… soek… soek…” so that he understands we are hunting now and not just running around.
Stay with your pup as he looks for the bird/trap or give him enough leash to run freely as this also teaches him that he must use the wind to find the birds. If he goes on point, give the leash some slack and give the “Whoa” or “Steady” command. The person operating the trap, whether it’s manual or remote controlled, needs to pay attention here. You as handler need to know your pup and read his body language. The moment you see he wants to launch towards the trap, or tries to pounce on it, the bird must be flushed. Your pup will soon realize that he can’t catch the bird.
At this stage you should become more assertive about obedience to the “Sit!” command on the flush – your dog must no longer chase after the birds. Always remember to give lots of praise when he does something well. You want your pup to be excited and eager around birds, so when giving praise, you must sound excited as well. During this exercise I could see signs of Magnum’s grandpa, Dollar, coming through, pointing with one back leg raised. I enjoyed this exercise immensely. Seeing my dog point for the first time without me hanging onto the leash for all I was worth, was a great experience.
The final exercise involved a pigeon in a trap, but without my helping Magnum with the wind and without the use of a leash. He had to find and point the bird on his own. The key to this exercise is to flush the bird when he gets too close. This will teach him to point the bird and wait for you to approach before he moves in closer to the bird. If he does point, and you are happy with the point, give him the command to flush and immediately release the bird. Here you can ask someone to be present with a shotgun or starter pistol and to fire a shot after the bird flushes. If your pup has not yet been exposed to gunfire, have the shooter stand at least 15 metres away when firing. This is again followed by the “Sit!”command.
This exercise was a bit of a nightmare for us. On the first try Magnum picked up the scent but the wind direction changed. The person with the remote for the trap wasn’t aware that the wind had changed and that Magnum had lost the scent. As Magnum went past the trap the bird flushed and Magnum got a scare from the sound made by the trap when launching the pigeon. Thereafter, he started blinking the trap and wouldn’t point the pigeon/trap at all. So we ended the day by shooting a pigeon for him and for the first time he retrieved a real bird rather than a dummy. I could see the fire in his eyes again and that’s when I called it a day. Better to leave him with this triumph in mind rather than the trap that caught him off guard.
Currently Magnum is doing very well on wild birds and is almost ready for me to start shooting over him. Overall, his discipline is very good and he understands all his commands, obeying them 95% of the time. On wild birds he’ll point and wait for me to get there and when the birds flush he’ll sometimes sit, and sometimes stand and look at me to give him the “Sit!” command. At times he still runs onto the birds, or “bumps” them as the term goes, but the moment they flush he stands still or sits. We are busy working on the “Turn” command at present, and it’s going quite well. I noticed when I shout his name in a certain tone of voice he turns, so currently I’m shouting for the turn and then giving the whistle command of “Beep Beep”. Hopefully I’ll soon be able to use only the whistle command.