Over the last couple of months I have taken advice and guidance from a number of sources and been able to see how different handlers train their dogs. This month I want to discuss not just some tips and tricks that I picked up about being a better handler, but also the harsh reality of owning a gun dog and how it limits you to places that can accommodate dogs. It’s like having a new born baby in the house during the winter months – you are pretty much confined to the comforts of your own home.
In late June I attended the KZN HPR Field Trials held on Fairview Farm just outside Vrede. I decided not to take Magnum but rather to walk with the gallery to familiarize myself with what is required to take part in a field trial. At one stage I had considered entering Magnum in the competition, but when I observed the proceedings, realized it would have been a mistake as I hadn’t known what was expected and, that my lack in confidence would have filtered down to him, setting him up for failure.
During the two days at the trials I learned more than in the previous six months. My recommendation to any novice trainer/handler is to attend a trial and to ask questions of more experienced handlers. All those that I spoke to were more than willing to help, notwithstanding that I asked some fairly basic questions.
I left the trials really motivated and with plenty of new training techniques that I wanted to try out the moment I got home. However, hunting season was now in full swing and times for training had become few and far between. In an attempt to spend more time with Magnum I contemplated taking him on some of the trophy hunts. My first trip was to a farm in Alldays, Limpopo. I phoned the owner and spoke to her about bringing Magnum along, only to find out that her late husband used to be an avid dog lover and GSP fanatic, to such an extent that he was invited to compete in trials in Germany. She warned that it’s always warm in the area so the snakes don’t hibernate and that over the years, they had lost a couple of dogs to snakes. I decided not to put my pup at risk and left him at home, with the result that I lost a week of training.
A second and third hunt followed, both without Magnum, and in the end he got no training for a month. Back at my home my wife was spoiling him rotten and on my return, it took some harsh words to get Magnum back on track. Missing some training is not ideal, but definitely not the end of the world.
Now, what have I learned as a handler? Firstly, to think like your pup before you start with a training session and to always be flexible and make changes if a certain technique does not work.
One of my first decisions was to never train Magnum while wearing sunglasses. This may sound like balderdash, but my reasoning is that sunglasses hide my facial expressions and just like you learn your pups body language, he also learns yours, and so must determine if you are serious or not. When I give Magnum the big-eyed look he now knows it’s his last chance.
My second most valuable lesson was that it’s okay to spank your pup. The trick with this is to make sure your dog will know what you are spanking him for, otherwise he’ll just be scared of you and not come near you. For example, on my “sit” command Magnum would sometimes take a step or two, or wait a couple of seconds before he actually did sit. Just one spank (at the right moment) sorted that out and now he sits instantly on command. Dogs, like humans, have different personalities and characters. What works for one dog doesn’t necessarily work for another and it’s your responsibility as the handler to identify what works and what doesn’t, and to change your approach before it’s too late.
One of my early mistakes was to allow Magnum too much freedom during training in the park or veld before we had the basic commands firmly in place. This meant he’d hunt for himself instead of hunting for the team. The key to successful training is that you must be able to control your dog.
Then, there is inconsistency with commands and mixed messages between dog and handler which can damage the relationship. Most handlers are quick to blame the dog for mistakes, but in many cases it’s the handler’s fault and not that of the dog. This is where the whole family comes into play. For example, if you aren’t able to feed your dog yourself, make sure that the person who does, knows the correct commands and how to execute them. In my case Magnum first needs to sit and then he gets the command to eat with a tap on the back of his head. Consistency affects all aspects of training.
On occasion I stuttered with commands, especially when Magnum did something right and I got over excited. This confused him and I had to learn to give commands only when I’m ready to do so.
Also, never expect your dog to do perfectly what he does during yard training, when moving to the veld or in a different environment. Over time you need to increase the number of distractions during yard training and try to work with your dog in different places. The best sit and recall training Magnum got was after some water work at the KZN Field Trial Club’s puppy training weekend earlier this year. Everyone went back to the HQ after the water session, but Johan Botha of Von Kyroch Kennel and I stayed behind and worked on the sit, recall and fetch commands with the dogs in the veld. This little bit of extra work made a huge difference.
Another important aspect is to never train your dog when you are in a bad mood. Always keep training fun and do it in a relaxed manner, even if you or your pup doesn’t get it right. Also regularly reassess your technique or methods.
The rule of thumb when your dog does something wrong, is to first look at your own actions. Assess whether you can do things differently and, if something fails, don’t allow your lack of confidence to filter through to your dog. They pick this up quickly and it will affect their behaviour.
If I give commands in a way he cannot comprehend, Magnum gives me a vacant expression. You must make sure that your dog understands what you are trying to tell him.
Read the full article in the September 2018 issue of Magnum.