(This Article was written in the 1960s and has some useful training hints that are still used today please read the full article as there are some wonderful sayings and terms of how the cockers were portrayed in the early days, not much has changed)
The training of cocker spaniels for the gun differs in no wise from that of other spaniels, except insofar as the cocker is inclined to be an individualist and requires greater firmness and tact in handling. When properly trained a cocker of working strain is one of the most useful dogs that a rough shooter can have, being keen, fearless in cover and water, and possessing a good nose for both fur and feather. In regard to retrieving, this varies from dog to dog, but some of the best retrieving gundogs I have seen have been cockers. With experience these little dogs can deal with any game, including cock pheasants and even hares.
The king-pin of gundog training is OBEDIENCE. A dog which is not obedient is not trained, no matter how brilliant a game finder it may be. A wild, unruly gundog of any breed is a curse to the shooter rather than a blessing, putting up game out of range of the gun and generally spoiling sport for everyone present. Wild dogs may develop wonderful noses and find plenty of game, it is true, but they spoil more sport than they provide, and this is particularly true of wild spaniels. The cocker is inclined to be wilful and therefore needs special attention paid to its preliminary ‘hand’ or obedience training. The trainer must be firm but kind, and very patient. The old saw about ‘a woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree, the more you beat them the better they be’ may be true about women and walnut trees — I don’t pretend to know — but as far as cocker spaniels are concerned the less punishment that is given the better. This is not to say that punishment has to be altogether dispensed with, but I wish to dispel the illusion, still retained in some quarters, that ‘the stick’ is the only method whereby cockers can be trained. Punishment handed out indiscriminately and without showing the dog where it is at fault can produce only two types of gundog— the cowed cringing wretch that is the pity of all who behold it, or the hardened sinner who will please himself and accept a beating as a matter of course. No thinking man desires to own either type of spaniel.
What is required of a cocker spaniel in the field? Normally, the cocker is used to quest within gunshot for unshot game, flush it and retrieve the slain only upon command. It must remain steady when rabbits bolt or game gets on the wing, and is generally taught to drop both to flush and shot. There are some owners who not only use their cockers thus but also like them to act as retrievers pure and simple when game is being driven. To use a cocker in this manner, whilst by no means impossible, is asking a lot of a breed whose natural instinct is to be on the move the whole time. I have found that whilst certain individuals will take kindly to the idea of waiting in a butt or at a pheasant stand for driven game, the majority of cockers are far too restless and are inclined to become over excited, whine and even yap when the birds come over and the guns start firing. Such dogs are a nuisance to both handler and to the other guns present, and generally end up by being tethered to their masters’ sides if not removed from the shooting field altogether. My advice to cocker owners is, therefore, not to expect too much from the breed in this respect, but to use the dogs mainly, if not solely, for their natural work as questing dogs when game is walked up, plus, of course, retrieving when required.
Training to come to call, to retrieve a small dummy, and to quest light cover can begin at a very early age — almost from the nest stage, in fact. The puppy should be taught its name and to come in to a particular whistle (I use two quick toots on a high pitched stag horn whistle for this), and this is best accomplished by repeating the name, followed by the whistle signal, and the giving of an edible reward. This creates an association between name and whistle and something pleasant, and to puppies, like children, nothing is more pleasant than something to eat! Let the puppy run about on the lawn and suddenly call his name and give your whistle signal, and immediately he comes in make much of him. In cases of stubbornness run up to and past the puppy, repeating name and whistle, and in a very short time you will have a puppy obedient to call. Retrieving a small dummy (which can be a ball, an old glove rolled up or a small, stuffed rabbit skin) can be commenced as soon as the above lesson has been learned. Most worth-while cockers have a natural retrieving instinct and if you throw your dummy a short way on bare ground even the youngest puppy will usually run after it and pick it up. Immediately this happens call and whistle him in and praise him, but do not snatch the retrieve away at once. Take it very gently and use only slight pressure on the lips if there is a tendency for the pupil to hang on. If a puppy seems to prefer running off with the dummy to his kennel or basket, place yourself in a position where you can intercept him on the inward journey, and adopt the same procedure. Encourage the puppy to come right up to you and stand with the dummy in his mouth in front of you. If you try to remove it too quickly he may get into the habit of circling round you, which must at all costs be avoided. A good, clean delivery is essential in a well-trained gundog.
At first the puppy can be allowed to run-in and pick up the dummy immediately it is thrown, but ultimately he must wait on the drop until you give the command to fetch. This cannot be taught until the puppy has learned to sit to command, which is the next important step in training, and for this reason dummy practice must not be overdone, but carried out sufficiently often to retain keenness and a willing return and delivery. As the puppy grows older, however, you can and should vary the practice by throwing the dummy into cover of gradually increasing degrees of thickness, rough grass, cabbages, light bracken, etc. to encourage the hunting instinct, love of cover and use of nose.
By the time the average puppy is five or six months old it should be sufficiently bold to withstand serious obedience training, the first stage of which is sitting to command. Individuals vary, of course, and as I point out in a book I recently published no hard and fast rules about age can be laid down. Bold puppies can be started earlier than shy ones, and really nervy dogs are best left until they are eight or nine months of age. In any event you should do everything you can to instil confidence and courage by taking the puppy about and letting it meet people and things — becoming generally world-wise, in other words. This will never occur if the puppy is kept rigidly in kennel between lessons, although of course you must not go to the other extreme and allow all and sundry to handle and fool about with the puppy. Common sense should dictate how much licence can be allowed in this respect.
Teaching a puppy to sit to command is most important and must be done very thoroughly. I try to teach my pupils to drop to the word ‘Hup!’, to a single, long blast on the whistle and to the raised hand. Spaniels should also drop to shot, and I am assuming that you have already accustomed yours to the sound of gunfire so that it is neither gun-shy nor gun-nervy. Firing a gun at feeding-time at gradually decreasing distances from the kennel or house is probably the best way of getting a puppy used to gunfire. Once sitting to command has been learned by the pupil, the report of the gun must also be made to signify an immediate drop. A leather slip-lead is useful for early training — one which has a loop at one end for your hand and a ring through which the lead can be passed to form a running noose at the other. The noose is slipped over the puppy’s head and he is gradually taught to walk without lagging behind or pulling ahead by manipulation of the lead. Jerk the lead sharply and give the erring pupil an ‘electric shock’. Usually there is a certain amount of reluctance to behave on the lead at first but puppies can be gradually accustomed to wearing collar and lead from an early age. This will be helpful when serious training starts.
To teach the drop, have your puppy walking on the slip lead at your left side, preferably on the lawn or in a field away from all distractions. Walk the puppy along, stop suddenly, raise your right hand and give the previously decided command to drop. The puppy does not understand what you require, so show him by pressing him firmly down on his haunches with the left hand whilst holding the lead tight with the right. Gradually straighten your back and stand still. If the puppy moves, manipulate the lead to force him back into a sitting position, repeating the command sharply. Keep him thus for a few moments, then pat him and walk on, repeating the procedure over and over again for ten minutes or so. Training lessons should always be short in the early days — ten to fifteen minutes being plenty long enough, otherwise the pupil is apt to become bored and dispirited. It is far better to give two or even three short spells of training per day than one over-long lesson. A bored puppy will never learn properly and will prove a real problem to deal with.
If your puppy takes to his dropping lessons and quickly gets the hang of them you need not give an edible reward each time he drops, but a difficult or reluctant puppy can be encouraged in this way if it really seems necessary. Bribery is best dispensed with altogether if possible and if used should never be carried on for too long. A puppy appreciates a pat and a word of praise, however, and I make a point of showing my approval in this way every time the pupil does well. The next step in training is to get the puppy to remain on the drop until given the command to move. This can be commenced as soon as he has thoroughly learned to drop quickly to command and to the whistle, if used — if not; it can be introduced at once by being blown immediately after the vocal command. In a very short while a puppy will respond to the whistle without any spoken command at all, and the voice is ‘kept in reserve’, as it were. The lead is dispensed with as progress advances.
By backing away slowly from the seated puppy you will soon discover whether he is of the restless type or not. Most pups very naturally try to follow their handler the moment he moves away, and now your patience is going to be truly tested. If, when you back away, the puppy moves, repeat the command to drop and reseat him in his original position by taking him by the slack skin under the throat. This must be done every time he moves, without exception. Some people ‘peg down’ their pupils with a short chain and peg, thus forcibly restraining the puppy from moving when they back away. This is quite in order in the case of a very stubborn, wilful puppy, but I prefer to do without mechanical aids as far as possible, except the lead in early lessons. However, more of this anon. As soon as the puppy seems to have the right idea, try walking away instead of backing. This will lead to more trouble between you and your pupil, in all probability, but with patience and perseverance on your part you should be able to walk away and leave him on the drop quite happily after a few lessons. If you reseat the puppy every time he makes a move from the very beginning you will quickly establish your mastery over him. Omit to do so once or twice and he will be encouraged to repeat the offence. Never allow a pupil to get the better of you if it can possibly be avoided, or he will tend to lose respect for you and the bond between handler and dog, so necessary for complete success, will be weakened. Cocker spaniels are restless animals by nature and most trainer’s experience rather more difficulty in obtaining discipline from this breed than from some of the other gundogs.
Once your puppy will drop to command promptly and remain on the drop whilst you walk away, and even hide out of sight, you can teach him to drop at a distance. In some cases it will be found that the pupil sits to command and/or whistle even when at a distance from his handler, simply because you have so thoroughly taught association of ideas between command and the action of dropping. Where special lessons are required, the following method of teaching to drop at a distance will be found very efficient and quick. Simply seat your pupil, walk away about fifteen or twenty yards and whistle him up. Immediately he get within a few feet of you give the command (vocal or whistle) to drop. Success being achieved walks on again, repeat the process but each time give the order to sit a little sooner, so that ultimately the puppy will go down instantly at any point between his original position and yourself. Thereafter let him run about in front of you and practise him at dropping wherever he may be in relation to yourself. In some cases it may be found necessary to use a check cord to instil obedience at a distance. This is a cord about ten to fifteen yards long with a ring at one end to make a noose for the pup’s head. A few knots are tied in the cord (sash cord does very well) and the dog is made to wear it. When the command to drop is given you stand sharply on the cord, thus bringing the pup up with a jerk. This same cord can be used to restrain a puppy from running home (as some will) when the first obedience lessons are given.
From this point on your puppy should never be allowed to run-in again to the thrown dummy. At first let him wear a short lead or cord and drop him beside you, holding the lead under your foot. Throw the dummy out and restrain the puppy for half a minute or more before allowing him out to retrieve, commanding him to sit should he stand up and struggle to go after the dummy, as he almost certainly will. Continue the exercise until you can safely dispense with the lead, but always be on the alert and position yourself so that you can intercept the puppy should he attempt to run-in to the thrown dummy. Keep him on the drop for an appreciable time before sending him out to retrieve, and always despatch him with the same command: ‘Fetch it!’, ‘Hi, lost!’, ‘Seek!’, or what you will. Readers may consider that I have used up a lot of space in dealing with preliminary obedience. I can assure them from personal experience that this is no waste, for half the battle in dog training is won if the initial work is thoroughly carried out. Field work on game will come naturally to a good cocker, but it will be useless unless you have got the dog under control and working for you instead of for himself.
Your puppy must now be taught to drop to shot. Using a blank-cartridge pistol or a shotgun, you simply give a sharp command to drop and immediately throw up the gun and fire. In a very short while the shot acts as another signal to drop, although later on when the ‘real thing’ is being hunted you will probably find your pupil stands rather than drops to shot. Provided no movement is made this is all right, but insisting upon a complete drop is better. Naturally, no puppy should receive these gunfire lessons until he is completely confident and unafraid of the report. Further steadiness practice can be given by throwing the dummy into cover of gradually increasing degrees of thickness and firing the gun whilst the dummy is in the air, thus simulating real shooting conditions. The pupil is despatched to retrieve after a wait on the drop, and as progress is made so the retrieves can be made more difficult by being made longer and longer and the cover more formidable. Always whistle up the pupil at the moment his head goes down to pick up. Artificial drag lines can be laid with the dummy at this juncture, thus giving the pupil a ‘line’ to follow as he will later have in the field when sent for wounded birds. The line should be laid upwind at first, out of sight of the pupil and without yourself fouling the scent. This can be ac accomplished by using a long pole, or fishing rod and line, with the dummy attached and held as far from you as possible, or by getting an assistant to hold the other end of a long rope, to the centre of which the dummy has been tied. Later on, when experience has been gained, dead birds and rabbits can be used in just the same way.
Advanced retrieving practice can be given with the dummy as soon as the puppy is really obedient. This includes dropping the pupil and walking out yourself to throw the dummy, and the ever-useful ‘going back’ lesson. Drop the dummy in full sight of the puppy, walk him on and send him back over ever—increasing distances for it. As this is learned, do not let him see the dummy fall — send him out on a ‘blind retrieve’ for it. Whistle immediately he picks up. In the shooting field he will often be called upon to look for game which he did not see fall. This lesson will also encourage use of nose and a speedy return. If you wish to put a real ‘finish’ upon your pupil, utilize this lesson for dropping him on the way out to his retrieve, using a check cord if necessary. This lesson, tactfully conducted, will get him under even better control and may well come in useful if ever you run in trials and you see the dog making for the wrong bird. A dog which can be stopped and redirected on a retrieve is well on the way to becoming trained. Use clear-cut hand signals to help your pupil wherever possible, especially for indicating the direction of a retrieve. Encourage a love of cover and let the dog quest it freely, trying at first to find game-free cover until steadiness work has been given.
Any retrieving gundog worthy of the name must face water and retrieve there from. Most cockers of working strain take to water very quickly and love working in it. Introduction to it should be made on a warm day and force should not be used. Choose a pond or stream with gently shelving banks and throw a ball or dummy a little way in. If this does not work throw in something eatable, or make use of a trained and keen water dog as an example. Wade in and paddle about yourself if you feel inclined — anything to encourage the puppy and promote confidence in water. Once he will swim a little way encourage him farther and farther out until you can see that he really has the idea. Then teach him to go across water and climb the opposite bank to seek the dummy. Tact and perseverance on your part are almost sure to be successful — completely water-shy cockers are a rarity — but you must be gentle and patient.
Jumping fences and gates is taught quite easily once a puppy is well grown and confident. Just take him for walks and climb easy fences yourself and walk on. If there are no suitable, easy places nearby it is worth while constructing a jump and bribing the puppy over it either with the dummy or with food, or allow an experienced dog to set an example. Do not let the first places be too difficult, of course, and avoid barbed wire and fences which are not fairly solid to start with. Confidence must be created — once you have your puppy jumping for the love of it you will have no more trouble. All that remains to be done is to practice retrieving over jumps of different kinds.
Up to this point all training has been conducted artificially, using a dummy for retrieving practice. The dummy has been gradually increased in size and weight so that by the time your pupil is ready to retrieve real game it is of a fair size and weight. The change-over will not therefore strain the neck muscles of a small cocker and cause a poor delivery.
The first rabbits and birds used for retrieving must be fresh shot but cold, and quite free from blood and damage. In the first instance drop the bird in full view of the dog, as you have been doing with the dummy, walk him on and send him back for it. Whistle him up the moment his head goes down to retrieve, and if he hesitates run away as Whistle him up the moment his head goes down to retrieve, and if he hesitates run away as you did in the early lessons.
If the puppy refuses to pick up, or starts to play with the bird, take it and throw it like a dummy, running away and calling him up the moment his head goes down to it. Few cockers refuse to retrieve game after a while. Those which do require special treatment which cannot be discussed here owing to lack of space. Common sense should dictate the steps to be taken when difficulties are encountered. Once a puppy is accustomed to picking up cold birds, and does not attempt to play with or bit them, he can be tried with warm game or rabbits in the same way. Always remember to hurry the puppy up by whistling and calling the moment he picks up, so that there is not time for him to think about playing with the game. Scent trail lessons, as previously given with the dummy, can now be carried out with advantage, using dead birds or rabbits. Never use the same specimen for more than one, or at the outside two, retrieves. To use the same bird or rabbit again and again leads to bad delivery, if not refusal to retrieve, and hard mouth.
Our cocker spaniel, having been taught obedience and control and to retrieve from cover and water, must now have more advanced tuition in questing for game and remaining Steady to it. Spaniels are natural questers and quickly learn to quarter their ground in a systematic manner with very little aid from their handler. Use a separate command for questing— I always snap my fingers and say, ‘Hi, seek!’ for this, starting the pupil off to one side of me. It is necessary that a spaniel quest within gunshot range, so when the limit of about 20 or 25 yards is reached I attract his attention by name or whistle and wave my hand over to encourage him to quest on the other side. All this time I am walking steadily forward and keeping the dog on the move. The puppy which does not ‘Cotton On’ to the idea is made to drop by whistle when he reaches the limit of his range to one side, and then waved over. If all else fails, small pieces of biscuit can be thrown out to right and left to encourage the puppy to ‘weave’ about, but previous lessons have usually instructed him to watch your hand movements closely and work to them. If the puppy ranges too far whistle him back with your usual ‘come back’ whistle, and back away yourself. The ideal place for these early questing lessons to be taught in is a smallish meadow of rough grass, light clover or spring wheat —somewhere where the puppy can easily be seen but with enough cover to interest him and make him work. Naturally, though it is an advantage that there should be some scent of game or rabbits in such a place it is to be hoped that actual game will not be present as the pupil has yet to learn to be steady. An accidental flush might ruin chances of future steadiness, so after one or two lessons as suggested above the next step is to introduce him to game, or rather rabbits, and teach strict steadiness.
Most professional trainers use a rabbit pen for this purpose — a specially constructed enclosure of a quarter of an acre or more, containing live rabbits and natural cover, If you can construct such a pen — even a small one containing only one or two rabbits— or have access to one belonging to someone else, a great deal of work and worry will be avoided. Failing this, turning a tame rabbit out on the lawn or in the cabbage patch for a few moments will prove a great help. You will have to adapt your training to whatever system you can evolve with the time and space at your disposal.
When using a rabbit pen, introduce the puppy into it on a lead or check cord. Walk him round until you find a rabbit, and immediately the latter bolts give the command to drop and jerk the puppy down. Carry this on for ten or fifteen minutes, making the pupil drop each time a rabbit bolts, using the voice, whistle and lead to ensure prompt obedience. After a few lessons the puppy will show signs of knowing what is required, and is then worked with the cord trailing, so that if he does break away after bunny you can stop him and make him sit. Punishment should not be given unless absolutely essential, and should be given in such a manner that the dog knows what it is for.
Always punish in the act of committing the crime if possible, or at any rate take the puppy back to the exact spot where he did wrong and whip him there. Never, never beat a dog when he returns to you — always take him back to the scene of his crime. Punishing by holding and shaking is usually more effective than a whipping, and afterwards give him a minute of two on the drop to meditate upon his crime.
As soon as the puppy becomes reliable when close to you, let him quest naturally if the pen is large enough, dropping him by voice or whistle should he show signs of chasing. Keep the check cord in reserve for cases of flagrant disobedience. In many instances the pupil does not drop after a time, but simply stands and watches the rabbit away. Insist on a drop, at any rate to begin with. Take the gun or pistol into the pen at this stage and fire it as the rabbit bolts, thus creating a ‘natural’ situation which will always be occurring in the future. Some cockers will show a tendency to ‘point’ their rabbits — this is to be encouraged; stand stock still when it occurs. Keep the puppy pointing for as long as possible, then walk in and push the rabbit up yourself, making the pupil drop as you do so. If you always allow the dog to push the rabbit out himself he will soon cease to point and flush at once. When a spaniel is questing in the pen and puts up a rabbit make him hunt in a different direction after the rabbit bolts. Never allow him to follow the rabbit. If the pen is large enough, walk down the middle of it, making the puppy range from side to side in front of you and within range. Retrievers and many spaniels are made to retrieve the dummy in the pen from nearby grazing rabbits (some of which are usually tame or semi-tame for this purpose), and this is a further aid to steadiness: However, in a small pen or on the lawn with only one rabbit, such refinements are not possible, and so you will have to proceed as above on any available field or cover where rabbits can be found in sufficient quantities.
It naturally takes longer to steady a puppy on natural ground, but it can be and often is done. Provided the pupil has never been allowed to self-hunt and chase game and rabbits, steadiness is not really difficult to inculcate in any gundog, for by this system of training the puppy is taught right before it learns to do wrong, and obedience is acquired gradually and naturally. Once the puppy shows that he has the right idea on rabbits he can be taken into fields and woods where all types of game will be encountered, made to quest and have shots fired over him. Do not shoot to kill until you are completely sure of his reactions and feel confident of his steadiness.
The first shooting expedition is best undertaken alone or with one friend to shoot whilst you do the handling. Make the puppy quarter the ground and drop to shot and rise of game. Never send him to retrieve if he has shown the slightest unsteadiness and, whilst the early retrieves in the shooting field must be reasonably easy, avoid sending him for birds which lie in the open and can be found by sight alone — this will only encourage unsteadiness. Never send him for birds which show any signs of life until he is proficient at retrieving stone-dead ones, and always watch closely and whistle him up the moment his head goes down to pick up. Keep the dog on the drop for fully half a minute, or even longer, after every shot and fall, and despatch to retrieve by command and signal as previously.
As experience is gained on dead birds and rabbits the pupil can be trusted to try for wounded birds or ‘runners’. Avoid putting the dog on to them whilst they are still in sight, and do not be disappointed by early failures or signs of hard mouth. The retrieving of runners is a knack gained only by experience and many young dogs will maul their first few birds and rabbits. Do all you can to get your dog back to you quickly by whistling him up the moment he puts his head down to retrieve, running away from him if necessary. This is why you should always at first try to follow your puppy when out after a retrieve (live or dead) which is in cover but do not, of course, go right up to him. Try to see what is taking place and whistle him up, returning to your original position at the run if necessary. Do not allow your dog to retrieve every bird or rabbit shot— select those which require use of nose and hunting in cover, picking up the easy ones yourself whilst the dog remains on the drop.
Your dog is now well on the way to being trained, and all that is required is further experience. Readers may think that I have made it all seem beautifully easy and have glossed over the snags that are likely to be encountered. If you have the right dog and teach him the right way training is easy, but of course many little things arise to trip up the unwary. I cannot go into details nearly as fully as I should wish in a short chapter on training — it is easier to write a book than a chapter on this vast subject!
One of the most useful and effective media whereby the gundog pupil can be given advanced experience under ideal conditions, especially early in its first season, is often ignored by owner-trainers. I refer .to “picking-up” at big shoots, where the handler does not carry a gun but con fines himself to dog handling, and is thus enabled to concentrate upon his pupil whilst someone else worries about the shooting. Serious trainers, both amateur and professional, find that picking-up on organised shoots provides ideal work and experience for their dogs—4be they spaniels or retrievers.
Although it is not always easy to find suitable shoots whereon pickers up are welcome, I have found that tactful approach to estate proprietors, syndicate shoots and, particularly, gamekeepers will usually achieve the desired end and, providing that you have a reasonably controllable and efficient dog, your assistance on shooting days will be welcome. The picker-up is enabled to give his dog retrieving experience on different types of game and can usually arrange for all sorts of situations to meet the requirements of his training programme. On the average big shoot he can give his dog’s birds lying in easy places and also quite difficult runners or dead birds hidden by thick cover. He will also be able to put his dog wider severe temptation whilst ‘in a position to control it—horn birds falling close by on open ground at a drive to hares and rabbits getting up under the dog’s nose whilst walking up.
This sort of work is valuable to any retrieving gundog, be it spaniel, retriever or pointer-retriever. The man who is training a dog for general rough shooting, which calls for much questing in search of unshot game can, and should, cash in on the present demand for, and shortage of, beaters for driven shoots. Contact a gamekeeper or shoot proprietor and offer your services as a beater-cum-picker up. In this way you will have ideal opportunities to work your dog as a quester in all types of cover, in company (a most important point), put it under varying temptations and still give it some retrieving practice at the conclusion of the drives.
To obtain picking up or beating on a good shoot—and these days there are good shoots in almost all country areas—I suggest that the best initial approach is via the head keeper (unless you know personally the estate proprietor or syndicate leader). In the first place you must convince him of your enthusiasm for the job; of your honesty and, above all, that your dog is not liable to do more harm than good on a shooting day! Tact and proof that you have a good appreciation of the underlying principles of shooting and sportsmanship will go a long way towards securing the goodwill of the man who matters.
On a shooting day put yourself unreservedly in the hands of the head keeper or shoot leader. Do as you are told, go and stop where you are directed, do everything to further the interests of the shoot and avoid, at all costs, upsetting the individual guns (or beaters for that matter) by tactless remarks or criticisms. Control your dog in such a way that not only ‘is training advanced but the shooting is not spoiled. Do not hesitate to use a lead (or even the check cord) if it appears to be necessary in order to keep your dog under control, both during and between drives. In this way, and providing that your dog performs reason ably well, you will quickly find that not only are you welcome at such shoots, but that you (or perhaps I should say your dog) are in demand!
As a conclusion I will offer some words of advice which should help the novice handler. Choose your puppy from working parents, preferably those with field trial blood in their veins. Commence training to answer name and retrieve a small dummy as early as possible, deferring strict discipline until you know he can ‘take it’. Try to ‘think like a dog’ and, when things go wrong, try to see the situation from the dog’s point of view, and apply the remedy at once. Punishment should be given only when really necessary and should be made to fit the crime. It must always be administered at the actual spot where the dog did wrong, or whilst the crime is being committed. Remember that the lessons, though the earlier ones can be intermingled to add variety, must be given in their proper order and that no new lesson should be started until the latest one has been thoroughly mastered by the pupil. Do not make the mistake of hurrying him on to ‘more interesting work’. Plug away at the hand-training and obedience until you really have an obedient, steady dog. Give short but frequent spells of training, encourage use of nose and confidence in thick cover and water from the start. Make the change-over from dummy work to the real thing as gradual as possible, and when shooting starts think about your dog rather than your shooting— otherwise you will have wasted a lot of time. When guns go off and game falls, think first of the dog and be ready to prevent him running in or chasing— say ‘Hup!’ or ‘Sit!’ or blow your whistle as a matter of course — always expect the worst, in other words! Then you will not go wrong. Choose your words of command and signals and whistles and stick to them, always using the same one for the same action. Use your hands sensibly to give signals which are clear-cut and definite. Train your puppy away from distractions and other dogs and people. If he seems to be getting bored or restless stop the lesson and put him away for a few hours — a bored puppy does not learn. Be patient but firm at all times, and try to wind up each lesson on a note of success — do not let the pupil ‘best’ you. He must go back to his kennel feeling you are boss, not that he has won a victory of wills over you.
If you aspire to run your cocker in field trials your training should be just the same but, if it is possible, more thorough and prolonged. There are plenty of stakes run for cocker spaniels only. For trials your dog must be mute, of course — a dog which gives tongue whilst questing is ‘out’ as far as present-day trials are concerned. You will find that field trials are a very enjoyable and sociable type of sport and both you and your dog would benefit from watching and competing. The field trial people are a friendly lot and anxious to help newcomers to the game. Quite apart from this, it will be doing cocker spaniels as a breed a great service to train them and enter them at trials, for they are, after all, gundogs and deserve to be used as such. Spaniels are the shooter’s ‘maid-of-all work’ and cannot be beaten for rough shooting, especially in dense woods and other places where birds and rabbits have to be flushed from thick cover. If you train a dog properly it is a joy to shoot over, and I offer the hope that my few words on the subject will go some way towards restoring the merry little cocker to its rightful place as ‘the sporting spaniel’.
By the late great Hedley Millington
Follow these golden rules of training a young dog and you wont go far wrong.