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From Pup to Gundog: The Easy Way by Greg Miller


What if I told you that you can transform your pup into a great gun dog, even if you have little experience? What if I told you that you donít need to follow a complicated schedule or that you donít have to worry about messing up something along the way? What if I told you that, rather than tedious work, you may actually find the whole experience fun and relaxing?

Do I have your attention? Good!

Now... what if I told you that your pup is going to enjoy the process - and that you may even have an advantage over a pro trainer in many aspects?

Perhaps it may seem too good to be true. What kind of snake oil is this guy trying to sell? A video? Training aids? The new Electro E9000 training collar?

For what it's worth, you need no special equipment and I havenít had an e-collar strapped to a dog for about four years. What Iím trying to sell is a philosophy rather than a step-by-step process. When you get rid of the step-by-step process, you get rid of all the pressure for you, and more importantly, you donít instill undo pressure on the pup. The one thing that is required, the one personal sacrifice is... drum roll please... your time. If you can spare about an hour a day for the first year, you can watch your pup transform from a chubby pup into a great dog. Guarantees arenít possible, but I firmly believe that the odds of success are increased by following this method.

"The price paid for a well bred spaniel pup is a small part of the expense throughout its life - and buying the right pup will be a source of pride for years to come."

Think about the wild canids you see on the TV documentaries. Curiosity is the main source of learning for these offspring. They explore, play and sleep... then repeat it all the next day. It teaches them all they need for survival in a much tougher environment than our pup will have to endure. Our pup is instilled with the same curiosity. They too learn by playing. It's simply the way they were created. This method of training uses their natural curiosity as the basis of our pupís learning. Just as the wild canidís offspring possess the instincts it needs to survive, our well bred spaniel pup possesses the instincts it needs to become a top notch gun dog. In the case of both the wild canid and our pup, these instincts will unfold as they are exposed to their environment. Our job is to properly expose the pup to everything we can think of and let him learn by natural curiosity.

First, you need a pup. As you may be able to absorb from the preceding paragraph, inherited instincts are of primary importance, so you will need to find a pup from established field bred bloodlines. While there are several spaniel breeds, few have true field bred strains. The primary choices would be the field bred English springer spaniel and the field bred English cocker spaniel. If AKC events are not of importance to you, you may also consider the Boykin spaniel as this breed isnít recognized by the AKC and for this reason cannot compete in such events as field trials or hunt tests.

Whatever breed you choose, your pup should come from mentally sound parents and from a breeder that provides a stimulating environment for the litter. The standard health checks relevant to the chosen breed should also be completed before considering the litter. All of this is to improve the odds of having the gun dog we want in the end. This is not the time to be cheap. The price paid for a well bred spaniel pup is a small part of the expense throughout its life - and buying the right pup will be a source of pride for years to come.

OK, lets fast forward and bring our pup home. The pup is going to need a couple of days to settle in. Pay attention to how the pup explores its new surroundings. It will greet unknown objects with a tail held low as it stretches to get a sniff. As the pup learns its safe, the tail may show a little wag as he runs back to you, then it's off to the next object. You will be the center of the pupís exploration because you are the leader of its new pack. Until the pup gains confidence, it will be wanting to stay close to you - so it may take some fancy footwork to keep from stepping on your new buddy. Eventually, the pup will feel secure and realize that this place is safe to play and have fun. You will notice that when you enter a room the pup hasnít been in before, it will revert back into the cautious exploration mode. Again, the pup will gain confidence, then relax and have fun. During the next months, this cycle will repeat itself countless times in countless situations. This is how the pup learns.

"When the pup brings the retrieve back, share the possession for a while by securing a hold of the object but not taking it from the pup."

Harnessing the learning process is the key to this method. After the pup is settled in, we can begin exploring other places and things. To start off, we need to introduce the pup to things that wonít overwhelm it. By all means, you should always be within sight of the pup. Perhaps you have a vacant lot close to you that has slightly taller grass. Maybe there is a rabbit or two that has left some interesting new smells. Try to remain silent as pup will need to concentrate while it explores new things and pause until the pup is ready to move on. If you notice that the tail tucks tightly and the pup is really uncomfortable, kneel down and let pup explore around you until its more at ease. Keep the early sessions short (10 to 15 minutes) and when you return home, it is likely the pup will collapse and sleep like he was running all day. The next day, perhaps you know of a hedge where the cover isnít too high. If there is a few song birds hopping around, so much the better. On the following day perhaps some open woods or a short walk by a pond. The key is to expose the pup to everything you can think of always giving the pup time to explore and become comfortable with these new places. He is smelling new smells and connecting them to the plants and animals that belong to them... and learning.

As you continue these outings, a couple of things will happen. First, pup will begin to look forward to the trips and you will become his hero. Second, the pup will gain confidence and will transform from a a pup that was under foot to pup that is covering more ground looking for interesting things and smells. You will need to look for larger areas for pup to run while increasing the amount of cover and difficulty of terrain. You can also increase the duration of these outings until you reach 30 to 45 minutes. Please be careful around roads as pup is likely to chase any game bird it flushes. If the pup seems to stop searching for new things, call it quits for the day. Continue to search out new places and experiences for the pup. If you take him to the a field as you used recently, change your direction (counter clockwise instead of clockwise) to keep things interesting.

Donít limit the pupís adventures to only field activities. Take a leash walk by a busy city street, visit an elementary school recess (with prior approval) or visit a household with a cat or two. Dog parks can be a great way for pup to associate with its own species or maybe you can even enroll in a puppy obedience class. Take pup for a ride in a boat or canoe and take pup along on errands to get him used to traveling in the car as long as it is not too hot. If you find an activity that the pup isnít comfortable with, try to repeat it within a few days. The objective is to expose pup to everything you can think of.

It is necessary to remain the leader in your pack and there are things you can do to retain that position. When you come to the field for his daily run, make sure you choose the direction through the field. Even though pup wonít realize it, he will be taking the que from you. If pup pushes too far out, stop and force it to come back to you then take a slightly different direction when you resume walking. Do praise him for checking in. You can also take a different direction when pup doesnít seem to be keeping track of you and giving a couple of toots on the whistle. All of this is designed to keep him following you, not the other way around.

There are several other things you can do for the pup besides the daily outings. Handle the pup like a vet by examining pupís teeth, ears, eyes and paws - as well as feeling around the rest of the body, including legs. You can even develop a positive association by visiting the vet between appointments so pup can get a treat from the receptionist. You may also consider having pup stay at a boarding kennel to get used to other dogs and being separated from you from time to time.

Most spaniel puppies have strong retrieving instincts. Use the pupís desire to play to your advantage by simple retrieving exercises with lots of encouragement. Use an object that is for retrieving only and put it out of reach between sessions. Keep the sessions very short, perhaps three or four retrieves. Always keep it fun! When the pup brings the retrieve back, share the possession for a while by securing a hold of the object but not taking it from the pup. Always make a fuss over the pup when it returns. Teasing the pup with the object a second or two before tossing it again will build pup's enthusiasm.

I prefer to work on the three main commands separate from the daily outings. The three commands are: "hup" (or sit), "come" (or here), and everyoneís favorite, "no". Especially when young, try to work on these commands when you're quite sure that pup will obey. If pup is away from you and starts running toward you, go ahead and give the command "come" then praise him when he arrives. You canít go wrong and you are conditioning a response to the command. Donít give the commands when you donít have the pupís attention - and especially donít give the command when you are guaranteed not to succeed, such as when pup flushes his first pheasant on a daily outing and is having a blast chasing it to the horizon.

As the end of the first year approaches, you will find that the pup possesses most of the skills it will need to become a great gun dog. What makes a great gun dog will certainly start with being a well adjusted dog that is a pleasure to be around. Your dog will seek game and naturally use the wind to its advantage. Your pup has been exposed to various cover and enjoys heavier cover because that's where he finds interesting animals. The pup will love its job. There is nothing pup would rather do than be in the field with you. You are a team. The pupís talents have evolved. It will quickly adapt to new things and perform well in difficult situations. If additional training is desired, pup will take to it kindly and any pro will find the pup a pleasure to work with. At this point, give yourself a pat on the back. You did it!

And donít forget to pat the pup on the head. You did it as a team!!

Greg Miller

When Loretta asked me to write a paragraph or two as a bio, I had some difficulty. The dogs have taught me much more than I could have ever taught them. Iíve had spaniels in the home for 25 years and enjoy spending time in the field with these great dogs. Eight years ago I brought my first true field bred Springer home and my life hasnít been the same since. The learning curve has been steep and I would have been overwhelmed had it not been for some truly great training partners that shared their vast experience.

That first field bred spaniel, Rev, was co-handled by Jason Givens and myself to become the National Hi-Point puppy in 2000, and he was handled by Jason to win the National Open in 2003. Rum, my second field bred Springer, has been a joy to train and I was able to handle him to his Canadian field trial championship and we were blessed to have placed in the Canadian National in 2004. Iím currently working on Rumís US titles, and have added one or Revís pups to the household to keep me busy.

The credit goes to the dogs and those willing to assist me along the way.

Greg Miller

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Spaniel Journal - your source for flushing spaniel training, hunt test, field trial & hunting information