When did you last go out and just play with your gundog?
The shooting field can be an extremely dangerous place if dogs are out of control. Gun safety is always priority number one, and having a gundog that is unsteady, doesn’t recall reliably, can’t stop on the whistle, and pulls on the lead inevitably puts that in jeopardy.
While we should never downplay the severity of gun safety, I sadly see too many gundog handlers who take this seriousness a little too much to heart and transfer it to their training.
Overly focused on achieving certain behaviours and a stringent level of control, the day-to-day gundog training becomes ghastly dull and dry. All the fun gets sucked out of it for both the human and the dog!
This leads to stressed and demoralised handlers trying to work with flat dogs who appear to lack motivation and drive, or ‘asbo’ dogs who would rather be three fields over, hunting by themselves, than with their owner.
If you’ve lost your mojo for training and can’t remember the last time you truly enjoyed doing gundog stuff with your retriever, spaniel or HPR, then you might be guilty of taking it all a bit too seriously.
If this sounds like you, I want you to go out and have some real fun and play with your gundog.
To help you get started, in this month’s blog, we will look at some of the games you can play with your gundog that will take the pressure off training, help you inject some fun, and also build on those foundation skills and desired gundog behaviours.
Can you ruin a gundog by playing with them?
You might have read or been told that you can’t do certain things with your gundog if you want to take them beating, picking up, or to sit on a peg.
In my experience, you cannot ruin a gundog by playing with them.
When done right, playing games with your gundog, including the dreaded tug of war, will not scupper their chances of being a successful working gundog.
You see, all games have rules. If you take the time to introduce them properly and teach your gundog what you want from them, there should be zero chance of them developing any bad habits which will be translated to the shooting arena.
Body language is the key to playing with your gundog correctly, so your dog knows when it is time to play and when it is time to work.
Your dog will not know the difference between a gundog game and a formal training exercise. But they excel at discriminating between cues and will recognise when you change your body language and go into ‘play mode’, not ‘work mode’.
In the games suggested below, you will notice that body language dictates the way the games are played. And as your body language, while playing should look wildly different from how you behave as a gundog handler, the distinction is clear enough for the dogs.
This should also be fun for you too! It should be an opportunity to take the pressure off ‘achieving’ something specific and give you the tools to be a bit silly and bond with your dog.
I don’t have much time, is it worthwhile to spend it playing with my gundog?
You might see play as a waste of time.
After all, there is so much you think you need to teach your gundog. If you’re also juggling a full-time job, family commitments, and other hobbies, you might wonder if your half-hour session would be best spent focusing on formal training rather than mucking around.
But there is a lot of power in play. Just because it is often overlooked in traditional gundog training books and classes doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly valuable.
Drawing from my 30-plus years as a professional dog trainer, nothing will help you excel in your training more than improving your bond with your dog.
And what is the best way to develop a strong, loving, and lasting bond with them?
You got it - play.
By having fun with your dog, they will come to see you as the most exciting thing in the world.
And if they genuinely enjoy being with you, everything else becomes much more manageable. You will be the centre of their attention, and they will be more inclined to focus on you, even in distracting environments.
This will not only make them more responsive to you, but as you learn which games your dog loves playing too, you can also start to use these as reinforcements - further strengthening and improving your formal gundog training behaviours.
What games can I play with my gundog?
To help you inject more fun into your ‘training’ sessions, I’ve rounded up two of my favourite gundog games that I love playing with my dogs.
Try them with your gundog and see which one they love the most. There should be no pressure to get the games “right” - this is all about bonding and play. Remember: if it goes wrong, the world will not end.
The tag game
Raffle, my working cocker, has a little possession obsession, and so one of the games he loves to play the most is tag.
I start by playing some tug with one of his toys (no, tugging won’t create a hard mouth) to get him excited and ready to play.
I then release the toy and say, “I’m going to get you”, while putting my arms out like you would if you were going to tickle someone. I don’t need to move very far, and I’m not chasing him, but Raffle loves to whiz around, trying to avoid my attempts to catch him.
When I want him to come into me, I crouch down, and with this body language change, he will come into my space. I don’t try to take the toy off him at this point. Instead, I’ll rub his chest and give him lots of fuss before standing up and initiating the game again.
To finish the game, I'll crouch down, and while fussing him, I will ask him to release the toy and scatter some treats on the floor for him to hunt out.
The stalking game
This is one of Otter’s favourite games, although I did play it recently with Raffle at a presentation I gave to the Dogs Trust.
The stalking game is a beautiful game of self-control and partnership. There can be an air of competition between you and your gundog together with the anticipation of which article will be retrieved. Excellent self-control is also needed to turn away from the other anticipated item.
It's a hugely fun game for both dog and handler. You may need to start this game on a lead or a handle fob until your dog understands the game.
Throw one article about 20 yards away. Then, begin walking with your dog as if you are stalking. The key here is to act as if you are really stalking towards the article, so think slowly and steadily. You can even lower yourself to their level and move your shoulders like they will be moving their front legs. Let your dog focus on the article ahead. When their eyes lock onto the object, you can release them with a “get it cue”.
Progress to two articles in opposite directions, 180 degrees apart. Start stalking towards one, then randomly turn and begin creeping towards the other.
Do not rush your dog. They might find it difficult to turn away from the original target at this stage. A steady fob will help with this. Once they do and they commit their focus to the second target, you can release them to retrieve it.
Once you have built some fluency in step two, you can add more articles to this game and have some real fun stalking towards articles before turning to stalk another, and maybe another, before releasing your dog.
Learn more games with Teach Your Gundog
If you want to inject more fun into your gundog training, why not book a 121 training session?
We can discuss your gundog training goals, where you’re at right now and how to get to where you want to be.
I can then show you some practical exercises as well as some fun games you can play with your gundog to strengthen your relationship with them and improve your training.
Our 121 sessions are held in Haslemere on the Surrey, West Sussex, Hampshire border and in Loxwood, West Sussex, which is more suited to experienced dogs.
📸 Photography credit Alice Loder Photography