How to teach your gundog steadiness

How to teach your gundog steadiness

“Steadiness is between the ears - it’s an attitude, an emotional response - it is not a behaviour.”  - Jules Morgan, founder of Teach Your Gundog and co-founder of the Gundog Trainers Academy

Within the sport of working gundog training, you will often hear people discussing ’steadiness’ as a desirable trait.

Ask a cross-section of gundog handlers what steadiness is, and you will likely get any, all and more answers like these:

  • Doesn’t run in
  • Doesn’t make noise
  • Doesn’t swap dummies/birds
  • Walks steadily to heel (doesn’t fidget, surge forward, sniff ground)
  • Doesn’t hunt on
  • Doesn’t chase birds/rabbits/deer
  • Doesn’t run around with the dummy (lap of honour)
  • Doesn’t run off or mess about between exercises
  • Doesn’t interfere with other dogs
  • Stops on the whistle/stops to flush

Quite a lot of these descriptions begin with the word ‘doesn’t’ and focus on things our dogs shouldn’t be doing, don’t they?! 

This gives very little information about what we want them to be doing instead and how we can teach our gundogs to adhere to the desirable trait that is steadiness.

Before we rush off to look at how to go about the process of training and developing a ‘steady gundog’, it is important to identify what steadiness is and what it is not.

We’ll do exactly that in this blog before leaving you with details of how to teach your gundog one of the foundation exercises we cover in our classes, which will become the backbone of all of your steadiness training.

yellow labrador retriever being steady in gundog training

What is steadiness in gundog training?

If you take time to consider this, you will see that steadiness is not a ‘behaviour’, ‘task’, or even a ‘skill’. It is a state of mind, an attitude, an emotional response.

Let us take a step back and look at this from a dog learning perspective.

If you have an understanding of learning theory, you will know that the first stage of learning is ‘acquisition’ where new behaviours are taught (via shaping, luring, capturing, etc). These are then practised to their best quality and fluency and then put ‘on cue’.

The next step in learning is to ‘isolate the cue’. Many call this stage generalisation or proofing, and it is where the newly learned behaviour is taken ‘on the road’ to be taught and practised in a large variety of different environments, orientations, with distractions, etc.

Working through this process takes a lot of time to ensure that the ‘behaviour’ is fluent and of top quality in the majority of scenarios.

The correct behavioural term for the end result of this process is that the cue then comes under ‘stimulus control’ meaning the behaviour only happens when it is cued. It is also robust and resilient to distraction.

This is the crux of what “steadiness” is.

My preferred phrase for describing steadiness, although long, encapsulates this concept:

“Steadiness is: when the dog remains focused on and completes the task regardless of any change, distraction or anomaly in the environment”.

labrador retriever learning steadiness in gundog training

The number one mistake gundog handlers make when training steadiness.

There is another perspective to consider here that is far more important than just the steadiness training and practice drills.

For me, the dog's personality and emotional state should be the priority in all aspects of training. This is even more relevant when we are looking at steadiness. And yet this aspect is so often overlooked.

To me, the biggest mistake gundog handlers make when training steadiness is trying to fix the behaviour without paying any attention to the emotion behind it.

Let’s say your dog runs in on dummies, with shot, in a walk up scenario, with other dogs present. You may have taught the cue, gone through the ‘isolate the cue’ process, but your dog is still ‘unsteady’ in this circumstance.

Another example might be a dog that makes noise while watching another dog retrieve, seeing birds falling from the sky, or hearing dummies splash into water.

At this point in the training, some handlers might try to physically manage the situation and stop the dog from running in or from making noises. Some of these strategies work temporarily, but in my experience, the unsteadiness and noise always return.

Noise in particular is a symptom of how the dog is feeling. Whether that is frustrated, conflicted, excited, anxious, etc. These are all emotions and dogs, unlike humans, are not very good at hiding their emotions in public.

When it comes to running in too, you need to consider the temperament and personality of the dog.

Dogs that are highly competitive with other dogs present might be perfectly able to manage themselves when training alone, but run in when they are in company. Other dogs might also be intimidated by the group and will start running around with the dummy rather than bringing it straight back to the line.

In both of these scenarios, you need to try and change the dog’s core emotions. There is little point in telling them to just stop doing what they’re doing or physically managing them over and over and over again.

spaniel and labrador stood next to handler being steady in gundog training class

What about arousal and steadiness? 

Arousal is an emotion we often talk about.

We actually need to teach our gundogs to work in a state of arousal because that arousal is what keeps them motivated and energised.

Too much arousal, however, pushes them over the edge and into a state of mind where they are no longer able to think cognitively. We call this being ‘over-threshold’.

Arousal does not just impact steadiness. You might have noticed that your over excited dog is suddenly unable to sit, recall or perform other behaviours which they would normally do so reliably when not ‘over-threshold’.

When it comes to steadiness training, you need to factor this emotion into your training separately.

With your underpinning knowledge, empathy and understanding of your own dog, you need to work through your own personalised program of ‘isolate the cue’ training to cover:

  • Environment, Distractions, Distances, Orientations, Cue Discrimination
  • Temperament and Personality of your dog
  • Arousal levels, working through cues in low arousal increasing levels until you finally get that behaviour under ‘stimulus control’ and that equals steadiness.
Spaniel on lead to manage steadiness

Why management alone will not teach your gundog steadiness.

You might have been told that we need to manage our dogs and prevent them from rewarding themselves for unwanted behaviours.

This is still true and is important for training. Indeed it would be a very chaotic and unproductive group class if there were dogs running in on each other’s retrieves. And I think everyone would go home with a headache if dogs spent the hour whining and barking at the top of their lungs.

If you have a dog that runs in when it is in a group class scenario, you will want to keep it on the lead while other dogs are retrieving. If you have a dog that makes noise because struggles to watch others retrieve or wait, you might want to walk away from the group when it’s not their turn.

These strategies will manage the situation, yes, but they will not deal with the emotion and will not help your dog to change their behaviour in the long term.

If I have lost you a bit, here is a human example.

I might be feeling very anxious about an upcoming assignment, a meeting, or a hospital appointment, and have started frantically biting my nails as a consequence.

You could tell me to stop and physically prevent me from doing it, by making me sit on my hands or putting gloves on me.

This would stop the nail biting, temporarily. But it would not stop me from feeling anxious. And it is highly likely that I would go back to biting my nails as soon as I was physically able to.

Instead, I need to learn how to manage myself (my emotions) in relation to the assignment, or meeting, or hospital appointment to break my anxiety-induced ‘need’ to bite my nails.

Focus on the emotion behind the dog’s ‘behaviour’ rather than the behaviour itself. There is no “one size fits all” answer to this but in the right hands, with the right trainer helping you, you can develop a strategy to help your dog get to the stage where they can manage themselves using what we know about learning and behaviour and how reinforcement works.

steady black labrador in gundog training

How to steady a gundog?

The “Get It, Don’t Get It” game is the foundation exercise we use in our classes to teach your gundog about self-control. It will become the backbone of all your steadiness training. There are a lot of layers to this process and many more steps to go through, but you need to teach this first.

The main rules of this game are, no more than 10 repetitions in one session before having a break, and no more than two or three sessions in a day day. Also keep it random as it is important that your dog does not try to predict what is going to be cued.

Step one

With your dog sitting or standing close to you, place a piece of food in a bowl on the ground.  If your dog tries to steal the food, lift the bowl a little so they can’t get the piece of food. Wait until they offers the tiniest bit of self-restraint, but are still looking at the bowl, then click and say “Get It” allowing them to take the food from the bowl. Repeat until the bowl can be left on the ground. Your dog should start to go still and focus on the bowl when you put food in it.

Step two

Now you can move your position so that you and your dog are in different orientations to each other and the “Get It” bowl. This will prevent you from using your body to guard or block your dog’s access to the bowl.  Remember this is about your dog exercising their own self-control. 

Step three

Extend the length of time that your dog is looking at the bowl before you click and say “Get It”. You’ll want to aim for up to five seconds at this stage.  Your dog should be going to the bowl with enthusiasm and showing signs that they are enjoying this game. If they make a mistake, make sure you laugh it off - after all this is only a game and is supposed to be fun. I usually laugh and say “cheat!” as I reset the exercise.

Step four

Now that you have established the basic rules of the game, we will introduce a turn away from the food bowl.  Place a piece of food in the bowl and take another piece of food in your hand. While your dog is looking at bowl, say “Turn”, put the food under their nose to lure them away 180° and then throw that piece of food for them to chase. After a few repetitions, instead of having food in your hand, just put the food in the bowl, say “Turn” and then throw a piece of food - this is called fading the lure.

Step five

After your dog understands the turn away from the bowl, you can then reward them by releasing them with the “Get It” cue to the bowl OR you can wait for him to check back with you and then release him OR pay to the mouth and reset for the next repetition. Keep these different reinforcers varied so that you don’t end up with a chain or a pattern - remember the key word in this whole exercise is ‘RANDOM’.

Step six

Vary your cues between “Get It” and “Turn” making sure that 75% of your repetitions are “Get It”.  It is important to keep the enthusiasm for the “Get It” bowl really high.

Step seven

The next step is to have the food in the bowl, your dog looking at it, and you say a random word that has no meaning (e.g. ‘purple’). If your dog remains steady, then click and say “Get It”. If they make a mistake and go for the food on the random word, then laugh it off and try again! If they error a second time, you need to go back over your previous steps. This is where your dog is learning to discriminate what you are saying without any visual help and you are using random words (we call it ‘white noise’) that have no meaning to them.

I can honestly say that through this style of training, and focusing on the emotions behind the behaviour, my Labrador Otter (who was spectacularly “unsteady”!) is now at the stage where he “owns” his own self control. 

We have a rapport, we have very strong cues (verbal, environmental, body language) and he is becoming a reliably steady dog and an absolute pleasure to work.

If you would like to learn how to teach your gundog steadiness and other skills using positive, force-free methods, you can find more information on joining our gundog training classes here.

If you would like to focus on steadiness, I am hosting a special workshop on 3 August 2024. For more information and booking please click here.




📸 Photographs credit Alice Loder Photography

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