Via Your Letters, a reader (P. Simmonds) recently asked if I could put together some advice on how I got my dog to become such an effective hunting partner.
He also said in his letter that ‘there’s something really frustrating, watching your dog go ballistic every time he thinks there is potential quarry in the vicinity, dispersing said quarry in seconds!’
Well, if that’s the case, Mr Simmonds, I suspect it’s too late to change your dog’s behaviour – though if it’s very young, you may have a slight chance. So, before I say anything about actual training, let’s look at a few fundamentals which will impact on how your dog behaves in the field.
Start with the choice of dog. Unfortunately, many shooters plunge into getting a dog without thinking carefully about what they want it to achieve. Just because a breed is badged as a ‘gundog’, it doesn’t mean it will work effectively to any type of gun.
The rifle shooter and the shotgunner both need very different types of dog.
Shotgunners take their quarry on the move, mostly in flight. Therefore they need dogs that will quarter and flush, pushing game and quarry into movement.
Having shot something, they want it retrieved, often from water. Hence they have hyperactive, strong-willed little dogs like Cocker or Springer Spaniels. And they have the stalwart retrievers like Labradors.
Rifle shooters (whether stalkers or airgunners) shoot static quarry. They get in close and want as little disturbance as possible. Their dogs need to be silent and extremely biddable, yet capable of scenting and retrieving when asked.
It makes sense, then, to seek out a hound which has been bred for such tasks. That’s why the deerstalker uses breeds such as the Vizsla and German Short-haired Pointer.
The airgunner, however, has a wider choice – but as the shooter who needs to get closest of all to our quarry, we need total obedience and silence. Spaniels and terriers, I would argue, are unsuitable due to their restlessness and inclination to ‘talk’.
Though I’m sure there will be many readers out there who might argue otherwise. My personal choice is the Lurcher, but I see no reason why a trainable dog like a Labrador or Border Collie wouldn’t work well to an air rifle.
So, why do I choose the Lurcher? In a nutshell, history and romance – and a lifetime’s reliability from this mongrel ‘breed’.
I worked lurchers long before I took the air rifle seriously. In my youth, I was known to poach a rabbit and hare or two (I’m not confessing to too many!).
Brought up on a fodder of books by Brian Plummer, Richard Jeffries and others who romanticised the black arts of the rural poacher, I saw myself as a throwback to the Eighteenth Century.
That included walking the woods and fields with a catapult in my pocket and a gangly, broken-coated cur trotting alongside me.
If the truth was known, had I not worked in a factory, I would have starved to death trying to live as a moocher! It was the air rifle that really started to fill my larder.
Yet the use of a Lurcher’s nose and ears became indispensable. There is a pure joy in having a companion in the field that enjoys hunting as much as myself, and moulds its behaviour to my hunting style.
Lurchers were bred by the old poachers and Romanies to run fast and silently nip over a fence at the flick of a finger to steal a chicken, or lie low in cover at a whisper.
The bigger Lurchers could run down a deer, course a hare and snuff out a fox. All-round hunting dogs still exist today, though their activities are sadly curtailed by ridiculous laws.
The main trait, however, is their biddable nature; that absolute intelligence which allows them to absorb teaching quickly and to memorise through association. It’s this characteristic which makes them fast learners in the hunting field, a trait that’s bred into their bloodlines via the mongrelism.
Pure sighthounds, like Whippets and Greyhounds, are superb chasers – but, usually, difficult to train. Add a splash of Terrier or Collie blood and you add trainability.
In my Dylan’s case, that comes from his Whippet/Bedlington Terrier father. As you can see from my old photo above, his mother was a Greyhound/Deerhound.
Now, before everyone rushes out to get a Lurcher, I want to state three things.
First of all, many airgunners buy their gun and already own a dog. Please don’t expect your old mutt to suddenly adopt the behaviours needed to work at your new-found sport! You really can’t teach old dogs new tricks – it’s simply not fair on the dog.
Second, don’t abandon your loyal old hound to get a new dog just to work to the air rifle. Having a dog at your side while airgun hunting isn’t essential. It helps (if they are trained well), but a dog is not a ‘must-have’ accessory.
And thirdly. If you have room in your life and your hunting for a dog, do not ever, ever consider a mature dog. The temptation may be there to take on a rescue dog or buy an allegedly ‘trained to hunt everything’ dog. But think carefully about this. With a rescue dog, you have no inkling of its history or actual breeding.
As for the latter option, good hunters and dog trainers never sell a highly trained and reliable dog – if they do, it’s for good reason!
It took me three years to get Dylan to the standard he is now.
No amount of money could compensate for the time invested and loyalty we have to each other now. A dog trained to your own personal standards and behaviour is more than just ‘a dog’.
It’s your guardian angel, your conscience, your guide and your companion. All of which means you need to start at the beginning, with a pup.
But don’t let that put you off.
Next month, I’ll tell you exactly how I trained Dylan.