Your Hunting Dog Training Program

Training is a continuous process, not a series of disconnected parts or phases. Nor is it what mathematicians call “linear.” You do not complete all of one phase before starting the next. Sometimes you work on several phases in a single session. Sometimes you work on multiple phases in parallel for a sustained period of time. Be aware of this, but don’t fret about it….

Most beginners worry too much about time. When starting each phase of training, they ask, “How long will it take to complete this one?” Maybe this is the “time is money” philosophy spilling over into our recreational lives. Perhaps it’s the influence of football and basketball, in which the clock is so important.

You would be happier if you would forget about the clock, even the calendar, when you lay out your training plans. Put yourself in a baseball frame of mind. The inning is over when you get the third out. Each training phase is complete when your dog can do the work. Not before.

Spaniels are not machines. They are sensitive animals. While they lack human intelligence (forcing us to condition them rather than reason with them), they share our emotions. They experience fear; they become bewildered; they feel joy; they feel love; and they hate. They also have physical traits like ours. They feel invigorated or tired. I’m sure they have headaches and backaches, but they can’t complain verbally. They have good days and bad days. Any training program which ignores those emotional and physical characteristics to meet some fanciful schedule will ruin ten dogs for every one it “makes.”

Different breeds mature at different rates. The English Springer and English Cocker mature more rapidly than the other breeds. A fast maturity rate is not an unmixed blessing, nor is a slow maturity rate a serious problem. The slower breeds generally retain their training better, whereas the faster ones require frequent refreshers throughout their lives.

Different dogs within a breed mature at different rates. Not every English Springer races through his training like those that have made the breed so popular.

Some trainers train faster than others, too. I am one of the slower ones. I value style, slash, and dash so much in my dogs that I do everything I can to retain it. You can’t put it back after you have destroyed it. Thus, I take more time, underwork my dogs to keep them eager, and use as many positive motivators as I can.

So how long will it take you to train your spaniel? The answer comes in two parts, both admittedly vague. First: It will take as long as it takes; it depends on your dog; it depends on you. Second: You will never really complete it: you should train your spaniel all through his active life.

Even after you complete his initial training, you should continue working him until he’s ready for social security. He will always need a little work here and there. If you run him in Field Trials or hunting tests, you must train hard all the time to keep him really sharp. Besides, he loves to work, and you love to work him. So, what’s your hurry?

More relevant schedule questions are: How often should I train? And how long should each session be?

Clearly, the more time you spend training your spaniel – without overworking him – the better he will become. However, since you probably work for a living, you cannot spend all your waking hours creating a flushing and retrieving wonder. Beside, you probably have family and other social obligations that limit your training time even more. So, instead of talking about optimal time commitments, let’s talk about what you can reasonably do with the time you do have.

Puppy training, obedience, and the optional force-breaking require frequent short sessions. Two or three brief periods per day are ideal. Since you do all or most of this training at home, you should be able to approximate that amount of time.

Field work (quartering, marked and blind retrieves) requires that you leave home. If you can get in several evening sessions per week plus one or two each weekend, you will make excellent progress. To prevent overworking your dog, limit him to two activities per session. One quartering session and one retrieving session, for example.

If you work a daytime job, you must limit your evening training to the months of daylight saving time, April through October. Weekend training often gives way to hunting during the fall – as it should. If you live somewhere in the northern part of the country, snow limits your training through the winter. So you may have to make do with six or seven months’ serious training per year. More would be better, but the realities of life must prevail.

Excerpt from Hup! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way, by James B. Spencer.

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