The key activity of any working spaniel is to hunt the ground, using the wind effectively to help him to find and flush game.
It’s not a difficult thing to achieve with a working bred dog.
Most working spaniels will actively seek to hunt without needing much encouragement from their owner. When training a spaniel to hunt you will be looking to help him to work a good, tight pattern while using the wind so that he becomes a skilled and competent hunter
Your spaniel needs to hunt naturally
Getting a spaniel to quarter and hunt effectively is something that some spaniel handlers and trainers seen to struggle with, and a miriad of solutions are often suggested to get a young dog to hunt to a pattern.
Some of these ‘solutions’ involve throwing out pieces of bread or biscuits side to side to try and get the dog to move from left to right and then back again while the handler walks forward.
I’ve never really understood the thinking behind this as really it doesn’t teach a spaniel anything.
All you end up with is a dog that looks at the handler, in expectation for a biscuit, which it then chases after when it it thrown, to then stick his nose in the ground sniffing for it, then scoffing it and, becoming chubby.
It’s not teaching a young dog to hunt.
Don’t treat your dog like a robot
Concern over hunting pattern should not be a priority with a young spaniel.
We want him hunting, using the wind and his nose effectively.
Too many spaniel trainers focus on perfect hunting patterns resulting in a robotic like dog which doesn’t scent out game but follows a perfect pattern and probably finds game by accident and misses lots.
We want our spaniel to be a hunter, a game finder and a dog that knows it’s job rather than one that looks pretty, goes through the motions and wastes time.
Quartering with a spaniel
Our dog should be confident and old enough to take out, there’s little point trying this when the dog is still a baby.
Ideally we want a spaniel to be confident when you take him out and he should be able to get away from being under your feet.
Most dogs will be around 6 months old or older when we begin to introduce some structure to their hunting.
Try and find a piece of ground or an area which is quite open and has some light cover, such as bracken or rushes or light grass.
I’m quite fortunate where I am as there are many open areas nearby with various types of cover, ideal for spaniels of all ages.
Don’t be tempted to try your dog in thick cover at this stage because you want to keep your spaniel in sight at all times.
Your focus is to encourage your dog to work to some sort of pattern while using the wind.
You won’t be able to do this if the cover is too heavy.
Try to make sure that there is no game around
As a first step you need to make sure that there is no game around, it’s fine for there to be scent, but not too much.
You don’t want your spaniel finding anything at this time, you certainly don’t want to be having any chasing.
You can use an older, trained dog to clear the game, and this would be good training for an older dog, or you can walk the ground yourself to make sure.
Once you are happy go and get your young spaniel.
Take him to the area that you are going to use, sit him down (hup) facing into the wind.
Take his lead off and tell him to ‘Get On’
It is important that at this early stage that you always work him into the wind, with the wind blowing towards you.
This ensures that scent blows towards your spaniel.
As you set him off, the chances are that he will run off to one side or the other, and, as he does, using your whistle, give a short sharp ‘peep’, shout his name and with your arm indicate the opposite way to encourage him to change direction, at the same time start walking in that direction too.
All being well, your spaniel will come running across you.
As soon as he gets about 10 to 15 feet past then ‘peep’ again, call his name again, indicate with your other arm and change direction, so that he comes past you again going to opposite way.
So, in this way we are walking forwards, into the wind, with the dog moving left to right and back again as we head towards the wind.
This is the basics of teaching a spaniel to quarter.
Maintain this ‘zig zag’ movement and you should find it reasonably easy to keep your spaniel hunting and moving across your path.
As you progress with these quartering lessons do about ten minutes at a time when you go out.
As time passes, eventually your spaniel will get the idea and you will be able to stop walking in your zig zag pattern and will be able to walk in a straight line while your spaniel quarters ahead of you.
Spaniel quartering training in bracken
Don’t rush your spaniel hunting
When you are out hunting and quartering training a spaniel you must never walk forward too quickly.
If you are tempted to walk forward to fast then you will quickly destroy any hunting pattern that your spaniel has developed.
By moving forward too quickly you are preventing the dog from hunting and covering his ground properly.
He will be tempted to pull out ahead of you, in a straight line, to get away from you and create space.
You must give him time to work and cover the ground in front of him.
Don’t blow the whistle for the sake of it.
If you are consistent with your spaniel quartering training then, quite soon, your spaniel will turn of his own accord.
With practice you will be able to change direction yourself, towards an interesting patch of cover perhaps, and your dog will change his hunting pattern to suit.
My English Springer Spaniel, Twig, was great at this.
Not only was she a superb hunter, but she would keep an eye on me and, all I had to do was look at a patch of cover and she was in.
It was rare that I needed to give hand or arm directional signals with her hunting.
Aim to get this type of ‘connection’ with your spaniel so that you are keeping directional signals, when hunting, to a minimum.
Spaniel pulling ahead when hunting
When you are out hunting with your spaniel there will be times when he pulls out ahead of you, often in a straight line.
If you watch him carefully, and you’ll soon get good at spotting the sign, you’ll see that he raises his nose and catches wind of a scent, or, he has his nose down to the floor – in the latter case called ‘lining’.
You don’t want him to do this when he is hunting so, whistle him back towards you with the recall whistle and, as he gets close, swing him off to one side in the direction that you need him to go.
When you can do this you are on the way to a good, hunting spaniel that you can work with to develop a useful pattern.
Keep spaniel work interesting and varied
Your spaniel training should be varied and interesting.
Mix up hunting and quartering training with other activities, such as sitting at distance, retrieving, blind retrieves etc.
While out quartering and hunting training, it is a good idea to stop your spaniel occasionally, telling him to ‘hup’ and raising your hand signal.
When he drops walk up to him slowly and praise him.
On occasions, throw a dummy for him, watch that he doesn’t run in ( chase it). Then send him for his retrieve.
Vary this and sometimes pick the dummy up yourself, or, if you have another dog, send that one.
I use canvas dummies when spaniel training.
They are robust, soft and the dogs can pick them up easily. I get a lot of my training dummies from Amazon and you can find some good ones via this link.
This helps our spaniel to develop patience and stops him from anticipating our commands.
Don’t stop him too much when hunting and don’t throw the dummy too often – if you do this then he will become ‘sticky’ and will keep watching you for the stop command or to see when and where you are throwing the dummy.
Using a check cord for spaniel quartering
Some spaniel trainers recommend the use of ‘check cords’ when teaching a young spaniel how to hunt and quarter.
A check cord, is in essence, a long line of string that is attached to the spaniel which is in the region of 30 feet in length.
The idea is that when you ‘peep’ your whistle, you pull the string to ‘make’ the dog turn in the direction that you want.
It seems a bit pointless to me to use this type of thing.
Firstly, it would be a nightmare, getting tangled up in stuff when hunting.
Secondly, dog’s are not that stupid.
Most spaniels would know when and where a cord is being used and, as soon as the cord is taken off, they’d be off, full in the knowledge that his handler is helpless and unable to control him.
Better to work with your spaniel off the lead, work on the basics, and do the hard work to show him what is needed.
Relax and have fun
Just relax with your spaniel. If you are out in the open and you can see him while he is hunting, and there is little chance of him finding and chasing something, then you are okay.
Work on his turn whistle, keep him near to you, think about the wind direction and keep it varied.
A check cord is unnecessary and you don’t need to use one, and, if your spaniel is so out of control that you feel it is necessary, then you need to stop your training and go right back to the beginning.
Problems when teaching a spaniel to quarter
There are some problems that can occur when we are teaching a spaniel to quarter.
Introducing a new exercise to a young dog can create some anxiety for some spaniels and you’ll soon spot this.
While you are out with him, after a few ‘peeps’ on your whistle, he’ll slow down and maybe even stop, his tail will go down and he’ll look uncertain.
All you need to do is encourage him. Stop the quartering training, let him run free for a while until he starts wagging his tail again, and have a break for a few days.
Think about why this might have happened.
Have you been pushing too hard?
What is the scent like? Scent for a spaniel is everything, try a different location if you have consistent problems with a specific area.
Is the weather bad, too wet, windy, hot etc. Extremes of weather can be tricky for training, particularly for a young dog. If the weather is bad then have a break until it improves.
Are you making too much noise when training?
Are you nagging your spaniel and making him anxious?
Don’t do quartering training when the weather is hot.
If you need to go out and train when the weather could be hot then go out early, before the temperature rises.
Otherwise just give your spaniel a break – or make the most of the warm weather and do some water work instead.
Hunting is great fun and both you and your spaniel will love it. As your dog becomes more skilled take him to different places to build his experience. Rushes, bracken and fallen trees and bushes are great for spaniels to hunt through.
Avoid the hot weather and keep things interesting for your dog.