One of the most important aspects of a spaniel’s training is to be steady to shot.
If you are beating, rough shooting or thinking about competing in spaniel working tests or field trails, then your spaniel must be steady to shot.
Why does a spaniel need to be steady to shot?
Working spaniels perform a role that is unlike any of the other gundog breeds.
Your working spaniel will be either in the beating line or working ahead of you and other guns in a walked up or rough shooting environment.
When your dog is out in front of you, whether beating or walked up, there can be a great sense of excitement among the guns, and many guns are inexperienced at shooting over spaniels.
Of all of the gundogs, spaniels ( and their handlers) are at the greatest risk of being shot.
You’ll probably realise the importance of your dog not chasing game and being steady to game, but it is also vital that your spaniel is steady to shot for reasons of safety.
If you are looking to compete with your spaniel in field trials or tests then steadiness to shot is mandatory.
Thankfully, provided the basics of training have been done, steadiness to shot is not difficult and the training can be fun for the handler and dog.
What equipment is needed to train a spaniel to be steady to shot?
If you’re going to train a spaniel, or for that matter any dog, to be steady to shot then you will need add to your gundog training kit.
You will need to get yourself a starting pistol or, if this is not possible, a child’s cap gun that can make a loud shot noise would possibly be a good alternative.
A .22 starting pistol is the best option, one that fires short blanks.
In the UK you do not need a licence to buy or possess one of these but you should be careful and discreet where you use it and act responsibly, so that you do not concern or frighten others and so that you do not attract the attention of the police.
There are various places where you can buy starting pistols and some good options within the UK are Turner Richards who supply gundog equipment.
In other countries you’ll need to do some local research to source a suitable pistol.
I use a pistol similar to this one which is well made and good for dog training.
Before you start working on steadiness to shot
Before you start to work with your dog to get him steady to shot he should be:
Sitting to command – you should be able to get him to sit when you tell him to and also by the hand signal.
He should stop and sit to the whistle command – the single, long blast on the whistle.
Your dog should be able to sit at a distance while you walk away from him without him getting up or moving.
Ideally he should e steady to the thrown dummy when you throw it.
Focus on these exercises before developing his steadiness to shot. If he will not sit to command or stop on the whistle then work on these more before you progress onto ‘shot’.
It will be worth the wait and will make the ‘stopping to shot’ training easier and much more fun.
Introducing your spaniel to shot
Many novice spaniel and other gundog trainers make the mistake of ‘testing their dog’ to see if he or she is gun shy, and, to do this they fire shots over their heads.
This is a massive mistake. The chances of a well bred working dog being gun shy are virtually nil, but, if you fire shots over his head then you could make him nervous.
The way that we will start with shot takes into consideration your dog so that we minimise the risk of frightening him.
Go somewhere quiet with your spaniel and get him to sit down.
Leave him sat down and walk away from him to a distance of about 30 yards.
Taking your starting pistol, hold it above your head and fire a single shot.
Watch your dog carefully as you fire the shot. Chances are he’ll look around and wonder what the noise was.
Walk quickly but quietly up to him and give him lots of praise and encouragement, tell him he is a good dog etc etc. Make it fun and show how happy you are with him.
End the exercise and do something else such as hunting or go for a walk.
The task now is to repeat this ‘shot training’ frequently, always watching your dog for any adverse reaction while gradually decreasing the distance between him and the shot.
By keeping the dog sat down while you fire the shot you are associating the noise of the shot with the act of being stationary and sat down – this all helps with future steadiness training.
If you notice that he appears nervous or otherwise unhappy at the noise, then stop, increase the distance and start again.
It is unlikely that you will have any difficulty with this exercise if you are careful.
One important thing that you should note: Don’t be tempted to use a shotgun, rifle or dummy launcher when you are introducing your dog to shot.
These things, for a dog that is unfamiliar with the noise, can all affect him.
Take it slowly and you and your dog will be fine.
Developing steadiness to shot with a spaniel
This is where we can begin to pull all of the training together and start to have some real fun that resembles spaniel work.
Take your spaniel out to your chosen training area, make sure that you have your starting pistol with you. Ideally there should be some cover such as rushes or light bracken where he can hunt but is not too thick.
Let your dog have a scamper round to relieve himself and then sit him down.
Cast him off hunting, into the wind and let him get going, keeping him under control with your turn whistle. Once he is hunting freely, take out your pistol and fire a single shot, at the same time blowing the stop whistle.
If things goto plan he’ll drop – and he should do if your training with the stop whistle has been good.
If he doesn’t then get after him and slowly and gently drag him back to where he should have stopped and give him a couple of blasts of the whistle.
Now, if he does stop, keep him waiting and then goto him and reward him for good work.
Don’t overdo it as everytime you do an exercise you give the dog a chance to get it wrong and we always want to end on a positive.
Putting steadiness to shot together with dummies
As an add on to the exercise above you can introduce dummies to the activity.
While your dog is hunting, drop a dummy in an easy to retrieve spot, fire a shot and, after her has stopped, send him for the dummy.
If your dog enjoys retrieving then this will help to associate the action of stopping to shot with retrieving which he will enjoy.
You can make this more challenging as you progress by making the dummy harder to find, or by getting him to continue to hunt.
Don’t always send him to fetch something, keep him guessing and make it interesting.
Adding more fun and challenge to shot steadiness exercises
As well as using dropped dummies that you send your spaniel for, you can also introduce a thrown dummy.
This is the sort of challenge that you’ll face with your spaniel if you decide to enter working spaniel tests.
With your spaniel hunting, fire a shot and throw a dummy away from him. Keep him on the drop ( sat down ) and, after a few moments send him for the thrown dummy.
Be ready to use hand signals to help him if he did not ‘mark’ the fall and always be prepared to walk towards the dummy to help him if he struggles.
You always want to have success.
Combine the thrown dummy with some blind, dropped dummies and after a while you’ll be able to send him out for two or more dummies.
Don’t rush and have fun.
One thing that I learned many years ago with spaniels is that whenever you get the opportunity to help them with scent you should.
You should always try to get scent up your spaniel’s nose to help him to learn.
A starting pistol can help with this. If you have a game bag, place a couple of dummies and maybe a tennis ball in the bag and fire your starting pistol into the bag.
The powder smoke from the pistol will be absorbed by the dummies ( and anything else that is in the bag ) and this can help your dog to become familiar with the scent of gun powder which will be evident on shot game.
This is just another way of being creative with your dog thinking and I’m sure that as you become more of a ‘spaniel man or woman’ you’ll come up with your own ideas to help your dog to learn.