Embrace your gundogs skills


Tap into your spaniel or retriever’s inherent skills and you hold the key to a better and closer bond, as Dr Jacqueline Boyd explains in this new series.

I live with five Cocker Spaniels and, as a result, I spend a large proportion of my time looking for shoes, socks, and slippers. I rarely have a matching pair when I need them. When we have visitors, I advise them not to leave footwear within easy spaniel access. My spaniels don’t destroy or chew shoes, they simply pick them up, carry them around, and put them down in less than ideal places — certainly places where I wouldn’t think to look when I am in a hurry! 

But why do they do this? Why do they actively seek out things to carry and bring back to me (most of the time)? Why, when they are puppies, do I spend a lot of time training them to be ‘sensible’ and ‘steady’ around birds? Why do they sometimes appear to get giddy and forgetful when they come across certain smells? 

The easy answer is that they are gundogs — dogs bred for a very specific skill set — and those skills are there all the time, working or not! Understanding their ancestry and what it means for who my spaniels are, has helped me work out how to harness their natural instincts and ensure we all live the best doggy lives.

However frustrating I sometimes find the typical shoe hunt, or them searching behind the TV for the pheasant they think they heard when I am watching the latest period drama, I acknowledge it can be one of the hazards of living with a gundog breed/type. These dogs have been selectively bred for centuries to have particular skills and behavioural characteristics. Originally, when the ancestors of my dogs were full-time, working gundogs, those behaviours were entirely functional. Now, for our part-time gundogs, hobby gundogs, or even pets who will never do a day of ‘work’ in their whole lives, those behaviours still exist as an integral part of who our gundogs are.

In this new series, we are going to examine how we can harness some of the innate characteristics of our gundog breeds and types to create a fun and fulfilling partnership, whatever role your dog plays in your life.

Jackie’s CockerMini-Moo is home-bred and loves working alongside her mum, Molly, in the field. A natural, she got a certificate of merit in her first puppy working gundog test.

Six-year-old Bobbi is a key member of the team who relishes cooling off after a busy day.

Content continues after advertisements

What is a gundog?

The term gundog refers to any breed or type of dog that traditionally has ‘worked to the gun’. These dogs were, and still are in some cases, essential working companions who support humans hunting for food. While aspects of gundog work can be controversial, it is still important to understand how these breeds and types were originally developed, and what it means for our dogs that might be gundogs in name only.

The working gundog is an impressive animal and while a whole range of breeds and types are sometimes seen working (I have seen terriers, collies, Dachshunds, and Poodles all working in the field), typical gundogs are the retrievers, spaniels, setters, and pointers. Individual breeds tend to have particular specialities, but there are key skills that are almost universal.

Their innate abilities have seen gundog breeds branch out into other careers such as police detection dogs.

Gundog skills

Firstly, the gundog needs to have a superb sense of smell to hunt and locate the bird or animal (sometimes known as the quarry) being hunted. Some dogs (think spaniels) will then ‘flush’ the quarry by pushing it into the air if it is a bird, or out of cover if a rabbit or similar. Other dogs will ‘point’ or ‘set’ (think pointers and setters) to indicate to their handlers the presence of the quarry. The next important job is retrieving the shot quarry to the handler. This is often where the retriever breeds come into their own, being able to ‘mark’ where their retrieve has fallen and then going to retrieve it cleanly, sometimes over long distances, obstacles, and even from water.

It is essential that retrieving is done carefully and this is why many gundog breeds are described as being‘soft-mouthed’. This means that they will not damage anything being carried. Indeed, if a gundog is described as  ‘hard-mouthed’, this represents a significant fault and is not desirable for either working or competing gundogs. A soft mouth often means that gundogs can safely retrieve your pet rabbit, guinea pig, or chicken, unharmed, and while this is not something you want to encourage, such gentle handling is typical of gundogs.

The gundog group

The term gundog can also apply to the range of breeds found in the Gundog Group, a Kennel Club classification of specific breeds that were originally (and still are in many cases) worked as gundogs. This group includes the retrievers, spaniels, pointers, setters and a range of other breeds, all with particular physical and behavioural characteristics that come from their original function. Even when these breeds are never exposed to formal gundog work, they tend to be friendly, active, and trainable dogs, often with a drive to hunt, retrieve, and use their noses. As a result, many gundog breeds are popular as companions and pets, while lots of others end up working in similar roles that require nose power or retrieving skills. Many detection dogs are spaniels, who love working busily on a task for a reward, commonly a ball or similar retrieve item. Labradors and other retriever breeds are common as assistance dogs for their trainable and amenable natures. A whole host of other gundog breeds, some of which are increasingly viewed as rare or minority breeds, can be found undertaking similar roles, being active pets, or working in their specialised gundog roles.

Some gundog breeds, such as the Clumber Spaniel and Italian Spinone pictured here, are less well known but still retain many of the typical gundog characteristics.

Tapping into basic skills and desires

As I write this, I am looking at my sofa, upon which three of my Cocker Spaniels are stretched out snoring. They are absolutely gundogs in my living room and their fundamental working skills are innate. Those noses need work; the desire to retrieve items needs nourishing; their active minds need tasks to do and their bodies need physical exercise. 

Even if you are never going to take your gundog into the working field, you can do many things to encourage and work with these basic skills and desires. This will make living with your dog much easier and fun for you both. In fact, whether you have a gundog breed or not, some of the skills and training that underpin the expectations of the working gundog can help your dog to be a good citizen. Before you know it, your pet gundog’s innate skills can be harnessed to do all sorts of useful tasks — instead of stealing socks, he can load and empty the washing machine; the next time you lose your keys, your dog’s nose could be how you find them; you might even be able to train him to bring you a matching pair of shoes before you leave the house (this, I confess, I haven’t been able to train my own Cocker Spaniels to do yet!).

If you have a gundog breed, be prepared for shoe and slipper stealing!

Labradors are natural retrievers

The modern gundog

While the working gundog is still commonplace, their roles and lifestyles have changed. 

Kennelling would have been the traditional housing for gundogs, and while many dogs do still live in a kennel at least part of the time, lots of gundogs now live in the home. Different expectations are placed upon them in terms of lifestyle and activity. 

Many gundogs are active family companions most of the time and will work as gundogs maybe only once or twice a week during the season — the time when their work is needed. 

Other gundogs will never hear, let alone see, a gun, but will take part in a whole range of other activities such as obedience, agility, scent work, cani-cross, heelwork to music, and more. 

Indeed, because gundog breeds and types tend to enjoy training and are active and outgoing, having a job for them to do is really important. It can help keep them mentally and physically exercised and stimulated. This can be essential in ensuring you have a harmonious life together.

Gundogs were selectively bred for centuries for a specific skill set.

Dr Jacqueline Boyd explains how you can embrace your gundogs’ amazing skills in a fun and safe way.

The domestic dog has an impressive range of abilities. But look closer at different breeds and types, and you’ll we see that while there are some commonalities, there are also some clear differences. 

In much the same way as our dogs can vary in shape, size, coat type, and colour, their innate skills can vary too.

Last month, we looked at the skills and characteristics of gundog breeds and types — the retrievers, the hunters and flushers, the pointers and setters, and the all-rounders, who can turn their paw to virtually anything! These skills are, in many cases, hard-wired. 

It is important to realise that many of these behaviours are inherently rewarding for our gundogs too. The urge to retrieve can mean there is always something being carried in their mouths. Those bred to use their noses to find game will still relish the opportunity to follow scent and hunt, sometimes to the detriment of a recall!

Activity and movement are also characteristic — gundogs were not bred to spend most of their waking hours doing very little. That is not to say they do not (or cannot) relax; they can, although sometimes they need a little help in being convinced that down time is a good idea. This can be achieved through good training, combined with mentally and physically stimulating exercise.

The spaniel who hunts and chases birds is simply following what his biology has programmed him to do. The Labrador who swims out to retrieve virtually any item off water is similarly following his genetics. Our role as care-givers is to recognise this, and instead of trying to stop our dogs doing what is entirely natural for them, to embrace these skills and provide appropriate outlets for them, to be rehearsed and maybe even enhanced, in a safe and fun way.

Understanding and appreciating these hard-wired behaviours can help us find a whole range of jobs, activities, and disciplines for our gundogs’ varied skill sets and energy levels. We need to find ways of working with them that complement, rather than contradict, their innate characteristics. By harnessing those natural instincts, we can develop a genuinely happy and harmonious partnership, even in our gundogs who might never hear or see a gun.

Teaching steadiness to distractions is very important…

…particularly around birds and other animals.

Recognise what is rewarding

Knowing what is rewarding for our dogs is fundamental to effective and ethical training. Sometimes, we forget that some of the behaviours our dogs demonstrate are hugely fun, rewarding, and even relaxing for them — scent work is a fabulous example of this! 

Being physically active, using their noses, finding and retrieving items are all rewarding behaviours for many gundogs. It is quite possible to incorporate any or all of these as rewards, in addition to the typical rewards of food, verbal praise, and physical touch. Indeed, one of my own spaniels would rather work for a tennis ball or training dummy than for food, such is his retrieving instinct. This means, I can cleverly use access to his retrieve as a great reward for any ‘job well done’. One word of warning though — if you are using retrieve as a reward, make sure you have also trained your dog to return and release the retrieve to you — to hand is also correct rather than dropping it on the floor! 

Rewarding Retrieves

One important job that the working gundog has is ‘picking up’, which is hunting for, finding, and then retrieving any shot game. You can train great retrieves by making bringing back and releasing the retrieve rewarding. Too often we try to grab an item from our dogs’ mouths when they are young. This can make them reluctant to either bring it back to us, or to release it. Instead, encourage your dog to you and gently fuss him first, before seeking to hold the item in his mouth and asking for a release. When he does this, immediately reward, either by giving the item straight back to him or providing him with something else to carry. Very quickly, he will learn that there is real value in both bringing things to you AND giving them to you.

The nose knows!

As humans, we rely heavily on vision for learning and understanding the world around us. Our dogs on the other hand, use scent. The dog has been blessed with olfactory capabilities that mean he can detect items with a level of accuracy that is truly astonishing — the fact that dogs are now even accurately identifying human diseases from biological samples is testament to this skill.

The working gundog uses his nose to find game and anything to be retrieved. Anyone who has watched dogs retrieving over long distances and on terrain that renders sight useless, cannot fail to be impressed by watching these dogs use their noses and work with the wind to locate their retrieve items, whether training dummies, tennis balls, or game. This means that scent work can be both a great task and game for our gundogs as well as being a brilliant way to reward them for other behaviours.

Gundog breeds love to use their terrific scenting skills.

Happy Hunting at Home

You can easily create fun and rewarding hunting games for your dog at home. Hide toys or food and ask him to ‘Go find’. Start simply by perhaps hiding a favourite toy or a piece of food behind a piece of furniture or under a plant pot without your dog seeing. Bring your dog into the area and encourage him to find it — you can even use a traditional gundog cue such as ‘Hi lost’. Once your dog has associated the cue with the ‘find it’ behaviour, you can start to challenge him with more difficult hiding places and/or multiple items. 

My spaniels love this game on cold, wet, winter evenings, when I hide various objects around the house, and they must go and find them and bring them back to me. Five minutes of this can easily end up with five incredibly happy and tired spaniels. Scatter feeding by throwing kibble or small treats in the garden can also be a great way of encouraging your dog to use his nose and search. However, do this on surfaces that are clean and unlikely to harbour substances that could be harmful to your dog.

A truck load of Jackie’s fulfilled and happy spaniels after a morning’s training.

Super steady

Working gundogs also need to be ‘steady’, which essentially means they will wait quietly and patiently, only hunting or retrieving when asked to. This also means they need to be steady around birds,other animals, or any moving objects, not being tempted to give chase. Instead, they should ‘stop to flush’ and not move on again until instructed. 

For the non-working gundog, these are still important skills to train. Training steadiness around temptations such as birds or cats means you can manage your dog’s behaviour even in the most exciting situations. 

Start simply and far away from the temptation, rewarding calm, steady behaviour. Practise throwing balls and other exciting objects and rewarding a quiet, calm sit. One great trick is for you to go and retrieve the thrown items, not your dog — who quickly learns that not everything is thrown for him!

Steady retrieving behaviour can also be useful in limiting potential injury risk and long-term health consequences. There is increasing evidence that lots of retrieving to moving targets can be linked with musculoskeletal injuries and conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Retrieving a static object from a controlled starting point may well help to limit any potential damage, as well as demonstrating brilliant levels of steadiness.

Given the chance, gundogs will retrieve anything — here’s spaniel Bobbi with a sugar beet!

What about whistles?

Whistles are a key tool for gundog handlers and are also a great addition to your dog training toolkit. Whistles are clear and consistent in delivering cues to our dogs. The sound of a whistle can travel further than our voices, and rarely does a whistle betray our emotional state, important if you are stressed, worried, or maybe even a little grumpy! Whistles are also useful when it might be less than ideal to be shouting (early morning walks in the park!) or when you have lost your voice — as happened to me a few years ago when  I was so grateful my spaniels were whistle trained!

There are a range of whistles on the market, and it is worth seeking some professional advice if you would like to start using one, so you can choose and use it well. Whistle work can complement all of your dog’s other skills and it can be a great fun addition to your training. You can put a whole range of behaviours on whistle cues, not just recall. Equally, if you have ambitions to work your gundog or compete in gundog tests or trials, whistle training would be essential.

Balancing body & brain

Get that right and you’re on the road to gundog greatness, as Dr Jacqueline Boyd reveals.

Through different activities, you can develop your partnership with your gundog.

Emptying the washing machine, fetching your shoes, sniffing out and finding your lost keys, picking up your dropped pen — if you think these are skills restricted to assistance dogs, you would be very wrong!

These are all tasks that gundogs — indeed many dogs — are more than capable of doing!

Clearly those wonderful assistance dogs, helping their people to live independent lives, are highly trained and very capable, but these are skills you can also develop in your own dogs. It might be for fun, it might be for function, but giving your dogs additional tasks, roles, and opportunities to be involved in your day-to-day lives can be a wonderful way of harnessing many of their basic instincts.

In this series, we have explored what gundogs are, considered their skills and attributes, and highlighted how understanding their needs, desires, and motivations is critical to living happy and harmonious lives with them.

Now, let’s examine how to embed that gundog greatness into everyday life with your dogs. 

Good company

Gundog breeds and types are typically sociable, active, and outgoing. For these reasons, they make not only excellent working colleagues, but also fabulous companions. They also tend to have in-built skills, including ‘hunting’ (or at least using their nose to find things) and retrieving. Even at five weeks old, I have seen my Cocker Spaniel puppies start to carry toys around their whelping box, and by the time they are eight weeks old, they often have well-established basic retrieves.

Because these skills come naturally to many of the gundog breeds and types,
they are behaviours that you can exploit for your benefit. 

My spaniels often get involved in emptying the washing machine, and then ‘handing’ me washing when I am hanging it out. In fact, this is now a job that I rarely get to do without some spaniel input!

By tapping into many of the natural drives and desires your dog has, you can enhance your relationship, and create
a partnership at home akin to the working partnerships at which these dogs excel. Too often these traits are also the ones that are sometimes viewed as problematic or difficult to work with, so finding appropriate outlets for the behaviours is critical to a happy partnership.

Gundog breeds tend to be active and athletic.

Developing a balanced dog

My very first working Cocker Spaniel was like a small whirlwind. Very quickly, I realised I not only had a massively clever new friend, but one who I needed to provide with lots of opportunities to ‘do’ things. Those things were not just running and running and running — even though she would happily do that — her brain needed activity too. 

Indeed, activities that involve both body and mind are, in my experience, often key to developing a balanced dog of any breed or type — one who is fit in body and brain, but also happy to settle down and relax. 

How many times have you heard: ‘I walk him for six miles a day and he is STILL full of energy’? Any naturally active breed or type will benefit from fun, physical activity that also requires some brain input. There is a fine balance, however, between mental and physical activity. Lots of dogs end up being highly physically active and incredibly fit through lots of free-running or lead walking, but are under-stimulated mentally. This can result in a very fit dog, desperately looking for mental stimulation. These are often the dogs who are described as being unable to settle, and they can drive their people crazy with relentless pacing, activity, or even sometimes destructive or attention-seeking behaviours. Finding activities that work both body and mind can be key to supporting these active dogs. For this reason, lots of non-working gundogs excel in activities such as agility, working trials, heelwork-to-music, obedience, flyball, rally, scent work, and cani-cross, as well as more traditional gundog work and pursuits. 

These activities all need a level of physical fitness, specialist training, and a happy partnership between you and your dog. If you fancy having a go at any of these and you are new to them, find a local club or trainer to help support you to ensure that you are doing it safely for you and your dog. The recent move towards online training and workshops means that you can learn new skills from your own home or garden, as well as being able to access expertise on a global level. 

By exploring different activities, you and your dog can spend even more quality time together — and not just on the sofa! I originally started agility with my spaniels, got completely hooked, and 20 years later, we dip our toes and paws into a range of pursuits regularly. I can now safely say that all my spaniels are physically fit, but equally happy to relax — indeed, after a morning walk and a 6km cani-cross, they are all snoring away under my desk as I write this!

Household helpers

You can also be active at home. By training and proofing a good retrieve sequence, you can have a fabulous household helper. Encourage your dog to always bring you items and reward him handsomely for doing so — this might mean swapping the item for a tasty treat, a fuss, or even a favourite toy. This ensures that even when he acquires something you don’t want him to have, you won’t end up in a chase or tug-of-war situation! Up the challenge by seeing if your dog can retrieve more difficult items such as keys, a pen, or even an egg (without breaking it). Remember that gundogs have ‘soft mouths’, so this should be more than possible!

Your gundog will really appreciate a job to do that works his brain.

Super scenters

Using their noses and hunting is a fundamental dog behaviour and one that is both fun and can also have a calming effect on your dog. Gundogs often excel in scent work classes and competitions, but you can have just as much fun creating scenting and hunting opportunities at home and in the garden. 

One great game that I enjoy with my dogs is ‘find the keys’. I have a small gundog training dummy key ring on my house keys. It is perfect as it gathers my scent AND it is an ideal item to encourage a retrieve. I start by dropping my keys on the ground and encouraging a basic retrieve to hand. I then gradually build up to hiding the keys in different places and using the ‘Find it’ or ‘Hi lost’ cue. It hasn’t happened yet, but one day I fully anticipate that I will need a spaniel nose to find my dropped house keys, and knowing they can do it already is a comforting thought. 

Building a great partnership can reduce the chances of your gundog going ‘self-employed’!

Molly got a placing in her first novice gundog working test.

Gundog games

You might, however, have ambitions to take your gundog to even more greatness, either by working him ‘in the field’ or participating in competitions such as scurries, working tests, or even field trials. Scurries are retrieving exercises typically run against the clock, and often involve finding and retrieving a series of dummies from behind straw bales or other obstacles. 

Working tests are run to assess your dog’s level of training and mimic what would be expected from a working gundog, but the dogs only retrieve canvas dummies, and starter pistols fire blanks instead of real gunshot.

Field trials are the pinnacle of gundog competition, and the expectations are largely what would be seen on a working shoot day, including gunshot and live game. They remain important for gundog enthusiasts to demonstrate their dogs’ skills ‘in the field’, while competing for top awards and titles.

You can also have your dog’s working skills assessed through specific training stages and awards, and there are different clubs and organisations that offer this. In addition, they can provide great support and advice to give you the skills and knowledge to develop a working partnership with your dog whether you are new to gundog work, or a seasoned veteran.

If competition is your aim, you will need to have a dog who is confident working in different environments, happy to retrieve a range of items, including game and canvas gundog dummies, and is used to noises such as gunshot. There are lots of opportunities to compete, train, and have fun with your gundog without ever having to step foot onto the shooting field, so don’t ever feel that it is essential.

Your dog is great. If you work with his natural skills and drives, that greatness will shine through.