The purpose of devoting years to training gun dogs is to maximize their effectiveness in the field. The ideal end of all that work—the result we strive for in our commitment—is a first-rate performance each time we cut dogs loose. On the downside, whether pointer, flusher or nonslip retriever, that ideal is rarely, if ever, achieved consistently. There isn't a trainer walking this earth who hasn't had trouble crop up at some point during a hunting season. The question isn't whether dog problems occur while hunting, but how they should be handled when they do occur.
As a case in point, a friend of mine had a hard-flushing springer spaniel that never met a bird she didn't love. She was a fast, pick-'em-up-and-bring-'em-back retriever; that is, until she started taking a "victory lap" by circling my friend before she delivered a bird. He decided that if she wanted to show off a bit, well, that was all right. Besides, bird season was in full swing and he was reluctant to call a time-out to fix the problem. Unfortunately, one lap became several, and in less than 2 weeks several laps had escalated to running away with birds.
Reality is that even trained dogs loosen up or backslide during hunting season––older dogs less than youngsters, though varying degrees of slippage happen in all age groups. Transgressions might be minor, like occasionally going deaf to a whistle, or they might be significant, such as breaking point and blowing out birds. Or, as with my friend and his springer, a small change in behavior might not be seen as a problem but can rapidly become a serious issue.
Freewheeling hunting situations, as opposed to controlled training when we focus entirely on our dogs, carry their own distractions and temptations for hunter and gun dog alike. We might be fighting through thick cover; blowing calls; or watching, swinging on and shooting birds; everything but paying attention to our dogs. From the dogs' angle, there's the excitement of scent, birds in the air, guns firing and game falling. It's a small wonder that dogs deemed reliable in training take liberties and cheat on their chores during the sometimes chaotic looseness of hunting season.
Nip It In The Bud
In general, when to handle problems that occur while hunting can be lumped into four broad categories. Some issues are minor enough that you can let them slide until day's end, to be "fixed" when the hunt is over. With other problems you might opt to wait until the season's end to deal with them, though typically that means the solution or cure will be tougher and you risk the behavior getting worse. Then there are serious troubles that require you to stop hunting and deal with them immediately. Of course, there's the do-nothing option—you decide that a behavior is unlikely to get out of hand and you can live with it.
There are no sweeping, catchall answers to questions about when to deal with particular problems. For one thing, individual sportsmen have very different notions of what's important and what isn't. That means that other than universally serious issues, like mangling retrieved game, most of our opinions on addressing problems depend on our expectations, tolerance and experience. On top of those human factors, we must consider a dog's age, personality, level of training and field experience. Often, for example, it isn't worth challenging an older dog nearing the end of its active life. Younger dogs usually require tighter reins; failure to maintain whatever standards you've established in early training can set you back by confusing a dog about your expectations. Likewise, it's a mistake to ease up on truly independent, hard-nosed dogs or those that constantly fight you. There are dogs that can't be cut much slack; if you let them get away with anything, they'll take advantage of it, which means problems should be nipped in the bud.
As I said, most of us are less attentive to dogs and relax our demands during hunts in the belief, or perhaps the hope, that training will hold up over a long season. Usually, it will not––the degree of slippage depends on the dog and the quality of his training––and you can take it as gospel that whatever is overlooked or neglected will come back to haunt you, sometimes in spades. My friend and his victory-lap springer are a good example.
At first glance, a dog circling his owner before delivering a bird might seem like a small thing. And it is, in fact, relatively minor if it stays at the level of one quick victory lap. A surprising number of otherwise compliant dogs do this throughout their lives and it doesn't alter their work or bother their owners, though delaying a retrieve can interfere with a dog remembering the falls of multiple birds. However, as my friend discovered, the real issue with this behavior––as well as others––was it escalated into full-blown disobedience. And that's why many experienced trainers make it a standard practice to deal with problems––large and small––as they occur.
Rules To Live By
Given the wide range of gun dog breeds, hunting styles, temperaments and individual differences along with variation in hunter demands, it's impossible to cover all infractions sportsmen might encounter in the field. That said, there are fundamental rules that most dog sorts consider to be nonnegotiable.
1. Foremost among these rules to live by is that a dog must come when called or whistled in. Sure, every dog slips a recall command now and then, but a dog that consistently refuses to come to you isn't only out of your control but might be en route to a total obedience breakdown.
2. Another obedience problem is breaking from "Whoa" or "Sit" when given a direct command. It's particularly important for retrievers and spaniels to keep their butts on the ground, without scooting or creeping forward, when told to do so: A reliable "Sit" is a foundation command for retrieving work.
3. Dogs expected to retrieve should carry out pick-ups and deliveries quickly and directly, not lollygag (which can lead to wounded game being lost) or mouth or drop birds along the way. Some trainers include victory laps––or any other "extras" that deviate from a speedy delivery to hand––in this rule.
4. Hard-mouthing or eating game are cardinal sins that can't be tolerated under any conditions.
5. Pointing dogs locked up on game must remain staunch at least until a hunter moves in for the flush. The flushing-dog corollary to this rule is that spaniels and retrievers must always hunt within shotgun range. If pointers or flushers habitually disobey these rules, they're useless as gun dogs.
Violations of such basic rules aren't problems you can deal with at a vague later time. Of themselves, most of these behaviors will compromise a dog's hunting effectiveness. In addition, with the exception of mangling or eating game, which has already reached its high point, each of these issues holds the potential for ratcheting up or expanding into broader, persistent problems that can be difficult to cure. Again, knowledgeable trainers either deal with serious problems on the spot or pull their dogs from the field for remedial education.
A wise move is to put your dog through its field paces in advance of hunting season. These sessions not only sharpen its conditioning and skills, but offer insight into misbehaviors that should be headed off before they become problematic. If your dog misbehaves in preseason workouts, you can count on it being much worse during the real thing. Another option is that if your dog shows signs of slacking, for a few hunts leave your gun in the truck and let a friend do the shooting while you focus on dog handling. Under any circumstances, don't let garden-variety sloppy work get a foothold. Whatever your standards are, minor breaches of etiquette shouldn't be allowed to grow into major problems. Read the small stuff for what it is, but don't let it get out of hand. A brief "chat" is often all that's required to get your dog back on the path to righteousness and you back to hunting.
Many of the issues sportsmen confront during hunting season are more aggravation than big trouble. However, with every deviation from what you've established as your dog's desired and normal operating behavior, you'll have to analyze the transgression, then decide how serious it is and when to deal with it.