Gun Dogs: Just a Commodity?

Jun 26, 2014 | Training

The other day I visited Rufus, a beautiful  four-year-old chocolate Labrador. He had, until a year ago, been gun dog trained.

Whilst harsh training methods may well work in the moment, there is usually future fallout of some sort.


Rufus, trained as a gun dog, is now learning to think for himself with the aid of the clicker

In my opinion, gun dogs ‘used’ by people solely for hunting are regarded as a commodity and nothing more. By this I mean that the dogs are trained and owned specifically to do a job and that’s it. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself but they are often kept alone in kennels (at least in the UK) and some have never even seen the inside of a house. Usually they are very ‘obedient’ – possibly they dare not be otherwise.

It’s my belief that many gun dogs are ‘used’ specifically for sport and for the gratification of owners – to enable them to go killing things. Other than that, these dogs often live isolated in kennels just to be brought out when the owner wants them. They exist for no other reason other than to be ‘useful’ – with little regard for their own fulfillment.  In many cases I imagine this is how the owners regard them – as a useful tool to be knocked into shape with force rather than sensitive, sentient beings.

(Note: there are, of course, more and more exceptions to this sweeping statement as  gun dog breeders and schools start to catch up with modern training methods).

There can be no argument that many working dogs are a lot more fulfilled than those family pets who may be either left alone all day, bored or over-indulged.

Working dogs that are trained positively and are treated as valued members of a family or at least have a close relationship with their handler, have an ideal life for a dog. Assistance dogs, and sniffer dogs come to mind in particular.

Near to where I live is a gun dog breeding and training establishment with probably around 20 dogs. I acquired my cocker spaniel from there (that’s another story). I saw first-hand the dogs’ environment. Most seemed submissive in general and a bit fearful of me when I stood by their caged areas. There were no bouncy, friendly welcomes that one might have expected from labradors and spaniels. Is this typical, I wonder?

I was given a demo of the skills of three four-six-month-old spaniel puppies; they were certainly very obedient and were 100 percent focused on the man even at that age. To be fair, they seemed to enjoy what they were doing but I guess their life didn’t hold a lot else by way of interaction with humans.

In saying their dogs are used as a commodity, I absolutely don’t include people who have family dogs who happen to take them to gun dog training classes because of their breed, like the owners of Rufus and of Bramble who I visited a few months ago. These conscientious dog owners do so because they believe it is the best for their dog on account of what he’s bred for.

Three years ago at Crufts there was a gun dog display of dogs trained to do gun dog things using positive reinforcement and it was a joy to watch these enthusiastic dogs – dogs that weren’t afraid of making mistakes. It demonstrated beautifully what is possible.

Rufus began with normal puppy classes. He met lots of people and lots of dogs – and became a happy and confident adolescent.

He then attended gun dog training.

I don’t believe it’s purely coincidence that now, over a year since they stopped the classes, Rufus has become an increasingly nervous dog. The family members who attended the classes with him try to maintain the ‘firm’ approach, but the gentleman who wasn’t involved lacks the same sort consistency and discipline, resulting in confusing mixed messages for Rufus.

It’s like Rufus is waiting to be told what to do – external control. He doesn’t have much self-control.

We had a go at clicker training and he didn’t get it at all. He’s not used to working things out for himself and trusting his own judgement.

Dogs that are trained to think for themselves using clicker or other positive reinforcement methods aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They become inventive and try different ways of getting their rewards and making us happy because they know they won’t be scolded or punished if they happen to get it wrong.

The key to teaching a dog is not about making them do what we want, but making them WANT to do what we want.

It’s a big step for Rufus, now nearly four years old, to start thinking for himself. With the clicker a ‘formally’ trained dog can take a long time to ‘get it’ before experiencing the fun of experimenting with what will bring results and what will not. If Rufus’ family persist they will eventually get a breakthrough.

The possiblities of what he can then learn for himself are boundless.

Gone now is the punishing and uncomfortable slip lead. Like a choke chain, what can possibly be the purpose of this as opposed to a normal collar and lead, or a harness, apart from handler convenience and causing discomfort if a dog pulls?

We took turns to walk Rufus around outside on a harness with long lead clipped to the chest and he walked beside us like a different dog, round in circles, back and forth – a dream. If he wanted to stop for a sniff, why not?

In this comfortable state of mind, he is much more likely to be chilled when encountering his own fears – unknown dogs and motorbikes.

Rufus is at the dawn of a new life and his family will now work in unison to give him back the old confidence he had a couple of years ago.

If you would like to see the ‘stories’ of more dogs I have been to, please click here.