Dixie: Chronicles of a Field Bred English Springer Spaniel by Chip Schleider
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII
One of the most rewarding things I do, is to work with dog handlers and their dogs at all levels. Not long ago, an avid English cocker spaniel enthusiast, Steve Roth, of the Maryland Sporting Dog Association, asked me if I would spend a Saturday morning with the club to work on training and handling. Tony and I had published our second book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills from Wilderness Adventures Press earlier in the year, and I assumed that Steve and his club wanted me to concentrate on retriever training at various levels. This time, however, they were seeking a little assistance on the upland hunting side of the ledger in preparation for the upcoming fall series of hunt tests. Accompanied by my youngest son, Zander (the Dutch diminutive for Alexander), Dixie and Arwen,
I fired up the Explorer and we headed to the Maryland farm country just north of the Potomac River.
We spent the morning working with dogs and handlers who ranged in capabilities from fresh young neophytes to experienced grand masters of the hunt test scene. It was a very eclectic group of Welsh springer, English springer, English cocker, clumber, and American water spaniels - which made it all the more fun for me. We even had a couple of pointing dogs thrown in for good measure. The scenting conditions were good for August, and we had a goodly crop of flight conditioned chukars to test the dogs’ mettle. The club is well stocked with all the training accoutrements, and a seasoned group of gunners rounded out the field. With relatively mild temperatures, I was in veritable dog training heaven.
"Discretion often being the far better choice than valor when one is under the glass, I chose Arwen and hoped beyond hope that she would not be as crazy as an outhouse mouse when I uncorked her."
After two or three dogs had run the series, as I worked closely with the handlers, Steve asked me to run one of my dogs for the gallery. I readily agreed, and then blinked like a frog in a hailstorm when the realization hit me that neither dog had been on birds for almost a year - a surefire recipe for disaster. I stopped in mid-stride, gazed thoughtfully into the distance, stroked my chin, and contemplated how I was going to handle this. Dixie, when absented from birds for an extensive period, will sometimes charge "hell bent for leather" into a quartering pattern at breakneck speed that more often results in trapped birds than flushed ones. Arwen, a methodical little English cocker who is as interested in butterflies as game birds, also has an unpredictable side to her, but tends to hunt a little more in control than Dixie does in these situations.
Discretion often being the far better choice than valor when one is under the glass, I chose Arwen and hoped beyond hope that she would not be as crazy as an outhouse mouse when I uncorked her.
I walked Arwen to the line. Arwen, never a good heeler under the best of circumstances, was straining at the bit. I have learned over the years, not to overly manage my dogs when they come to the line for the land series of a hunt test. I try to get them into position quickly, obtain eye contact with them to hold them in place, and not fuss too much as to whether they "hup" or stand. I also try not to give them a heavy duty cast to the left or right (for fear that they might ignore me), but generally give them their choice of directions. I gave Arwen the "get out" command, and she quickly began to quarter. My eye balls nearly popped out of my head as she smoothly moved from gunner to gunner in a very nice pattern heading almost directly into a very light wind. She quickly made scent, and pushed up a nice plump chukar.
I hit the whistle and wonders of wonder, the little cocker planted her rump neatly on the ground. The right side gunner made a diving catch in the end zone with the second shot, and the bird dropped about fifty yards out to the right and slightly behind a tree. I knew that Arwen’s brakes were a little squeaky, so I quickly released her for the retrieve to forestall her breaking. Arwen’s ability to mark fallen birds has never been her strong suite, but she accurately gauged the direction and distance of the fallen chukar, drove hard for the retrieve, and delivered the bird nicely to my outstretched hand. The second bird went much like the first. Luck truly favors the lucky.
I gave Arwen over to Zander, then observed four or five more handlers and their dogs. It was clearly time to bring Dixie out. Again, I experienced the same angst as I did earlier with Arwen’s run; with Dixie I always wonder if we were about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I hupped the little springer in front of me, and gave her the "get out" command. She rocketed to the left, and I quickly pipped her twice with the whistle to turn her. Knowing Dixie’s style, I had cautioned the gunners in advance of her run to be prepared to move forward quickly - thank goodness I had remembered to do that. She was running hard from left to right, and I pipped her once to "hup" her in the middle of the field so that I could ensure that she was not on the razor’s edge of control. Once again, she began to quarter.
Suddenly, I saw her head jerk to the left as she was moving across the field, and I knew that she had made scent. Dixie dove into a clump of switch grass and nosed up a chukar. I hit the whistle hard with a single "pip", and held my breath as the springer hupped directly in front of me. Both gunners fired, and the bird dropped a leg initially, then ultimately plummeted to ground about sixty yards from Dixie’s position. Again, to preclude her breaking, I released her quickly with the "Dixie" command. She had an excellent mark on the chukar, made a smooth retrieve, and dropped it in my outstretched hand.
"Dogs, like children, give us unconditional love, and we in turn have an obligation to care for them and aid in their responsible development and socialization."
We had to circle back for the second bird as we had passed it on the first long retrieve, and this time Dixie trapped the chukar. Much to my surprise, the little spaniel delivered the chukar unhurt to me. As an experienced wild pheasant hunter, she has a tendency to give birds a fang after having been spurred several times by cock pheasants during our South Dakota hunts. I hupped Dixie to my right side, told the gunners that I was going to release the bird, and launched the chukar straight down the course. Both gunners fired twice and the chukar again dropped about sixty yards down field. Dixie had remained hupped at my side despite the fact that I had forgotten to blow the whistle. She waited for my release command, and made the retrieve.
I heeled her back to the gallery off lead, vastly relieved that both dogs had not forgotten what land work was all about. Whew! My luck had held - despite the fact that hope is not a strategy in the world of spaniel handling.
We finished out the training session in the early afternoon, and I was struck by certain common handling/training issues that, if addressed, could smooth out some of the wrinkles - I must constantly revisit this list in my own handling and training regime to ensure that hard taught lessons (both for my dogs and me) remain taught:
Crispness, Simplicity, and Consistency of Commands
In my travels, I have met very few spaniels that understand and speak English; fewer still are the ones with which a person can reason. Admittedly, I have had a rather limited exposure to all of the spaniel varieties, so perhaps I am over generalizing here. If so, I apologize. What works for me, however, is when I keep commands very consistent and crisp. I try to think of the Charlie Brown television specials where the teacher berates Peppermint Patty in a language unintelligible to viewer - this perhaps is the way in which dogs perceive humans seeking to explain their actions with descriptive phrases. The canines I have run across are smart, but despite their intellectual capabilities, we need to command, not plead with our dogs in the field. Commands such as "here", "heel", "hup", "get out", and their associated whistle commands are not confusing to dogs.
When used repeatedly in training they do achieve solid results. I have found that spaniels really do respond well to simple commands, especially in field situations where unequivocal guidance is a necessity.
Laying the Foundation for the Field
It is unrealistic to assume that dogs will perform well in the field without hours of backyard drills under their belts. Training a dog for field situations, in my experience, requires building on simple lessons in logical fashion prior to exposing a spaniel to myriad of distractions one encounters in the field. Mastering the retrieve, quartering, hupping to whistle and voice commands, turning to two pips of the whistle and other commands all can be taught in bite size pieces before one seeks to put it all together in a demanding field situation.
Setting Realistic and Achievable Goals
A key element of training dogs for the field is understanding at the outset of a training program what one really wants to achieve at the end of the day. If we start with the end in mind, we generally know when we have reached it. For example, we want our dogs to become accomplished hunters and plan to spend hours and days in the field hunting upland game birds, we have a clear vision of what we wish to achieve. This approach demands a certain tailored training regime. On the other hand, if we are seeking to train a dog primarily for waterfowl hunting, the training program will take on a distinctly different flavor. Alternatively, if one seeks to train primarily for hunt tests (America Kennel Club, Hunting Retriever Club, or North American Hunting Retriever Association),
the approach is yet again quite different depending upon the particular hunt test program for which one is training. Finally, achievable goals also must factor in the inherent capabilities of the dog one is seeking to train.
Patience, Attention, and Flexibility
Dogs are, with few exceptions, not human. However, their capabilities closely approximate an older human toddler in terms of their mental development and ability to absorb learning - mine never cease to amaze me with their capacity to learn. As with small children, healthy doses of patience and attention combined with a flexible approach to training pays dividends many times over when working with your spaniel. One of the most effective training techniques I know is to stop training when both handler and dog have reached the saturation point.
Firm, but Gentle
Like children, dogs require a firm, but gentle hand to guide them in their training and development. But when I say firm, I do not mean cruel. Over the years, I have witnessed some very cruel training techniques, a very heavy hand on the e-collar controls, called "burning", that virtually shuts a dog down, beatings with a heeling stick when a dog breaks, dogs being kicked and beaten, and other horrific acts all done in the name of training for a hunt test or field trial. Humans have a unique partnership with canines that has evolved over thousands of years, and with that partnership comes a very large responsibility. Dogs, like children, give us unconditional love, and we in turn have an obligation to care for them and aid in their responsible development and socialization. So when I mean firm, I definitely do not mean cruel -
there is no excuse or justification for cruelty to canines in my book. (Author’s note: while drafting this article, a friend related an event of extraordinary cruelty by a trainer which prompted this discourse. During the training session I describe above, I witnessed nothing but the finest of handlers’ behavior toward their dogs.)
Firmness with dogs equates to consistent follow through when you give a spaniel a command. For example, if you command the dog to "hup" and he does not comply, you firmly, but gently, put his rear end in the "hup" position (without repeating the command). Similarly, if you give a spaniel who has claimed your best easy chair the "off" command to which he does not respond, you firmly and gently move the dog off the chair without repeating the command.
A Little Time Each Day
Training is best done in small bites to preclude canine and human mental and physical fatigue. The best training is accomplished over time with a little time each day dedicated to training for the field. It is now time for me to perform a mea culpa, as I have been manifested guilty of violating this rule over the past year. Dixie and Arwen performed well during this training session, despite my inability to train with them over the preceding months, because I had invested so much time with them over the years on a daily basis. Dixie and Arwen - girls, forgive me; I promise to do better!
Author’s note: this is the sixteenth in a series of articles that chronicle both the development of a talented young spaniel and the rights of passage of an inexperienced trainer and handler.
Part VIII | Part IX | Part X | Part XI | Part XII | Part XIII | Part XIV | Part XV
Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns three dogs - one English springer spaniel and two English cocker spaniels. His English springer, Dixie, holds an AKC Master Hunter title, a UKC Started Hunting Retriever title and a NAHRA Started Retriever title. Chip is a marketing executive for a large aerospace company, and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel with a doctorate in international studies from the University of South Carolina. He lives with his wife Door and two of his gun dogs, Dixie and Arwen, in Great Falls, Virginia. His oldest son, Christian, is an Army Captain who has just returned from his second combat tour in Iraq. His youngest son, Alexander, attends the University of South Carolina.
Chip is the co-author with Tony Roettger of Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field - copies of which can be purchased through the Spaniel Journal Bookstore. In addition, their new book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills, should be available through Wilderness Adventure Press in March 2008. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training. In addition, their new book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills, was published in March 2008. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training.