How can I keep my Spaniel hunting close to me without over-using the whistle? Gundog trainer Howard Kirby offers a solution to this common gundog training problem!

Q: My young spaniel is very fast and I’m struggling to keep him in range when we’re training. I don’t want to be whistling him all the time and make him ‘whistle deaf’. What am I doing wrong?

HOWARD KIRBY replies: This is a common problem with powerful spaniels. Take a look at his daily exercise regime. If he’s doing a lot of free hunting, which involves him hunting away from you, it’s likely that he will become more and more independent of you. This will then encourage the behaviour you describe.

Try to give him exercise through training sessions. These would include retrieving practice which will inevitably involve basic obedience, Come, Sit, Stay, Fetch, directional commands and, of course, sitting to the whistle. Assuming you do things correctly, these exercises will sharpen him up. He will be focused on you, waiting for an opportunity to have a retrieve. While we are looking to get him to be more obedient, it’s essential that this is fun for him. Of course, you will need to correct him, but if your corrections are well timed and pitched at the right level he will understand what it is that you don’t want. Try to remember you are wanting to get him to understand that all the fun (i.e. the retrieves) comes via you.

When you take him hunting, encourage him to hunt close, around you, try to engineer that all of his ‘finds’ are near you. Drop dummies and hunt him onto them. There is a balance to strike here as we need him to get his head down and hunt but we want him to believe that you are a great hunting master to follow. All this sounds great until he gets his head down and decides to do his own thing. In order to control him, you will need him to be really responsive to the whistle. Stay on top of him, and if he ignores a whistle command you need to be straight after him, ensuring he understands that you won’t tolerate disobedience but that if stays close he will be able to hunt as much as he likes.

It will take time and patience to learn your 
craft, as dogs don’t suffer fools and will only choose to be led by you if you are a deserving leader. Don’t let this put you off, though! I hope it will inspire you to get your young dog up nice and close.