From pet to peg - Gundog trainer Ben Randall reveals how to train the perfect combination of gundog and family pet.
You don’t want a field-trial trained dog if you’re going to have it as a family pet that occasionally joins you on the shooting field,” says Ben Randall. “They’re just going to be too fit, too hot, too fast.” Ben, whose Ledbury Lodge Kennels sits in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside, is a self-taught dog psychologist who has not only won the Cocker Championships twice with “Heolybwlch Fatty”, and gundog trainer of the year (twice), he also has some 4,000 clients from all over the world, including major celebrities, with all manner of breeds, just nine years after setting up the kennels. His love of dogs started when he was a boy, and he spent the holidays helping his uncle, a gundog trainer – throwing dummies and looking after puppies. These days, he breeds two or three litters a year, “For myself and clients. I don’t want to have more than that, as I like to keep them longer than most breeders. It means I can instil the first stages of training and I get a feel for what their character is going to be.” His training principles are fed not only by his study of dog psychology and his interest in wolf behaviour, but also in his work as a rugby coach for a local school, and his success is in large part due to his understanding that every client wants a “bespoke” dog. Whether that is a family pet, serious shooting companion or a combination of the two, Ben prides himself on being able to cater to the individual.
While Ben breeds and trains some of the most wanted Labs and cockers in the country for field trials and picking-up, where he stands apart from many other breeder/trainers is his “AGA” dogs. “I call them that as I want them to be the ideal family companion, but still be able to perform in the field. Clients come to me and say they don’t want a ‘super-duper’ gundog like one of my working dogs – they want a dog that will be calm, steady, pick-up on occasion, be a model peg-dog, be completely bomb-proof and fit in with their lives…”
A tall order by any account, but Ben clearly thrives on a challenge. “There are some overriding principles. Of course we can’t cover a puppy’s entire training in one interview, but there are some basic starting points that can help you achieve the perfect AGA dog.
No puppy can learn if it isn’t patient enough to sit and listen, so Ben believes in instilling patience from a very early age. “A puppy should be able to sit patiently at 15 weeks. Any dog can get used to sitting through distractions, waiting for food, not chasing wildly – IF this is part of their early life. I make the puppies I’m training wait for their food from an early age. Taking them to a playing field and sitting on the sidelines for a length of time is a brilliant way of teaching them patience, or making them sit and watch a ball game, or taking them to the pub so they learn to sit quietly. Think about it – you want the perfect peg dog or picking-up dog, so you do not want them to run-in or get overexcited. When you watch some peg dogs, you see them looking at birds dropping around them, and you can see them thinking ‘That’s mine’. That’s what you are trying to avoid. I take my dogs shooting from about a year old, but they spend the first two or three months watching others working. It not only instils patience, it also means they watch other dogs working and learn. When the dog is ready to start picking up, I don’t let them go for the easy birds that are nearby. Those, I pick myself first, leaving the dog on the peg. It can cause some raised eyebrows, but it won’t cause my dog to yip and whine while I’m shooting! Once they understand that the birds are mine, I’ll start sending them for ones that are further away. Whatever you do, don’t send a dog for a retrieve if it has whined, or pulled or yipped – that will simply reinforce the bad behaviour.
Trust and teaching
The key to any dog’s relationship with its owner is trust. “Your dog needs to believe in you, and trust that you will not pressure it. Training has changed a lot in the past 20 years, and I’m glad to say it is increasingly rare to see dogs that have clearly been pressured. You need to show the dog what you want it to do. If you want it to sit and stay, you may have to pick the dog up several times and put it back in place – whatever you do, don’t repeat calls, or your dog will think it is called ‘Fred, Fred, FRED!’ If you’ve asked your dog to come to you and it doesn’t, go and get it and put it where you want it. You need to show your dog what you are asking it to do. I was working a young cocker, teaching it to flush game, and of course you don’t want the dog to move once it has flushed, until you send it for the retrieve. So this young cocker flushed a bird, then moved. I shot the bird, and because the dog had moved, I put it back to where it had flushed, and went and retrieved the bird myself. I did that until the dog didn’t move after the flush, and then, and only then, did I send the dog for the retrieve. You often need to do things 50 times before the dog learns it, but of course if the dog doesn’t trust you, it won’t want to learn.”
It sounds ridiculously obvious once Ben says it, but it’s one of those truths that you never really consider: “If you can’t control your dog in the kitchen, how on earth are you going to control it in the rest of the house, the garden, a park or the shooting field? I often point this out to clients. Start in the kitchen, and use meal times as your training times. My methods are all positive and reward-based, but I don’t use treats. A lot of people raise their eyebrows at this, but think about it: would you want your child to demand £5 to pass you a magazine, or lay the table or do the washing up? That’s why mealtimes are a good moment to get the basics in. Sit, stay, leave, recall, left, right and backwards can all be taught around meals. As I’ve mentioned before, you may need to show your dog what you mean. I would avoid the local dog-training classes, too. They are almost always treat-based training and you will, almost inevitably, be introducing your puppy or young dog to bad behaviour, as there will be badly behaved dogs. At a young age, your dog should only be introduced to well-behaved and well-trained dogs rather than wild ones – your puppy will pick up on the good behaviour rather than the bad. So, if you want your dog to be bombproof, get that right in the kitchen first, and keep them on the lead in the garden, the paddock, the park until they are. Always return to the basics, too. Every dog should be sitting on command every day.”