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When the training plan doesn't go to plan!

Happy April! For this blogpost I thought I'd share some thoughts about training, planning and being able to adapt when needed because, despite our best efforts, things don't work out the way we'd planned!

For me planning is vital, but being able to adapt that plan, and be resilient and accepting of whatever the environment and our dog throws at us is essential too. I recently had my own training experience as a case in point, that I thought I'd share with you as an example.


In mid-March I went for a training session with Jules Morgan, owner of Teach Your Gundog, and co-founder and co-owner of the Gundog Trainer’s Academy. Jules is familiar with both my dogs as I worked with Bisto on the GTA Handler’s Course in 2022 and I worked with Toffee on the GTA Teacher’s Course in 2023. She is a great source of spaniel knowledge, and gundog training in general, so I was very excited to go.


We started off with Toffee (well, actually we started off with Jules towing my car out of some slippery mud but that’s a different story...) My goal with Toffee in this session was for Jules to analyse her hunting, as I've been working very hard on getting her tighter and quicker on turns (otherwise she's a fan of self-employed hunting which is not desirable!). My second training goal was to give Toffee more experience with practicing stop to shot. We have worked hard over the last 8 months on this as she demonstrated signs of being unsure of the noise, which can escalate into a gun-shy dog, so I have gone very slowly with her. It's also a hard skill to work on when you mostly train by yourself, as you don’t want your dog getting used to the sound, and dummies, always coming from your direction. I also wanted to get Jules’ view on her marking skills. A lot to cover!


We worked through some light cover, Toffee initially not very enthused, but as she came across more scent she started working very nicely. Compared to last year, it was nice to see that our hard work was paying off. She stopped to shot well and marked well- although occasionally taking her eye off to look at me (but still able to scent the dummy once in the area). Jules was happy with her hunting, not so happy with my liberal use of the turn whistle (I agree!), so phasing that out is the next bit for me to focus on. She also gave me some useful activities to keep her eye on the mark, so we have been working on that at home- and is something I have now started to bring into my own teaching (some of you will have experienced this already!). So far, so good with the training session going to plan!


Next up was Bisto, my PhD dog as he was described to me recently- because he is giving me a full PhD in approaches to training and adapting plans! With Bisto I also wanted to look at hunting, because he doesn't really hunt when he knows it’s not a shoot day, which makes it difficult to progress him in tests and assessments! I can get him to hunt if I know game has been in the area so the right smells are there, but as soon as he sees someone walking around us, especially if they have a training vest on, he knows full well that the dummies are going to come from them at some point, so the hunting becomes more like heelwork as he eyeballs the dummy thrower...

We took him out onto some marshland next to a lake and set off. There had undoubtedly been water birds in there, and most likely game birds and deer, but he was not interested- he'd seen Jules and knew this was a training scenario. After a while, with him apathetically running left and right and pretending to hunt, I acknowledged that I needed to adapt my training plan and goals, rather than waste the valuable time I had with Jules. So, after discussion, we changed the training plan to practising stop to shot. This he knows full well how to do, but today he decided that running in (a term when dogs run to get the retrieve article before they are told to) was the best thing ever… it was just one of those days. We have also worked a lot on this, so at least in the session I was able to steady him up pretty quickly. I always say, to steal from Forrest Gump, Bisto is like a box of chocolates, you never know which one you’re gonna get! Sometimes he’s absolutely amazing, sometimes he’s absolutely exasperating- my PhD dog!


We had a good chat about this, and one phrase from Jules stuck with me; trying to get him to hunt outside of the beating line is like a “square peg in a round hole”. Interestingly enough, a week or so after this, I had the opportunity to ask an A panel Spaniel Field Trial judge about this issue, and his advice was similar (and also reassuring that I hadn't missed any training drills that can help). He also made the observation that, in his experience of judging and competing, trialling dogs only have a certain number of trials in them and then they get wise to the scenario, just as Bisto is wise to the picture of "person nearby, no smell of gamebirds, this is dummy throwing, not the real thing". He loves hunting on a shoot, and is steady to birds flushing, but just can’t be bothered out of that context. And why should he, really? It doesn’t make sense to his intelligent working brain.


So, in terms of that training session, which some might view as a "failure," I see it as an opportunity to learn more about my dog and how he interacts with the environment. I could have got angry and frustrated- but how does that benefit either of us? The best thing about training sessions that don't go to plan is that they give you give you as much information and feedback as a session that goes well, if you are willing to set aside your ego, analyse the session and then make the changes needed to progress or adapt to your dog. It was good to go for this session and talk it through with such an experienced trainer- and gather more ideas and experience to pass on to my clients. I look forward to hearing about your training struggles and successes when we next meet!





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