12 July 2002

AIM TO TRAIN EARLY FOR A TOP GUN DOG

Training is all about common sense and respect as

Jeremy Hunt found out from Sarah Coomber-Smith

WITH the hills of the Scottish borders stretching away into the distance we stand and watch as Gunner speeds away down the meadow flying over fence after fence with the precision of a top class National Hunt hurdler.

"Hes a dog in a million. A fantastic worker," says Sarah Coomber-Smith as she gives a long single blast on the whistle and the big, black Labrador dog stops in an instant.

Hes now at least 200 yards away but his concentration is intense as he looks back at his handler and waits. Sarah flings out her right arm giving him a clear directional signal.

He moves away to the right and within seconds hes found the canvas dummy, picked it and is heading back over the line of training fences with the consummate ease of a Labrador thats been expertly trained and one that is so obviously in tune with his handler.

"If ever a dog should have been a field trial champion it should have been Gunner," says Sarah as the dog completes a perfect retrieve and delivers the dummy to hand.

But not all shooting dogs are so well trained. For Sarah, whose family has been involved with working Labradors for over 40 years, training dogs is as much about common sense as it is about expertise. She knows only too well that many first-time trainers get it badly wrong with dire consequences.

"There are no bad dogs, just bad trainers," says Sarah as we head for the kennels that house her well known Abbotsleigh Labradors.

Now settled just outside Longtown, near Carlisle, having moved north from Sussex four years ago, Sarah says training problems are most often caused indirectly through ignorance on the part of the owner.

"Sometimes its the way dogs are fed or maybe theyre allowed too much free running. And letting young dogs intended for work spend an excessive amount of time being pulled about by children is not a wise move.

"Its all about common sense and making sure the dog is a balanced individual who has respect for his owner and who knows whats expected of him.

"Equally, problems will arise if the dogs lifestyle is too strict and hes stuck in isolation in a kennel all day. These formative months in a young dogs life are extremely important," says Sarah who is also a top ranking Kennel Club field trial judge.

A kennelled but well socialised dog that has contact with the family should be easy to train according to this accomplished and sometimes rather controversial gundog trainer.

She cant believe the advice given to some new owners who are told not to start training until their dog is a year old. "Thats like leaving a child out of school until its 10. Youve got a delinquent on your hands."

Sarah starts training at eight weeks – although the pups probably dont know it at the time. "We have two 12-week-old puppies that will already sit to the whistle and will return to me as soon as they hear the whistle. Even at this age well soon start lead training."

David Smith, Sarahs husband, agrees: "You can get so much training done when they are young without putting them under any pressure. We keep it all fun and cuddles and its just a great game."

The Smiths have created some impressive gundog training facilities at their home on the 16ha (40 acre) Burntfauld Farm, including a "jumping lane" – a (5ft) wide track enclosed with fences running its entire length – which is guaranteed to get even the most reluctant dog to retrieve anything over an obstacle.

&#42 Working tests

Working tests are almost becoming a sport in their own right and while many purist shooting and field trial people are critical of the risks of breeding "test" dogs – those preferring a canvas dummy to a warm pheasant – there are still vast numbers of spaniel and retriever owners competing in working tests.

Gundog training courses held at Burntfauld Farm in the summer months attract owners and dogs of all abilities.

"The hardest to deal with is a dog thats reached a year old and has realised it can run faster than its owner. These dogs just refuse to come when called.

"This has to be corrected. Nothing can be taught to a dog that will not come when called – and I mean immediately – not in five minutes when its finished having a good sniff."

So how do you get a dog to come back that flatly refuses to do so? Sarah advises lead exercise for a month and then allowing some freedom but only in a controlled space.

&#42 Gain control

"You have got to be able to get hold of the dog if it runs away or refuses to come back. Start in a small area and extend it as you gain more control over the dog."

Over in the puppy kennel two stylish young black Labrador pups bound out of the gate and on to the lawn. With a single pip on the whistle they both drop to a sit and stare up at Sarah. She is as swift to praise them as they were to respond to her command.

"Were not afraid of giving a pup a biscuit to say well done. You have to go with the pup and start an association of doing something right with a reward.

"Labradors have an inherent desire to be with you and as a trainer you should capitalise on that. Owners dont realise how much training can be achieved without a pup knowing it. And dont forget love and attention – it works wonders," says Sarah.