Above all sitting must be the most important behavior a spaniel with hunting ambitions could learn. Then I don’t just mean to sit down, but also to remain sitting – no matter what happens. And to sit and be steady is of course very important for retrievers as well, so don’t stop reading just because you don’t happen to have a spaniel :).
If we start with that sitting thing: I want Tassla to be able to sit down no matter what happens and on different signals. I have an audible cue; “sit”, a whistle signal (one short blast) and a silent signal with my hand stretched up in the air. I find the silent signal to be very elegant when I see my friend Catta do it with her very energetic springer spaniel Sam (Catta and Sam are recurring photo models in the book). Even though Sam is crazy fast and us hunting very intensly he seems to be keeping an eye on his handler all the time. Because when she raises her arm, without saying a word, it doesn’t take many metres before the spaniel butt is on the ground. Me like!
Apart from these signals I have another one – one that might become the most important – namely the one where Tassla voluntarily sits down when something jumps up infront of her. Flushing means sit. All these signals I’ve started to teach Tassla at home, on our lawn.
That means that I, among other things, have started with rewarding her for voluntarily sitting in different situations. Then I’ve added the cue “sit”. I give the command at the same time as she sits down. Then I give the command slightly earlier, just before she starts to sit and then I give it even earlier and try it in situations where it isn’t as obvious that she is going to sit. After that it’s just to try the signal in more and more situations and with different distractions, preferably staged and planned, where the dog succeeds many times and thereby gets many good rewards.
I’ve been training the stop whistle while playing with Tassla. When I manage to steal the toy from her she will sit down (because she’s learnt that that is the way to get the toy back). Just as she sits down I blow my whistle. In this situation I will get a different sit than when I say “sit”, it’s more energy and speed in this sit. In the future there will also be more speed and action when she is to sit in the middle of hunting and after flushing, så the idea is to get in speed and high energy right from the start.
In this game I’ve also taught her the hand signal. Since Tassla was already in sitting mode when the game stopped it was very easy to quickly raise my hand and since she followed it with her eyes and since she’s so small her back end just went down by it self.. We’ve just started with this signal and I will develop it by throwing a ball to her with my raised arm.
Finally sitting after flushing. So far I’ve just taught her that she’s only allowed to run after thrown objects if she first sits down. It’s an exercise that I’ve seen the experienced gun dog trainer (and author) Sten Christoffersson do in a video with one of his puppies. (You’ll also often see many skilled obedience trainiers do this: they want the dog to sit prior to – on command – retrieving the dumbbell) I do it almost the same way: I calmly hinder the dog from running by holding my hands around her and waits for her to voluntarily sit down. As soon as she sits down I say “yes”. The first times the dog doesn’t have to sit down but just hold back to get me to release it. Tassla however learnt with the speed of light that the fastest way to be allowed to run after the object was to first sit down.
I also usually put down her food bowl with a swift movement and sort of push it away over the floor. The first time I did it when she was already sitting down before telling her to “get it” but quite soon I made it more difficult so that she was standing up when I pushed the food bowl away and told her to “get it” only when she first sat down (voluntarily, without me asking her to sit). At first Tassla found this to be very, very difficult. She was standing, trembling, before throwing her self at the food bowl. Then I just laughed, stopped her with my hands (carefully) and tried again, slightly less distractive (not as quick and far “throw” with the food bowl). Then she sat down after a couple of seconds and as soon as her butt hit the ground I said “get it”.
But there’s of course a lot of funny steadiness and preparation for flushing exercises that can be elaborated from super simple food bowl exercises in the kitchen to difficult, staged surprise situations in the woods. I think it is very much fun to train self control with my dogs, so I’ll tell you more about it later. We also talk a lot about it in the book – steadiness is a whole chapter in it self – because steadiness is a somewhat central part of the field trial training so to say… 😉