How to train a gun dog

Some words of advice from our resident expert Alistair Mackay of Branxholme Gun Dogs on how to train your gundog.

So, the newly purchased hound sitting in the back of your 4x4 is bound for its carefully prepared new home.

 A lot of work should have preceded this exciting time if things are to go as well as you hoped. 

You may have previous experience of working dogs and think you are as well prepared as you need to be.... but if you haven't done your homework and researched all over the internet for the last few weeks in your quest to find the hound that most suitably fits the criteria that you think will guarantee the perfect dog for you and your family, then you may live to regret it when possible problems arise as the puppy grows up into a mature dog after 18 to 24 months. 


After the end of their Trialling season in the last days of January, reputable breeders will focus on welcoming owners of prospective breed bitches to their stud dogs. They usually prefer not to have their competing dogs distracted by the allure of bitches in season which means that mated bitches covered in February are going to hopefully produce puppies in April and May.  This obviously results in 8-week-old puppies going to their new homes around the end of May and June.

For Breed Standards to improve it is important to be able to identify the good from the bad and find the quality dogs that are necessary for this in the first place. This is done primarily by having the better dogs competing, firstly in Working Tests and then in Working Field Trials.  Hence, the attraction of having all that coloured red lettering in your new puppy’s pedigree.  A Field Trial Winner of a Novice Trial will then be eligible to compete with the 'creme de la creme' dogs at the higher Open Trials standard that take place each year in October and November. 

The best dogs that have won Open Trials then compete in their respective Championships for the title of Champion Dog for that year.  Dogs that are bred from these boys and girls are not going to be cheap I hasten to add.  Most dogs’ pedigrees are going to have quality representation of these 'super' dogs in their lines, but some will be more diluted than others let’s assume.  The red lettering in parents and grandparents is therefore going to have more significance than it would with great, great great progeny further down the line.  

However, it is important to remember that fabulous puppies are begat from parents that have no pedigree at all!  The pedigree system run by The Kennel Club of Great Britain tries to ensure that faults and failings are not perpetuated by having hips, eyes etc tested for and eliminated before breeding with those affected dogs. 

So, if you have taken care to research the puppies that were on the market, you will now have a cute wee bundle of fur and adoring eyes sitting on your son or daughters lap in the back seat of your car! 

Genetics represent by far the most important aspect in the selection of puppies available at any given time.  As they say, 'you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear'!  If it means travelling another 100 miles to pick up your puppy you will benefit 100-fold in the long run, I can assure you! 

After your drive home, and hopefully you haven't had any sickly issues, you'll want your puppy to get out and explore its new surroundings.  Make sure you have inspected the garden for little doggy escape routes prior to bringing your puppy home.... as it won't take your puppy long to find one if it's there, so extra care should be taken whilst observing your puppy playing for their first few outings.

Let training begin!

Yes, even at 8 weeks, there are lots of things to do in your puppy's development.  Even at 4 weeks old a pup can learn commands and take instruction from you. 

So, how are you going to communicate with your new family member?  'Do this' and 'don't do that' just mean nothing as far as they are concerned.  You only have 2 options at your disposal... Visual and Audible.


As with our own human species when you are talking to someone you would expect them to be looking at you... so it's a no brainier to have them give you eye to eye contact.  If you haven't got this don't expect to have any success at all regardless of the complexity of the tasks set before them.  The fact that you are demanding this from day one will at least get them to be stationary when you are communicating with them... not an easy task when you just want to hair about the garden at 100 miles an hour! (the pup that is, not you)?  So, what can you do to make this an enjoyable experience for all concerned?

Obviously, your puppy will have to get used to its new name, so by using it as often as possible in getting this stationary position will make things a lot easier in the long run.

Important Tip. Every time you say your puppies name give a little whistle, either from your lips or by using your whistle... it can be before or after but always together. 

So, we're good to go... we have your little bundle standing (or sitting for that matter) staring up at you waiting for instruction... maybe, maybe not to begin with but keep up this simple task until you have success... if you can achieve this first discipline as soon as possible then it will pay dividends with just about everything else that follows.  If your pup picks up on this then all the other things that are occurring around it will not result in distraction, a gundog word you'll be using a lot in your vocabulary from now on. If the eyes are on you then they are not looking at the girls on the swings, the boys playing with a ball, the rabbits running around their burrows etc. etc.  the list of distractions is endless. You, as the person that feeds, that takes it out for walkies, that does everything that is good are perceived to be God in your little pups’ eyes and he or she will have a natural desire to please you.  Every second and minute that your pup is sitting looking at you counts as 'training time' in your puppy's development.

Important Tip. Whilst your pup is gazing at you in wonderment of what is about to come next, have the palm of your hand raised beside your face pointing downwards. At the moment it just means 'stay' but it will become much more significant in later development of its training.


Practice in your garden the simple task of 'starting' and 'stopping' at short distances to begin with and becoming longer as things progress... even within the confines of your house 10 or 15 minutes at a time is all that is required.

Obviously, you will have to have a command to release your hound from its stay otherwise it will be getting seriously bored with your new game!  For now, you can just say 'PLAY' or something of your own choosing to release it and accompany this with a flick of your hand. So, you have just used Audio and Visual commands to instruct your dog in its early formative months.

 Any dog that is sitting DOING NOTHING is usually considered to be a well trained dog after all.  I've sat on a tree trunk many a time watching Lord whosoever plugging away at pheasants or partridges with 5 dogs beside me just waiting to be the one to do something meaningful.  At the end of the drive they maybe still be sitting there having done nothing but to the shooter they are perceived to be the finished article especially after having watched his mutt tearing about all over the place without success and making a great din at the same time. Not always to be sure but sometimes.

Every time you CAST your pup out, another gundog term, you should with practice be able to stop it hopefully.  Yes, you'd be correct in saying going out was easier than coming back in the early stages.


Recall is what comes next naturally... gundog work basically comes down to going out and coming back, whether with game, dummy, ball or just nothing.  Regardless of how much fun the puppy is having it has got to abide by your instruction to come hither when you say so.  So, a good idea is to have it come back and then release it out immediately so that it can appreciate it's not the end of all that fun when it comes back to you.

Most dogs like to tear about after anything that is in motion.. maybe more so things on the ground rather than in the air, it would have to be said.   Their natural tendency is to want to bring whatever it is back to you for more of the same fun so repeat this going out and coming back as often as you can, and your dog will be easier to recall in the future.  Every time your pup comes back to you praise it. Coming back to the boss is a good thing after all, and you may want to reward with a TREAT but use sparingly.  The word TREAT should by voiced every time you give it out.

A word about TREATS....once your puppy understands the sound TREAT,  you can bet your bottom dollar that just hearing it uttered  will result in it returning to your side.... use its natural concentration on you to have it sit patiently before offering it though!  Remember, sitting doing nothing is what you're trying to achieve at this stage after all.

Important Tip.

Once you have your puppy's attention at a distance, whether by using the stop whistle command or just by use of name, hold your arm to the side of your body (at about twenty five past the hour) and say the word TREAT.. you won't have to say TREAT after doing this before long for your pup to understand the concept of what it means.


Without doubt the single most common issue that trainees want sorted out is 'walking to heel'.  This can be done and dusted in about 10 minutes!  No magic equipment required either.  All you need is a good slip lead, and one that is the correct length. Please remember to buy a right handed slip lead if you are right handed, and vice versa of course..... I'm ONLY JOKING aren't I?

The very same day you pick up your puppy you should start getting it used to it.  You can expect a bit of the 'Bucking Bronco' from it but that usually ceases within about 15 minutes.


No gundog work can or should be attempted without the use of a whistle, usually an Acme 210.5.  It isn't called the Stop whistle for nothing!  There are only 2 commands with the whistle - Stop & Recall.   A sharp short peep is the Stop and 5 short peeps is for recall.  When you blow for Stop the pup should immediately give its attention to you. This will undoubtedly result in it actually stopping and being motionless.  You should encourage this motionless state for as long as you can before giving either the Recall command or any visual command with your hand. At first use any visual communication at the same time to accomplish what is desired of the two commands. Remember as before, 'your palm beside your face when facing the dog to get the pups attention.   For recall you can bring both arms down towards your thighs.

So, to recap..

You have your puppy home and enjoying the confines of your house and garden.

  • He or she is giving you it's attention when asked to do so.... just sitting motionless sometimes when asked to do so.
  • It goes out from your side to have fun and quite a lot of the time it will retrieve an object and bring it back to you... don't worry about spitting it out at your feet at this stage.
  • It hears its name and the whistle and this can mean different things required of it.... and with each passing week it listens attentively at greater distances.... when your puppy disappears from sight get it back into vision ASAP, it can't follow orders if it can't see you. AND it can be getting up to all sorts of mischief no doubt!
  • Your own gundog vocabulary is increasing with each passing week and all family members are using the same language.

Important Tip.

When your puppy hears you talking, assuming you are alone together, it will assume you are trying to communicate with it, so this alone should make any distractions less likely to take attention away from YOU!... Try it and see... I've been known to, within a lesson with a young dog, to show the attendee how effective this can be by going over to the base of a bush or tree and start talking to it.... within seconds the young dog is right up my backside trying to see what all the fuss is about.

 At 4 months of age maybe consider going to your local reputable Gundog Trainer just to be assured you are on the right track and not instilling bad habits that can't be erased at a later stage of the puppy's development.


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