Can I take my gundog on a walk?

Can I take my gundog on a walk?

What does your gundog do on a walk? Do they stay relatively close while having a relaxing sniff? Or do they make a beeline to the horizon as soon as they are off lead, enjoy chasing wildlife and become too engrossed in hunting to hear you?

There is a great deal of debate, conflict and confusion around whether to let your dog run free, off lead in the countryside, irrespective of whether it is a family pet or a working gundog.

In this blog, we’ll explore the role of our gundog’s genetics, what we mean by going “self-employed”, and the difference between ‘going for a walk’ and ‘going hunting’ in the same stimulating environment.

lady walking gundog on a lead

Why the daily dog walk is challenging for gundog owners

For many owners of gundog breeds, a walk in the countryside is not just a simple stroll but a complex interaction of instinct, training, and environment.

The challenges gundogs present owners are due to their innate instincts and genetics.

The countryside, with its wide-open spaces and abundance of wildlife and smells, is a natural trigger for the hunting instincts of our gundogs, regardless of whether they are pets or workers.

Our retrievers (e.g. labradors and golden retrievers), hunting retrievers (e.g. spaniels) and HPRs (e.g. vizslas, pointers and weimaraners) have been selectively bred for generations to hunt, point, flush, and retrieve game.

Dogs with working parents and/or a lot of FTcHs in their pedigree will have more prey drive and hunting instinct.

Often, those who have selected their puppy with the aim of taking them on the peg, beating, picking up or rough shooting will be aware that the characteristics that prove helpful on a shoot day can also pose problems on the daily dog walk if not carefully managed.

A lot of gundog owners, however, will have chosen their puppies because, on the whole, gundog breeds are known for being good family pets. And just because you have selected a puppy from non-working, maybe even show bred, parents does not mean your pet gundog will not want to sniff and chase when confronted with scents and running wildlife.

cocker spaniel running away on a walk

A closer look at why gundogs are difficult to walk

If this is your first dog or first gundog breed, you might be unfamiliar with what exactly people mean when they refer to a gundog’s instinct and how this impacts you as an owner.

High prey drive

Gundogs are hardwired to chase and capture prey. This instinct can make countryside walks particularly challenging, as they might bolt after birds, rabbits, or other wildlife.

If you have not had a gundog before, you might also miss the early warning signs of them switching from walking mode into hunting mode. It might appear as if they are unpredictable. The sight or scent of a small animal can quickly trigger an intense chase response, and this can be challenging for new owners, especially if the dog is off-lead and not fully trained to respond to recall cues in distracting environments.

Strong scenting abilities

Gundogs have an acute sense of smell, enabling them to detect and differentiate a vast array of scents far beyond human capabilities. They can pick up scents from great distances and are equally capable of finding the faintest whiff that could be right under our feet that we have no idea about.

While we can often see physical distractions, e.g. deer in the distance, we simply cannot match our dog’s sense of smell. This means it is easy for gundogs to catch their owners off guard when they pick up a scent trail and suddenly start galloping into the distance.

This heightened sensory ability is a severe distraction. If you have not adequately proofed your behaviours, it can make it seem like your dog has suddenly gone deaf and is being deliberately disobedient or defiant.

Endless energy and stamina

Gundogs are known for their high energy levels and stamina, which can turn a leisurely walk into an exhaustive pursuit if they catch a scent or spot potential prey.

It is also important not to overwalk your gundog. You might think you are tiring them out, but in reality, you are just improving their fitness. The best way to wear out a gundog that won’t settle at home is with mental stimulation like training games and exercises.

a gundog handler demonstrating controlled hunting

What is controlled hunting?

As inconvenient as it might be at times, hunting cannot be extinguished from your dog. It is part of their DNA. You may be able to try to suppress it, but by doing this, you are likely to find that it will sneak up on you when you least expect it.

In an ideal world, the hunt is purposeful, should create excitement and has a specific outcome.

When trained using cues such as a turn whistle, a natural zig-zag pattern is developed in the dog - this is called quartering, and it involves scenting both air and ground.

The hunt should be controlled and directed by the handler and the environment, using cues and stimulus, and it is instinctive.

Teaching your dog to hunt can be a fun game - it does not have to be your intention to go out and hunt.

Scent and searching games are an ideal way to keep your dog stimulated. They are also excellent for lowering arousal and releasing all the good endorphins that, in their own way, help to dilute the adrenaline and cortisol that are released by running and chasing.

a black and white springer spaniel demonstrating self employed hunting

What is a self-hunting or self-employed gundog?

A "self-hunting" or "self-employed" gundog refers to a dog that wants to work independently of its handler. You might be headed out the door on a relaxing country walk, but they’re getting ready to hunt and flush game without taking any instructions from you.

Even if you don't intend to go ‘hunting’, you need to develop some games you can play with your gundog that will help them understand that it is more valuable to ‘hunt’ with you than by themselves.

These games will allow your dog to use its natural abilities in a constructive and controlled way and will, over time, reduce the desire to ‘self-hunt’.

When taught correctly, these games will also help the dog manage their own excitement (arousal) within the environment, and this can help them better respond to basic cues like recall.

going for a bumble with your gundog

What is going for a bumble?

The best ‘walk’ you will ever have with your gundog is where you set off together and never have to recall, stop, or attach the lead. You are entirely in sync with each other, and you end the walk together.

The key to creating this successful ‘walk’ with your gundog is bumbling.

The definition of bumble is: “to act or move in a way that is not smooth
or steady or showing clear thought”.

The art of bumbling is all about zig-zags and circles and taking breaks along the way.

It is important that you decide which way to go. If your dog decides the way of the walk then they will stop paying attention to you. This should never be the case when bumbling.

If the dog decides to go one way on the approach to a junction, you should always go the other. Following the dog just pushes them further and further away from you.

The key to success is giving the illusion that you are in control. You may not be in control all of the time or feel that you are in control, but as long as your dog believes you are, then you will succeed.

It's also very important to be able to recognise the changes in your dog that indicate when they are going to get overstimulated by the environment, as this is the point that they will not be able to listen to you and can result in the possibility of a chase or disappearing from view.

By practice and observation, you can begin to identify the environmental triggers in your dog and gauge at what point it is appropriate to interrupt their behaviours, and at what point it's safe to continue on your bumble.

It is when the dog is like this that most of the mistakes are made, and the environment overtakes their ability to respond to you. So, if they are getting overstimulated, you must find a way to bring them back to normal.

This is why learning to relax is another key element to a successful ‘walk’ with your gundog.

Taking a break on your walks and teaching your dog to do nothing and just hang around is very important.

Its role is twofold in that it teaches the dog that walks are not all about constant activity, and it allows you to manage your dog's activity levels so you can recognise when things are getting too exciting and over-arousing.

You should take regular pauses on the walk, stop to enjoy the view, rest on a gate, sit on a stile, catch up with messages on your phone, or even just sit in the middle of the field.

Remember that going for a bumble or ‘walk’ is for the dog as much as it is for us. They could spend half an hour in the same area taking in information and be quite happy. It’s not just about exercise but also about information they take in along the way.

So, if your dog finds an interesting scent, then take the time to check it out with them. Do not always pull them off the scent, as this will only begin to erode your connection.

If you want to learn more, we have put together a 90-minute “Going For A Bumble” presentation.

Helen Phillips and Jules Morgan reveal the ultimate steps to help you teach your gundog the difference between ‘going for a walk’ and ‘going hunting’ in the same stimulating environment.

We will look at how to create the bumble zone, how to use rewards to maintain connection and partnership in challenging situations, how to teach a check-in behaviour and the catch-up game, the art of “having a Kit-Kat”, creating an invisible piece of string between you and your dog, the this-way game, how to play hunting games to help keep your dog with you, and finally progressing these games and bumbling in the real world.

The presentation includes a series of step-by-step exercises, video demonstrations and practical advice to make walking your gundog a walk in the park.

For more information click here.





📸 All photographs credit to Alice Loder Photography

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