October 4, 2023

The vast majority of dogs and their owners have happy lives full of fun and love; but sometimes, things just don’t work out. Ben Randall answers a reader who is wondering if it’s time to find a different home for their dog.

This week’s letter deals with a very difficult subject: when to admit that your dog is simply too much for you to handle, and what to do if that’s the case. It’s a rare thing — something I’ve seen just a handful of times in the past decade and more at Beggarbush — but sometimes it can reach that point, and this week’s reader is getting to that stage.

Dear Ben, about 18 months ago my husband and I got a springer spaniel from a gundog breeder. We’re complete novice gundog owners, but we were super-enthusiastic and keen to do everything right. The trouble is that we’ve been working at it for 18 months, and have tried every form of training – pet trainers, gun dog trainers — and we’ve just not been able to settle him in as a family pet. His drive and desire to run off are just unstoppable — I can’t call him back when we’re out on walks, he runs off, jumps at people, chases sheep, pheasants, rabbits and anything else he can see. It’s got so bad that I find myself looking at the clock and start to feel stressed whenever it starts to approach the time to take the dog for a walk. It’s even affecting my sleep, as I’m worried from the night before about having to do the first walk in the morning. We’re at our wits’ end, and although this feels hard to even write, we’re thinking about finding him a new home, perhaps with a more experienced trainer or owner. What would you suggest? — K.D., Dorset

First off – thanks for your letter. Finding a new home for your dog is not an easy thing for any owner to even contemplate — it’s incredibly difficult decision, and absolutely not one to be taken lightly. So I’ve really got huge respect for your honesty and bravery even asking for help.

You mentioned finding the dog an experienced gun dog trainer who might be able to offer him a home, and this could be an option. A trainer who has the experience, the time and the facilities to correct these behaviours and take in a dog that just won’t live happily as a family pet.

What to do if you can’t handle your dog

1. Keep trying new trainers in your area

From what I’ve read so far, it seems like you’re very dedicated, and very enthusiastic about the training programme for your dog. You’ve tried a multitude of dog and working dog trainers, and it still, unfortunately, hasn’t worked. For anyone else in your position, I’d advise they do exactly the same.

Try everything, because there may still be other trainers that can help you, and you really don’t want to sit there in a few weeks’ time wishing you’d done more. But at 18 months old, and after trying all the options, it could be time to ask if this dog is potentially too much for you.

2. Understand that a dog is like dealing with a highly-tuned machine

If you get to the stage that you realise you can’t handle your dog, don’t think of it as your fault, since I have unfortunately seen this situation on a few occasions over the last decade even in owners with the best intentions. Imagine someone who owns a Ferrari but just doesn’t have the skills to control the power of that car, and keeps on crashing it when going round the bends. That’s similar to your situation: you own a highly-powered, highly-wired working gundog, one that has potentially had the wrong foundation training and advice, and you’re out of your depth. Always remember that being a first-time gundog trainer is always tricky — and owning a dog like this was always going to be a huge challenge.

3. The wrong foundation training can be incredibly hard to correct

I recently had a client coming for regular lessons with a two-and-a-half-year-old springer spaniel — a big, powerful male dog that’d had around two years of training — but the wrong type of training. Initially the owner had taken it for pet training, then gundog training on top, but using old-fashioned methods — for example, allowing the dog to free-hunt and advance his natural instincts to such an extent that the dog became ‘self-employed’, as I call it: more interested in what he could find than what his owner was asking him to do.

While I train dogs here at Beggarbush, a large part of my job is educating the owner about the unfortunate mistakes that have been made, and how we can help and assist them. We managed to get this dog to a pretty impressive level of training, getting him to stay in range, to respond to hand signals and whistle control; but all that said, it was always done on a knife-edge because of the dog’s desire to do it for itself.

4. Are you or your family in fear of your own dog?

An even bigger issue for that same client was his wife, who was unable to control the dog in any way, shape or form. The dog could immediately tell she was nervous and had a weakness, and simply wouldn’t respond to her commands. When my client was off at work his wife ended up feeling frightened to walk the dog, and frightened even to let it out in the garden as it wouldn’t come back when called. Sometimes it could take half an hour just to get the dog back in to the house. These were lovely people, who’d bought a dog with the greatest of intentions and dedicated themselves to getting the right training, but the wheels were truly falling off. It was just too much for them.

5. If you consider re-homing, take the time to find the right home for your dog

Husband and wife both remained determined not to give up — which I had a lot of respect and admiration for, and far better than taking the dog to a centre. But then they heard of an experienced local dog owner and trainer who worked as a beater on a local shoot, and needed a hard-working spaniel. My clients loaned him the dog for a week’s trial to see how he got on with it — and the dog almost seamlessly fitted in to the new environment. The dog behaved like it did in training classes and my clients allowed the dog to stay with the new owner. He’s now been with the new owner for a season and has been an absolute joy — though he’s still an extremely high-powered hunting dog, and at times is still a real handful. Definitely not a pet — but he’ll lead a happy life in his new role.

6. Don’t let one bad experience put you off owning a dog

There’s a happy ending for my clients. I came across a slightly older springer spaniel bitch, around three years old — and a dog who couldn’t have been more different. She was very kind, very biddable, soft-natured and beautifully-bred — but for the professional trainer who owned her, simply didn’t have the speed and desire needed for competition or shooting.

I put them in touch and recommended that my clients have the dog on trial for a week or so — and he’s been there happily ever since. Both the husband and wife visit me for training with their new girl, both arriving with smiles on their faces. They open the boot when they get to me, and this time there’s no dog darting out to start causing chaos, but instead sitting relaxed and calm in the back while they put their wellies. Then, the owners simply tap their legs and say ‘heel’, and off we walk to the training paddock. The dog behaves impeccably during the lessons, and husband, wife and dog are all advancing and enjoying every lesson.

I always remember after the first lesson a tear in the husband’s eye as he said, ‘I cannot believe how lucky we are to have a dog like this,’ he said. ‘It’s made our life so much more rewarding, and knowing that our other dog is in the best place possible as well makes it a huge win for us all.’

For more detailed advice about Ben Randall’s positive, reward-based and proven BG training methods, one-to-one training sessions, residential training or five-star dog-boarding at his BGHQ in Herefordshire, telephone 01531 670960 or visit www.ledburylodgekennels.co.ukFor a free seven-day trial of the Gundog app, which costs £24.99 a month or £249.99 a year, visit www.gundog.app/trial 

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