I love spaniels, I lost my heart to Working Cockers 15 years ago and since then I have been on an incredible journey. I am now waiting for my 4th Working Cocker Pup and I’m still learning about this complex breed. What I have learned through living with my cockers, is applicable to any spaniel breed or spaniel cross.
Spaniels are bred to hunt – This may seem like an obvious statement but it is the most important thing to remember when teaching them to be a good pet. A lot of people get a spaniel because they enjoy long walks in the countryside and want to have a companion who will also enjoy this. Spaniels who have gone feral, or self-employed hunting, make up a good proportion of the ones who come to me for help. What happens is, that as a young pup, generally less than 6 months old, a spaniel will be a delight to take out for a walk, interested in the handler, keen to interact with them, with no real issues.
However, as the young spaniel matures and their independence increases, and their hunt drive kicks in they gradually start to pay less attention to their owner and more attention to the environment until one day they lose connection with the handler all together and fail to return. This inevitably ends up with the spaniel not being allowed off lead and all parties involved then become increasingly frustrated.
A spaniel needs to be taught the difference between ‘Going for a walk’ and ‘Going Hunting’. I have written a book about this – Whose walk is this anyway? It covers in detail how to teach a hunting breed dog how to switch their hunting on and off when told and to be able to enjoy a walk out in the countryside with their family without losing the plot and dashing off hunting all the time.
The pup needs to also be taught when it is appropriate to go hunting, whether for food, toys or game. This is done by teaching them that hunting is a team sport and every time that they are told to hunt, they will find something.
Spaniels are bred to retrieve – The second most important thing to remember is that, because spaniels are bred to retrieve game, they find having stuff in their mouths very reinforcing. A spaniel’s desire to carry things will depend on genetics and will vary from dog to dog. Some dog’s have a very high possession drive which means that they find holding onto things so rewarding they have a hard time letting go.
With inappropriate training or no training this can very quickly develop into a problem. All puppies explore the world using their mouth. This usually includes picking up everything within reach. In a pet environment there are generally very many things for a pup to pick up and carry. Not all things that a pup finds are good for them to have and so owners need to get the article back from the pup.
How this is handled in the pup’s early weeks can set the pup un for future success or failure. If the pup is taught that when a human approaches when you have something in your mouth they will ‘Steal it’ from you. The pup will initially take avoiding action, running and hiding. When this doesn’t work and the pup matures this will escalate to freezing over the object to communicate that it is theirs, growling, and then biting if pushed to the limit.
However, if the pup is taught that every time a human approaches you when you have something in your mouth they will give you many good things. The pup learns that swapping their article for what their owner has is a great idea and the guarding and biting problem will never develop.
Alongside teaching the pup to swap articles for food or toys, a retrieve trained using clicker training is a great way to shape and use this instinct to be helpful and fun.
Spaniels are bred to be tenacious –They have been bred to be tenacious because sometimes when they are hunting, they will have to work for long periods of time in between finding anything. They would be useless at their job if they gave up after 5 mins.
This is a very sort after trait as a working dog, but the flip side of that is they have to learn when to switch off from a task or desired action. This often leads to spaniels often being labelled as stubborn. Again, with the right training a spaniel can learn when to be tenacious and when to move on from an action to something else.
Spaniels are impulsive – This is part of their genetic makeup. They need to respond very quickly to environmental stimuli when working. However, in a pet environment this can be very challenging. Time needs to be taken to teach the pup to be able to control their impulses so that they can live a happy cooperative life within their home.
Spaniels are bred to work all day – A spaniel’s job is to search for and flush game, sometimes they are also required to retrieve shot game. On a working day they need to be able to hunt for 4 or 5 hrs. They have been bred to be busy and want to be doing stuff all the time. Most spaniels don’t care what job they are doing as long as they are doing something.
The popular wisdom about owning a spaniel is that you need to give them lots of exercise every day. Actually, the main thing that you need to teach them is how to enjoy doing nothing. I wrote a book that deals with this – Where’s the Off Switch? Yes, spaniels need physical and mental exercise but not excessive amounts unless the handler particularly loves to be out and about all day, every day.
Spaniels find being with people very important – In fact spaniels would like to be inside your jumper or on your lap, or on your feet 24/7 when not running around like a loon outside. A very important life skill to teach a spaniel pup is to enjoy being left for periods of time.
Spaniels appear to suffer from FOMO – this is a combination of points 5 and 6. They love to be with their owner and they love doing things so when they think that they are going to be left out of what is going on they find it very difficult. Teaching self-management and frustration tolerance as specific life skills is also very important. Making watching and not participation valuable and worthwhile.
I was prompted to write this blog after seeing a very sad information graphic from Spaniel Aid.
The first three behaviour reasons that dogs were given up is heart breaking as they are all avoidable if a pup is educated properly when they first move into their new home. If owners were educated about how to shape a spaniel’s instincts properly then many of these dogs would still be with their original homes being lovely family pets.
Where to find help
A good place to start is the list of trainers who are accredited trainers for The Gundog Club UK (https://thegundogclub.co.uk/instructors/) as they are all used to training gundogs using positive techniques. Another good place to look is The Gundog Trainer’s Academy, (https://www.gundogtrainersacademy.co.uk/GTA-ACCREDITED-INSTRUCTORS) who train instructors how to train gundogs using positive techniques. Even if owners do not want to work their spaniel, they still need to understand how to shape their dog’s instincts to work with them rather than against them.