One thing that can add success to your game bird hunting is having a gun dog, but where do you start?

Thankfully gun dog guru John Stevens from the Central South Island region has penned the articles below so you can get started on your journey with your new partner!

So, you’re thinking you could benefit from investing in a gundog.

I shoot on a side stream of the Waitaki River, over a pool with banks covered in willow, black-berry, gorse and broom.

On opening day of duck-shooting in 2018, for the first time ever, I shot my limit of 50 ducks.

My (then) four-year-old dog Pippa retrieved 48 birds without me having to leave my hide.

She only missed two divers which I was able to retrieve the following day with the help of my older dog, Becky.

And, by the way, all 50 birds were fully utilized.

If you’re into game bird hunting, you definitely need a gundog. 

The question is what sort of gundog do you need. There are three main groups of gundogs; pointers, spaniels and retrievers.

There are many breeds of pointers, German Shorthaired and Vizslas to name a couple, but there are plenty more.

Pointers are wide ranging dogs, excellent at scenting and pointing the whereabouts of game, allowing you to get into position for a shot before flushing.

They’re great for hunting ground dwelling game like pheasants, quail, and rabbits.

A well-trained pointer is a delight to shoot over, but they are generally considered to be challenging to train and are probably not the right dog for a first- time gundog owner. They also require a great deal of exercise. 

Spaniels are flushing dogs, ranging and flushing game within gun range.

They’ll also happily retrieve your ducks from rivers or ponds.

As with the pointers, there are many breeds of spaniels, the Cocker and Springer probably being the best-known hunting breeds.

They are busy, lively dogs, with lots of character and are generally smaller than other small-game hunting dogs, making them ideal for town sections. 

Both pointers and spaniels should retrieve your game, but the retrievers specialize in it.

If you’re a waterfowl shooter, a retriever is for you.

My preference is the Labrador, but there are many other breeds of retriever.

Retrievers are generally good-natured dogs and, if properly socialized, make great family dogs.

They will retrieve from water and heavy cover with ease and will also range and flush land-based game.

Like the pointers, they can be trained for hunting larger game like deer, but that’s another story.

Choosing a Breeder

sues pups 1 2018 11 18 12.30I recommend that you buy a pup which is registered with Dogs NZ (formally the NZ Kennel Club) and has papers to prove it.

One reason being, that many breeds, potentially, have inherent disorders and Dogs NZ requires that the parents be tested for the more serious ones before the pups can be registered.

Also, of course, if you buy from a reputable, registered breeder, you’re more likely to get what you’re paying for.

Choose a breeder of dogs which are of hunting strain and have hunting strain genetics.

Both parents should be proven proficient hunters.

A successful gundog trialist should be your first choice of breeder.

There are gundog clubs throughout New Zealand and a list of these, with contact details, can be found on the NZ Gundog Trial Association website,

Next issue I’ll write about bringing your pup home and how to start training. 

So, you’ve found someone with a suitable litter of pups, watched them grow to 8 weeks of age, and now they’re ready for you to bring your one home.

The breeder should advise you about what and how often to feed your pup and when it next needs to be vaccinated.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions of the breeder about anything you’re unsure of.

Get ready to bring your pup home well in advance.

You’ll need a pen or some other means of enclosing it, suitable bedding, a toy or two, the correct food and containers for food and water. 

Remember that this will be the first time your pup has been separated from its mother and siblings so it will need comforting and reassuring for the first few nights.

Expect some broken sleep for a night or two. Don’t let barking or whining become a habit.

Get up and comfort your pup as often as you need to.

It will be time well spent in the long run.   

You should decide what behavior you expect and start training for it immediately.

It is far easier to avoid a problem occurring than it is to correct it after it does.

No barking, where to relieve itself, no digging holes, keeping off the gardens, inside or not, the list goes on.

Be aware, however, that you should let your pup be a pup.

You may need to be prepared to make some lifestyle changes.

There are a couple of things you can start training for as soon as your pup has settled in.

These are, coming when called and simple retrieving.

Use his name and say ‘come’ when calling him.

Give him a treat and lots of praise when he responds well.

Later you should introduce a whistle. 

If you’ve made the correct choice of breeder your pup should be exhibiting hunting and retrieving attributes at 8 weeks of age, so you can immediately start retrieving training.

To start retrieving training you’ll need a suitable object (a dummy).

Don’t use one of his toys. Get him used to wearing a small collar to which you can attach a cord.

Kneel on the ground and hold him sitting beside you.

Get him interested by shaking the dummy and drop it a short distance in front of him.

Say ‘fetch’ and let him go. He should rush to pick it up.

Say ‘come’ and gently pull him back to you, then say ‘give’ and take the dummy from him.

Don’t allow him time to drop it. As with all training, make it fun with lots of praise and treats when he does well.

Congratulations, you’ve just achieved your first retrieve. You can now start gradually increasing the distance you throw the dummy.

Once your pup is over 3 months of age and has had all his vaccinations, consider taking him to obedience classes.

There may be someone near you who runs these.

Ask your Vet, or local Councils Animal Control Officer, or contact the NZ Gundog Association at 

They may be able to help, or know someone who can.

The person running the course should show you how to teach your dog to come when called, walk at heel, sit, down and stay.

Even if you’re confident you can do this yourself the socializing with people and other dogs will be invaluable. I strongly recommend it.

You may also find it helpful to check out the Gundog Associations Facebook Page, NZ Gundog Trialing, where you could make contact with others with an interest in training gundogs. 

Next issue I’ll write about how to approach your first hunting season.

So now your pup is six months old, the game bird season is only a month off and you’re keen to get into it.

Your pup is retrieving dummies to hand from 50 or more metres away, is walking at heel off the lead, sitting and staying on command and gets excited whenever you produce a gun.

You’ve carefully introduced her to retrieving dummies off and over water and she loves it, even if she hasn’t quite mastered the dog-paddle.

Brilliant, you’ve obviously been putting time into her training.

You should, by now, have introduced her to retrieving feathers.

Dead pigeons are useful for this. You might be able to get some cull birds from a pigeon breeder, or your nearest gundog club might supply you with several for a small charge.

P1000868 2 1This is a critical time, mouthing (chewing or crushing) game is a serious fault, so introduce birds gradually, without too much excitement.

Don’t overdo the birds and never let your dog play with them.

In these short articles it’s impossible for me to explain in detail how to fully train your pup.

There’s a lot of information available online about training gundogs and I suggest you spend some time checking this out.

Several professional trainers have useful websites. Mike Lardy and Bill Hillman are a couple and you can purchase training manuals off The Gundog Club UK’s website, which are very good value.

You will, however, need to sort out the things which are relevant to the type of hunting you intend to do.

You should also consider joining your local gundog club, even if you don’t intend to get involved in gundog trialing competitively.

The club may run regular training days, or you could team up with one of the experienced members for mutually beneficial training sessions.

Training on your own can be difficult, so you’d both find having someone to train with helpful.

A problem which people often create with gundogs involves a fundamental part of hunting and that’s gun-shyness.

Gun-shyness is easy to cause and very difficult to correct. I get more phone calls about gun-shy dogs than anything else.

I gradually introduce my pups to guns using shotgun cases loaded with a primer.

I start by letting them play some distance away with an older dog, then fire a shot in the opposite direction.

Your pup should only take a passing interest. Make a fuss of her.

Do this several times and, if it continues to go well, gradually, over time, reduce the distance between her and yourself.

Later, you should be able to throw her a dummy and fire a shot at the same time.  Don’t be in too big a hurry to do this though.

A controversial tool in gundog training is the electric collar (e-collar).

Some trainers use them extensively, others are opposed to their use, preferring instead a praise and reward system.

If you do choose to use an e-collar make sure you know how to do so properly.

Seek qualified advice before starting, otherwise you might do more harm than good.

Don’t expect too much from your pup during the first hunting season, but don’t leave her at home.

Let her be part of the action. You’ll almost certainly have to tie her in your maimai, as she’s bound to get excited and forget most of your steadiness training.

Encourage her to retrieve any handy birds, getting out to help her if you need to. The odd bird missed because you’re busy with the pup will be well worthwhile in the long term.

As the season progresses and her confidence grows, she’ll start retrieving birds which you might otherwise have lost.

Next month I’ll write about advancing your training through the first couple of seasons.

If you’ve taken full advantage of the game bird hunting season and hunted with your pup in a variety of situations you’ll realise what a great asset a well-trained gun dog can be. Most gun dogs will be working at their best from around three years of age, so there’s still lots of room for improvement and well-structured training can achieve this.

If you’ve checked out various professional trainer’s web-sites you’ll have seen some of the remarkable skills that your dog is capable of.

Later, if you decide to take up gundog trialling at an advanced level, you can move on to these, but at this stage you should stick to the basics.

Retrieving Doubles

Your pup should, by now, be retrieving single thrown dummies from 60 or 70 metres, sitting at heal until sent and retrieving to hand.

It’s time to move on to doubles, a double is where two birds are shot, or two dummies thrown, before you send your dog to retrieve them.

They must be retrieved separately.

To start training for doubles, sit your dog beside you and throw one dummy 10 metres or so from you.

Turn 180 degrees and throw the second dummy and send him to retrieve it.

Take delivery, then turn back to the first dummy and send him to retrieve that. Done.

No problem you’re thinking. Well, perhaps.

Here’s some tips:

Start off using a collar so you can hold him to prevent him from breaking and make sure he can see both dummies from where you’re standing.  

If he tries to run past you to get to the second dummy before delivering the first, try standing in a gateway, or set up some other barrier so he can’t easily get past.

Once he’s doing this exercise well you can start increasing the distance he’s retrieving from and reducing the angle between the dummies.

Later still, you’ll be able to move on to three thrown dummies.

Memory Training

You also need to start memory training so your dog learns to remember when there’s more than one bird to retrieve and where it is.

You should be able to sit your dog, walk out, throw a dummy where he can’t see it, then walk back and send him to retrieve it.

Once you’ve done this a few times, start to delay sending him for it.

Take him away, then take him back to where he was when you threw the dummy before sending him.

Later you should be able to throw two or three dummies and have him remember where each of them is five minutes or more later.

As with all training, only very gradually increase the difficulty of the exercise.

Do not be tempted to try something more difficult until each earlier step has been mastered.

Multiple Retrieves

Pippa 5

The end goal: getting your dog to retrieve all your shot ducks.

Often young dogs get confused when faced with several birds on the ground, or in the water at the same time.

They may go from one to another, unable to decide which to pick up, or try to pick up two, or more at once.

You can overcome this problem by the use of piles of dummies. Pile work is also a useful tool in more advanced training.

You’ll need three or four dummies for this exercise.

Initially, put out two dummies where he can see them, about 30 metres apart and about 30 metres from you.

Send him to retrieve them one after the other.

Once he’s doing this well, gradually move the dummies closer together until they’re no more than a metre apart.

When he’s retrieving them separately, without hesitation, you can start adding extra dummies to the pile and moving the pile further away from him.

Next issue I’ll write about taking your dog’s skills to a higher level. 


In this final article I’ll discuss a couple of skills which you would find useful in the field and which could often be the difference between retrieving or losing a bird.  

But first here’s some more memory training you can do while you’re walking your dog.

Take a dummy with you and as you walk along, get her attention and throw the dummy into some cover.

Walk on for 50 or 60 metres then send her back to retrieve it. 

Once she gets the hang of the game you can add an extra dummy or two and increase the distance you walk before sending her for them.

She’ll love the game and you’ll be surprised at how well she’ll remember where the dummies are.  

Blind Retrieves

Pippa and I at Duck Shooters TrialHow often have you seen someone, unsuccessfully trying to get their dog to retrieve a bird she can’t see and hasn’t seen shot.

To teach your dog to do blind retrieves you’ll need an area with a bit of cover.

Put your dog where she can’t see you and place a dummy on the ground where she’ll be able to see it when she’s close, but not when she’s further away. 

Bring her back and sit her where she can see the dummy.

Line her up (which means that she’s looking in the direction of the dummy and her spine is in line with it) and send her to fetch it.

Put her away again, then replace the dummy in the same spot, bring her back and this time line her up and send her from a bit further away.  

Over a period of training days gradually increase the distance you send her, up to about 70 metres, always letting her see the dummy on the ground, before taking her out of sight of it and sending her to retrieve it.  

Once she’s doing this well start sending her for a dummy she hasn’t seen.

Now ‘lining up’ becomes critical as she should run in the direction she’s pointing.

Initially place the dummy only a few metres away and gradually increase the distance as she gains confidence.

Now, of course, you’ll need to place the dummy in different places each time.

Distance Control

You should now be regularly using your whistle to sit your dog (one blast) and to get her to come to you (three tweets).

You’ll need an area of short grass. Sit your dog beside you using your whistle sit command (which will shortly become your stop command) and throw a dummy to one side of her.

Tell her to stay and walk a short distance in front of her, turn to face her, give a blast on your whistle, then indicate with your arm the direction she needs to go to get to the dummy, giving your verbal fetch command at the same time.

Once she’s retrieving this well (it may take several sessions), do the same thing on the opposite side and when this is also going well start throwing a dummy out on both sides and you should now be able to choose which side she retrieves from.

Now start sending her for a dummy behind her, this time thrusting your arm above you to give her the direction. When she’s retrieving this well you’ll be able to put dummies out in all three places at once and choose which to send her for.

The Stop Whistle

In conjunction with this you need to reinforce the stop whistle.

Occasionally, while you’re walking your dog and she’s nearby, use your stop whistle and have her sit.

If she sits promptly walk up to her, or call her to you and give her lots of praise and a reward.

She’ll soon catch on, that if she sits and looks at you when you blow your whistle she’ll get a reward, either a treat, or better still, a bird to retrieve.

That’s all from me. I hope you’ve found these articles useful.

If you need further help with your training you could contact the NZ Gundog Association at They’ll put you in touch with someone who can help.