Hunting closely and under control is an invaluable skill that every spaniel should be taught, whether they are working dogs or family pets.
Just as retrievers are born with the desire to carry things in their mouths, spaniels have hunting written into their DNA.
One of the main roles of a spaniel is to hunt closely in front of its handler, systematically covering the ground in a zig-zag pattern, known as quartering, before flushing the game birds.
Teaching them to quarter effectively is simply a case of harnessing this natural talent, ensuring that they don’t go “self-employed” or range too far.
You want to be working together as a team, to cover ground thoroughly and effectively, within shotgun range so that anything flushed can be shot, and then retrieved.
Hunting closely and under control is an invaluable skill and something that every spaniel should be taught, whether they are working dogs or family pets.
In my opinion, it is even more important for owners to teach their pet spaniels how to quarter. Sadly, so many springers and cockers are rehomed every year after ending up in non-working homes with owners who don’t understand the breed.
Spaniels need a regular outlet for their hunting drive, otherwise, they end up being difficult to manage in the house, can start exhibiting weird behaviours like shadow chasing, and often cause a nuisance on walks, bogging off on scent trails as soon as they’re let off lead.
Equally, quartering is a great way to help spaniels with high energy levels to burn off some steam without having to take them on a hike every day. Plus getting them to use their brains will mentally wear them out, even if they’re not physically tired.
Find the right sort of ground to practice on. This will largely depend on your individual dog and what you have access to.
A good working spaniel should hunt willingly even if there is no game around, or if scent is scarce. These dogs might need to practice quartering initially in a more sterile environment to prevent them from losing their heads and pulling ahead.
On the flip side, some spaniels will naturally have less prey drive and might need some really scenty cover to get them started and hunting with purpose and into a good flow.
Figure out which way the wind is blowing and make sure you’re facing into it, to begin with.
If you are not sure how to work out wind direction, you can rip up some grass and throw it in the air, or you can buy special wind direction devices which emit a puff of fine white dust into the air.
Next, sit your dog next to you at heel, put your hand out to the right, give your release cue and start walking to the right with your dog. If you have successfully picked the right ground, they should put their nose down and start hunting.
Top tip: If your spaniel is likely to want to hunt too far away, or is used to being 'self-employed', use a long line so that they can’t practice running off as soon as they're released. You want this training to be focused on the turn whistle, not constantly recalling them because they’ve gone too far.
After a few paces, change direction and walk to the left. As you do so, gesture with your left arm, give two pips (pip-pip) on the whistle, turn your shoulders in the opposite direction and start walking to the left.
If you already have a verbal cue meaning “this way” you could also say this to make it really clear that you want them to change direction.
Repeat this process, walking the whole zig-zag pattern with your spaniel and getting them used to turning every time you give the pip-pip turn whistle.
When you’re confident your dog understands that pip-pip means to change direction, you can move on to the next stage.
In this stage, we're going to start to gradually fade out how much of the zig-zag pattern you walk with your dog.
Start in the same way as you did before, with your dog at heel and the wind blowing towards you. Give your release cue and gesture in the direction you want your spaniel to start hunting. Walk out a few paces, just like you did before, but let your spaniel go past you a few paces before giving the turn whistle cue, moving your shoulders and changing direction.
You want to carry on like this, doing fewer and fewer steps until you finally can walk forward with just a shoulder turn to indicate changing direction.
For some dogs, you might achieve this in your first training session. Others might take longer. You will need to judge how your own dog is getting on.
Keep practising as regularly as you can. While most spaniels genuinely love hunting for the sake of hunting, that doesn’t mean that we should expect them, particularly young or less goey dogs, to hunt for hours without some reward or find.
If you often get frustrated that your spaniel is hunting too far away from you, you need to focus on reinforcing the idea that hunting close to you is much more rewarding than when they stray too far away.
When your spaniel is hunting, discreetly place a tennis ball out to the opposite side. Then blow your turn whistle, turn your shoulders and get your dog to hunt towards the ball.
Allow them to find it as a reward and get them to deliver it back to you. They will soon learn that all good things happen when they are hunting close by, as a team.
Caveat: If you are having issues with delivery to hand, and are working on this separately, I would strongly recommend you use some tasty food rewards instead of a tennis ball. You really don’t want your dog to be practising sloppy deliveries, it will confuse them and you’ll ruin progress in your other training. Just make sure the treat is hidden and not visibly thrown out to the side like in the previous steps.
Make sure that it’s always fun for the dog and finish your sessions while they are still full of motivation so that you don’t accidentally reward them for slow, apathetic hunting - this is especially important for less driven dogs.
As they gain experience, your spaniel will learn how far to hunt from you and the quartering zig-zag pattern will become a habit so you won’t have to blow your turn whistle every time.
As long as you are consistent with them too, they should also learn to pick up on your body language cues such as turning your shoulders.
Eventually, you will be hunting quietly and will only need the whistle if something has distracted them, or pulled them too far off course.
When we start teaching our spaniels to quarter, we always make sure that we are walking into the wind. It makes it much easier to teach them a good, reliable pattern from the outset because your spaniel will naturally want to work into the wind, where the scent will be coming from.
In reality, however, the wind is not always going to be in your favour and this is when you take your spaniel training to the next level.
There are tons of different quartering patterns which take different wind directions into account.
For example, if the wind is blowing away from you, you can teach your spaniel to run out and quarter back towards you.
Or if there is a side wind coming from the left, you can cast them off right for them to quarter into the wind to the left of you.
Quartering is an essential skill for all working spaniels and a great way for pet spaniel owners to keep their dogs close to them while out on walks.
Remember, the gundog training journey should be rewarding for both you and your dog. By investing time and patience, you not only enhance your spaniel's skills but also strengthen the bond of trust and partnership between you and your canine companion.
As you progress, remember to adapt to environmental factors like wind direction, scent conditions, the presence of game, and the amount of cover. Above all, don’t forget to enjoy the sight of your spaniel gracefully quartering in front of you - I’ve always found it such a pleasure to watch.
If you're looking for more useful tutorials and drills like this, why not take a look at our monthly membership? This gives you access to an extensive library of training videos including several spaniel-specific exercises. More information can be found by clicking here.