How not to have a lumbering Clumber

A series of four articles by James Darley, giving insights into his success with the breed at work and in field trials. Published 1999 – 2000, they remain relevant to trainers and handlers today.

Part one / Part two / Part three / Part four

Raising the mood to raise the standard

With other spaniels, the trainer can afford to be tougher, more suppressive when necessary. They have brimstone in reserve. I generalise of course – every dog needs to be treated as an individual. With the Clumber it is harder to achieve the essential, and elusive, balance between fire and water. It is necessary to get the dog’s acceptance of the trainer dominating him, but not being domineering. Few owners seem to achieve the same level of understanding of the Clumber’s character, and few capable trainers of other, easier gundogs make the transition. Not many even make the attempt. Hence the success I have enjoyed with so many Clumbers is rare.

I try to explain to handlers the need to distinguish between training that is elevating, and that which is depressing.

Take the “drop”. If the recall is the first essential control in training, this is the second. But it is depressing, unless it signals another task to follow: then the anticipation makes it uplifting.

Confinement, it might be thought, is depressing. Of course it is, if it is unrelieved. But a confined dog is a dog at ease. It can relax and please itself without being nagged. On release it is fresh and on its toes. Self-restraint on a bed or blanket, perhaps perversely, is repressing: the dog has to stay there, when it would rather be doing things like climbing the furniture, chasing the cat or chewing a toy. It will become used to it, but in doing so may lose the gloss on its performance.

Walking to heel, on or off the lead are out, until such time as they can be associated with the impending prospect of work. Jumping is OK: if the handler needs to discourage it, as he will, he should use the upraised hand, but without being heavy. Naughtiness, I repeat, is good.

Free running and games with the handler, and other dogs, are fine, as long as they take place close, well within what will later become familiar as hunting range: the dog should never get far

out without feeling a loss of self-confidence.

Retrieves are uplifting, but they must remain few, and be viewed as a reward, the more so while the dog is too young to correct if he goes wrong. So, picking up and fetching toys is allowed, collecting rubbish and dead things, however unspeakable, is a yes: smile and say thank you, even through gritted teeth.

Steadiness does not need to be depressing, if it is introduced as fun – prompted by hand signals, a word of command, the whistle, the thrown dummy (and later a shot) – all with the element of surprise. And sparingly. And followed by more of what the dog is learning to love best – free running, never mind the cover, with wonderful animal scents to intoxicate him. And in spite of the boss dodging and weaving back and forth in a daft zigzag pattern: oh well, might as well humour him and follow his lead.

It is important that the dog does not know he is being trained. Then he cannot react against it. Commands are part of his routine, not of lessons. Reinforcement comes from the association of commands with events, from play, and from a sense of dependence. If the pup is becoming too cocky on familiar ground, move on to new ground where he will be more dependent.

Early training of a Clumber pup enables the handler to have, at maybe only six months, a lively, responsive, dependent, well-mannered but mischievous infant, ready and keen for his first day at school. And to know he’ll do well.


Schooling in the subjects he will need can then become a little more serious, more applied. It should involve no sudden change in tempo.

Remembering the discussion about uplifting and depressing activity, minimum schooling is desirable. Three times a week when you are both fresh and eager is preferable to twice a day as a necessary chore.

The lead when accepted is uplifting for short periods, as the dog can switch off, quietly anticipating release and action; for longer, such as when waiting a turn at a novice test, say, the lead is a restraint and can be depressing, which may explain an uncharacteristically poor performance that confounds his owner.

Hunting is uplifting when free, but intervening to persuade the dog to hunt a close, shallow pattern, invariably necessary with a Clumber, can be depressing, so care is needed. Equally, hunting when tired is a downer, so keep sessions short and sharp. Cover that hurts, like brambles, gorse, thistles and stinging nettles, is not uplifting until it too is recognised by the dog as where game is to be found.

Dropping can be depressing, particularly on a damp backside, and shots at first – unless these controls can be associated with heralding other actions; these should not, of course, be assumed each time to be retrieves, or steadiness will suffer. The norm should be to hunt on. Accurate guns may have to do some deliberate missing if the dog is not to learn to expect there is game to collect after every shot.

Steadiness needs to be a positive alteration of the instinct to chase. This is easier advised than practised. So the dog needs incentives. This could be a few moments of pure, concentrated, eye-to-eye and mind-to-mind contact to cement the action. It could be clear – even exaggerated – praise, but followed by a call to attention else riot may result. It could be a game as reward, a retrieve, or more hunting to follow.

The closer the Clumber is to the point of breaking his bonds of control, the quicker his mind is working, the sharper his wits, the more receptive he is and the quicker his responses. It may be a contradiction but he can be at his most steady, then, on the verge of unsteadiness. At that edge, he is really living. He is at his most exciting and, for the handler who loves spaniel work, his most stylish.