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

Using the feminine touch to communicate

The boys at Ampleforth College, listening to my lecture on schooling spaniels, had done their homework. They had read about Venaticus Duncan, my best Clumber to date and the breed’s most prolific field trial award winner born in the 20th century. They knew of the Clumber spaniel as a rare, ancient and unlikely-looking working breed, and also as my personal obsession for 25 years. And they knew something of my success with Clumbers. I was keen to explain it.

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It was not, I began, what I discovered long ago, that a Clumber is outstanding as a picking-up dog. Take one into a pub (where you still can) or other public place, and in no time the prettiest girl there will have her arms around him.

No, no, that was not it at all. I had anyway been banned from using a Clumber for such introductions for as long as I could remember. And you should not be thinking that way about success, lads.

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Look at Max, I suggested. He’s just 13 months, a big puppy. He’s really promising: see how he looks at me. By nature, the Clumber is inclined to be independent. In practical terms, he’s happy doing his own thing. But self-employment in a spaniel is at odds with our aim of a productive partnership. So the Clumber has to be kept dependent. It is what to look for in selecting a puppy, and it is a quality to be preserved thereafter. It can easily be lost, and by many handlers it is, even through simple errors that may seem unimportant. All it takes is for the habit of eye contact to be weakened, early commands (once learned) to be ignored, the handler to appear less interesting to the pup than playing with litter mates or other dogs, the dog allowed the habit of ranging too far, or exercise to be unaccompanied.

The fundamentals of training a Clumber are no different from other spaniels, but it helps to recognise the characteristics of the breed where they are peculiar. These go beyond its size, shape and appearance. I will have more to say about these in a later part of this series.

For a start, it is essential to appreciate how dogs communicate – and to use their language. It is the same for all forms of effective communication: use the language of the audience.

So, the trainer needs to be transparent, demonstrative and physical in praise, even exaggerated by the standards of human social conventions. This is to separate pleasure from displeasure, which must also be obvious, but restrained, and expressed by voice, dominance and use of the hand – again in dog language. Smacking is a human response. To be a dog, the handler has to stiffen, stare, growl, snarl, scruff and hold-down. I nearly added bite, but do not often own up to that. All this may seem unnatural to inhibited people; and it may look foolish to an observer, but better seem silly now, during a training session, than be made to look stupid when it counts, under fire and the gaze of others on a shoot day.

People talk about dogs as pack animals, and imagine it enough to assume the mantle of pack leader. With young dogs, it is better to replicate the role of the mother of the litter, not the father. This particularly involves the eloquent use of the hands: to begin with they resemble the dam’s pendulous teats, attracting the pup’s attention to mouth the fingers; they then become the equivalent of a dog’s mouth, particularly the dam’s – which tells puppies of her mood and gives grooming, food, play, pleasure,

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warnings and pain. Make pups look to the hands for guidance. For example, raise the palm for dropping and suppressing over-exuberance, easily done when giving an edible treat; raise the whole arm when at any distance. Show the pup when changing direction, point to cover, click to attract attention, clap to demand it. From earliest days, cup hands low when recalling the puppy – he responds to them before ever learning the command. Allow the pup to play bite the fingers.

Gently “bite” him back, particularly his face, around the scruff of the neck for light dominance, harder if he is too rough. Caress his face; wipe his eyes. Hold a biscuit in a closed hand for him to investigate. Use a toggle-less puppy dummy the same way. Later (much later if possible) it is a ready matter to teach heeling, without recourse to a lead, just by having the puppy follow the hand: the advantage here is

that if he has not been taught to heel by use of a lead, he never pulls on one when it is introduced.

When to start training is a perennial question. It depends on what is meant by training. Handling in the garden, chasing, playing, adding light controls while feeding and managing around the kennel or indoor cage where the puppy is housed – all is good conditioning. The key is repetition and association.

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Serious training, imposing any kind of pressure, is for later, but there really is no need to delay kindergarten lessons as long as they are all paint and play-dough. Unlike other spaniel breeds, with their almost irrepressible sharpness and responsiveness, with the Clumber training cannot afford to wait. If it is delayed, there may be little left on which to build: he can become self-centred, slow, indolent and withdrawn. But if an early programme of structured training is adopted, the need for a light touch is no less, and perhaps more, essential than with any puppy. The aim is to preserve the spirit, the gaiety, the lack of inhibition, the initiative, the fire.

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My Clumbers are not slow. They are no “dogs for old men”. When I exercise a young dog, I am running as much as he is. I keep him going at the double only, and then put him away. His is not the only tongue that is then lolling. People comment on how happy my Clumbers seem. That is part of why they go well, but while the springer is dependent by nature, even the cocker too, the Clumber is not, and it is essential to make him so. The trainer has to be the centre of the dog’s life, the most interesting and surprising being he knows, the inspiration for new experience, the single source of all excitement, pleasure and confidence.