At his Smythesdale property near Ballarat in Victoria Mark Davis is walking towards the neat row of kennels.
The excited yapping starts as he approaches and Trapper; a 14-month-old Labrador leaps about with excitement when he’s selected for a workout — he’s almost as happy as his human companion.
The Labrador breed goes back a long way in the Davis family and Trapper is one of two the same age that Mark has in training at the moment.
His formal name is Kadnook Solitary Man and he has an impressive pedigree; his sire is a two-time winner of the English International Gundog League National Championship.
Mark’s uncle was a keen hunter who owned some of the first Labradors to come to Australia in the 1950s. His own parents had Cocker Spaniels which his grandfather also bred.
Over the years Mark has kept German Shorthaired Pointers and Hungarian Vizsla primarily for quail hunting and got his first Labrador from Keyolah Kennels in Castlemaine in 1985 which he trained as a duck dog.
In 1987 Mark decided to test his training and entered a beginner’s retrieving trial. He won, beating more than 30 other dogs and their handlers.
He was hooked.
Over the past 15 years Mark Davis has focused on training methods that exert little or no physical pressure on the dog; instead relying on mutual respect, encouraging the dog’s natural instincts and willingness to work for someone they love.
It is with little fondness that he recalls his early days with dogs when other trainers used electronic collars.
“I’ve never used them, myself and others have gone down a different track that does away with aversive training methods because of the problems with using them.
With our retrieving trials under the Australian National Kennel Council rules they are totally banned.
“Some guys can’t believe you can train a gun dog without placing some physical pressure on them but you absolutely can. If you educate them the right way you can train them without using any physical pressure, this is what I’ve been developing in my training over the past 15 years.
“Since I’ve moved down that track I’ve won two national championships which proved to me that the way I am going is the correct way.”
Given his success it would be fair to describe Mark as a master trainer of gun dogs but his passion isn’t restricted to working with the dogs in his care.
He and other successful gun dog trainers feel they have an obligation to pass on their wisdom so that others can enjoy the thrill of hunting with a loyal and enthusiastic partner.
“I’m a student of gun dog training from all over the world and various techniques they use. I think we’ve got some of the best gun dog trainers in Australia.
“I’m into positive reinforcement. I relate it to raising your children. You bring your children up in a positive environment but that doesn’t stop you from growling at them when they are naughty and that’s the way I train my dogs.”
Mark recalls his early hunting trips with extended family and how efficient and disciplined his uncle’s dogs were but there were many others joining the hunts that were not well controlled.
“A shot would go off, a duck would falland five dogs would take off to go and pick it up, it was just bedlam.”
Mark’s belief is that there’s no reasonwhy all handlers can’t achieve a highlevel of command and control with theirdogs providing they use the right trainingmethods.
Dog owners are more problematic,the fact is that not every hunter has the temperament to train a gun dog.
“It is not actually for everyone, you have to be a patient person or be able to train yourself to be a patient person when you are training dogs.
“It is a process that does take time and there is a lot of repetition involved in the training. Some people have the right temperament for it and some might not necessarily have the right temperament to successfully train their dogs.
“However, even the guys that are not naturally suited to it, with the right education and the right advice they are going to make a reasonable fist of it and not get frustrated and angry.
“That anger and frustration translates straight to the dog, it has to be fun for the dog and fun for you, particularly the work side of it.”
Mark’s advice to any hunter considering taking on a dog for the first time is to consult widely.
“If they haven’t had much to do with gun dogs they need to talk to the guys who have got them and ask questions about training.
“We put on training days specifically for duck hunters and we cover it right from absolute beginners to guys that have spent a lifetime with gun dogs who want to get more advanced level advice about their training.
“The other thing they can do is go to field trials and have a look. It relates directly to duck hunting and when you attend you can talk to a lot of people who have gun dogs and get information and advice that way as well.
“I focus on positive training with all my dogs. They have to have that happy, positive attitude to all their work so there is nothing negative in what I do with the retrieving side of it and the obedience stuff is more repetition with the heeling, the sitting, the staying and the recalls.
“You can tend to bore them a little bit with that but you don’t want to crush them with it, you still want them wagging their tail even when you are doing the repetitious stuff.”
The critical piece in the jigsaw is put in place before any training starts; establishing the close bond required between handler and dog.
“Bonding is critical, people who take our puppies; the number one thing for them to do is to bond with the pup so that the relationship is all about mutual respect and love.”
“A dog will do anything for you if it loves you but if it doesn’t think much of you it is quite likely to give you a negative response, you see that happen often.”
The bond is evident with Trapper as he sits at Mark’s feet wagging his tail and bouncing ever so slightly on his haunches.
He wants to go and retrieve each of the training dummies as they are thrown but he understands that he can’t take off without the right command.
Trapper is eventually sent bounding away but he doesn’t rush to the target. He’s remembered where each of them fell and looks around for direction. Mark’s gentle commands and whistles direct Trapper to the retrieve he wants made first.
Trapper obliges, ignoring a dummy he knows is in sight and switching to the next one before
waiting for a command to ignore or retrieve. Trapper is doing his owner’s bidding with
that unmistakable Labrador smile and an ever-wagging tail. Both master and servant
are enjoying achieving the goals through cooperation and mutual understanding.
“I love my dogs mate, I absolutely love them and my wife will tell you they absolutely love me as well.
“You cannot get the best out of a dog unless that exists. They might work for you but there will be those moments where that respect for each other and the trust will make the difference in a particular retrieve or exercise that is happening in a duck swamp.”
Gun dogs don’t live in isolation; most are part of a larger human family which begs the question about what impact that has on the crucial early bonding and the handler/dog relationship.
“I tell owners who get dogs off us that are really keen hunters that they need to be the one that has the primary relationship with the dog in the first 12 to 18 months.
“The kids can play with the dog no problem in a controlled environment but you certainly don’t want them out the back throwing tennis balls and teaching it all sorts of bad habits with the retrieve.
There can be some negative stuff that goes along with the family environment but once they
are trained up by all means, people should take them into the family.”
The other big question at the outset is which breed to select.
“It depends on what you do primarily, if you are a duck hunter then any of the retriever breeds are fine, particularly in Victoria where the duck season runs into winter. The German Short Haired Pointer or the pointer breed; there’s some wonderful duck dogs amongst them but they are short coated dogs, they don’t have the undercoat of the retrievers so they don’t cope with the cold water as well.
“If you are a duck hunter I would recommend one of the retriever breeds or spaniels; if you are a quail shooter then absolutely go for one of the pointing breeds or Brittany Spaniels are very good on quail.”
“If you do a bit of both and go with a retriever you can hunt both no problems but you won’t be able to hunt quail when it is 35°C because they will knock up really quickly. The other side of the coin is the pointers when you put them in cold water on ducks.
“From my point of view, I’m probably a bit biased, the Labrador is generally the best all-around dog there is for our part of the world. We even hunt deer with ours but I have a cobber over at Benalla who has German Wirehaired Pointers; they carry a heavier coat and they cope with the cold water a lot better than the shorthaired.
“He works deer all the time and says they are fantastic.”
Another option, although limited, is to take on a pre-trained dog from someone else. Mark says it isn’t foolproof but a dog with the right temperament that has been trained correctly will be able to bond with a new owner if they go through the right procedure.
“Bonding is critical but you can switch it over to other people if that trust is established.”
The difficulty is that Australia doesn’t have established professional gun dog ‘colleges’ found in other parts of the world.
“Unfortunately in Australia it is all amateur, the Americans have got professionals who train dozens of dogs at the same time and have numerous staff.
“There are trainers in our sport who sometimes train for others but not very often, I have people ring me up wanting to train dogs and if I’ve got the time and aren’t flat out making a living as a plumber I have done that from time to time.”
Mark Davis has been a Field & Game member since 1983 and is also a Retrieving Trial Committee member with Dogs Victoria and a Championship Judge. Mark was also a founding member of the Central Highlands Working Gundog Club and runs pre-season training with FGA.
He’s happy to answer any questions about dog breeds and training methods and will draw on the experience of his many colleagues. Whether you’re a novice seeking basic advice or an experienced handler with a specific problem scenario, your questions will be answered.
Send any questions for our gun dog team to firstname.lastname@example.org and include a photo of you and your dogs if you are already an owner.
The best question published in each edition will win a gun dog prize pack from Winchester Australia. You can read more about Mark and Wendy Davis’ breeding operation at www.beereeganlabradors.com