Spaniels chase birds for the same reason that retrievers go after balls: it's a strong instinct that has been deeply ingrained courtesy of many years of selective breeding. Many spaniels find the movement of birds irresistible, to the point of even chasing birds in their dreams!
A Matter of Instincts
All dogs have some level of chase instinct, better known as "prey drive." Indeed, prey drive is a genetically driven instinct, that dates back to the times prior to domestication.
Before being domesticated, dogs were hunters and scavengers. This means they had to often work for their meals. The wolf, a dog's ancestors, spent several hours a day searching and hunting for prey animals to survive.
Interestingly, humans at some point, decided to partner with dogs because several dog predatory traits turned helpful. However, some traits required to be emphasized, while others needed to be mellowed down.
For example, certain dogs were found to be potentially great candidates for herding livestock as they are naturally inclined to chase, however, their instinct to bite the livestock had to be watered down as they couldn't afford to loose any due to injuries. After years of selective breeding, sheep dogs were created.
On the other hand, certain dogs were found to be potentially great candidates for searching for wild animals, but their sense of smell had to be accentuated, to the point that they could track them from a distance and alert hunters of their findings. After years of selective breeding, scent hounds were created.
Spaniels were also selectively bred because traits of their prey drive could have turned helpful. Their prey drive indeed turned out especially helpful to hunters.
The History of Spaniels
Prey drive runs deep into spaniels. Spaniels were selectively bred for various purposes, but one of the most prominent tasks was flushing game out of brush. The "game" consisted mostly of birds and small game.
In the early times, birds were hunted mainly by throwing nets. Spaniels therefore turned helpful in flushing birds out of thick bush into nets. As the first shotguns were invented, spaniels were used to drive birds out of their hiding spot so that the hunter could aim and shoot.
The term used for depicting the action of driving the birds out of their hiding spots is "flushing" but the term "springing" can also be used.
The job of spaniels was therefore more dynamic compared to other gun dogs, such as pointers who had to stand motionless pointing, and setters who had to "set" that is, crouching down at the sight of birds.
It therefore should come as no surprise the fact that many spaniels will want to chase birds in the back yard.
Now That You Know...
As seen, spaniels have a good reason to chase birds: they were bred to do that! However, if you want to have your spaniel a little more under control here are a few tips.
- Avoid calling when your dog takes off. Calling your spaniel from doing what he likes doing best may come to feel like a chore, something not worthy or even can feel as punishment. It will also risk weakening her response to her recall since she's not coming when called and our recall risks becoming victim of a phenomenon known in training circles as "learned irrelevance." Basically, failed recall, after failed recall, our recall starts losing its power until it becomes irrelevant.
- Avoid off-leash walks. The more your spaniel engages in bird-chasing behaviors the more they put roots. When we allow a spaniel to chase birds, we are establishing a strong reinforcement history. The dog getting to carry out an ingrained instinct and this is internally reinforcing.
- Keep your spaniel on leash or on a long line. It's important to engage in management for now until you can work on obtaining a more stellar recall-which will take some time as you're working against strong instincts here. So management-wise, I would keep a spaniel on leash, or alternatively, you can find a compromise and use a long line. A long line is a long type of leash (ranging from 10 to 30 even 50 feet).
- Train a strong recall. With your spaniel on a longline, practice some recalls starting in low distraction areas such as in the yard or on quiet walks with no birds around. Here's how to train it: how to train your dog to come when called.
- Use a silent whistle. Using a silent whistle may come handy when calling dogs over distances. It's the same process only that rather than voice your dog learns to come when you sound the whistle. Here's a guide on dog whistle training.
- You may also want to train a strong response to the leave it cue. Here's how to train it: how to train a dog to leave it and drop.
- Work gradually under distractions. Remember that you are working under strong distractions with a breed blessed with ingrained chasing instincts, so you're looking more at an advanced form of training. This takes time and lots of practice. You need to start indoors, then in the yard and then gradually increase distractions on walks.
- Create set-ups. One of my favorite methods is to practice recalls and leave its with fake birds and helpers that drag around stuffed animals tied to a long string in tall grass. I also have helpers also toss rocks (without the dog seeing) in tall grass on an opposite field and practice with that while the dog is on a long line. Soon, the dog realizes that the sounds of grass being moved by the tossed rocks doesn't produce prey and learns to attend less to it and pay more attention to the treats I have.
- With some challenging hunting dogs, I find that more than verbal cues (like saying leave it) they may respond more readily to sounds. I have therefore had more success with these guys by making a smacking sound and then delivering a treat to reinforce paying attention to me/looking at me. I start training this in areas with little distractions like a fenced yard and then gradually increase the level of distractions. Rep after rep, the goal is to have a dog who learns to look at you by default anytime your dog hears a sound/catches a smell.
- Use a flirt pole. Practicing leave its and drop its with a flirt pole can also turn helpful. This is a good impulse control exercise.
- Reward with high-value foods. Very important is to use very high value rewards for choosing to leave it or come when called under strong distractions. These rewards need to surpass the adrenaline associated with the fun of the chase. I like to feed several treats in a row (I use the super duper high value foods like strips of baked liver) to leave a strong impact. However, in some dogs bred for hunting, the drive/instinct to hunt is so strong that they can care less even if you dangle a slice of liverwurst in their face. Their eyes are sort of glazed over, and they look as if they're in a trance. It's important to catch them before they get to this state and are under threshold.
- Don't forget about scent. Spaniels are blessed with strong noses so you may want too practice with scent too. Find some feathers, you can practice with those (since they retain some odor) by creating set-ups. You can have a helper on walks place them in a bushy area (prior to you walking by), and you can practice walking by that area and doing leave its/recalls initially at a distance from the bush (always with the leash) using super value treats to reinforce good choices. Another idea that comes to mind, if you spot on walks an area where there are often birds, and you see them fly away, you can practice walking by this area since there will be some residual scent.
- No guarantees. Consider that, even with lots of training, a time may come where we may meet a distraction we haven't worked on yet and things can get upsetting and even risky. Even a well-trained dog may catch and kill a rabbit or may run in a road full of traffic. It can happen, and this is why service dogs and police dogs in airports are often on leash too. It keeps them focused and out of trouble. So it's always best to use a leash or long line for safety (and also consider that there are many birds that are protected under state wildlife legislations.