Three years ago my brother Bruce and his wife Gayle decided to up sticks from their two bedroom cottage in Walton-on-Thames and head for the Scottish Highlands.

This announcement came as a big surprise to me. They were both true townies with a penchant for good restaurants, trendy pubs, cinemas, coffee shops etc. They found a house just 10 miles north of Inverness on the Black Isle, and soon after settling in they announced they were going to buy two dogs, not just pooches, but gundogs! Their only experience was the time they spent with my two working labradors when they came on holiday to Devon.

So they went on a mission to get two black labs. Having done their research they found a gundog breeder just north of Edinburgh. A few days later I had a phone call – ‘mission accomplished!’ They had bought two part-trained labs, Charlie and Piper. Of course, I was full of advice. Don’t let them do this and that, they are not like normal dogs. Having said that, a fat lot of good my advice would be as my two were not very obedient and certainly not good role models!

labrador retriever

Bruce bought a kennel, which the new arrivals only spent the nights in; during the day they had their freedom. Charlie and Piper slipped into Bruce and Gayle’s routine, and Bruce would spend the odd couple of hours a week training them with a dummy launcher. Their plan was to go picking-up on a local estate. I was very cynical about all of this as I could not envisage them out there in the field with the new dogs and no picking-up experience. Was it not a recipe for disaster?

Bruce told me the dogs were great, and his dog Piper was amazing. I had to see this for myself, so I booked a flight and armed with my camera took off for the Highlands.

Arriving at their house, I was greeted by these two beautiful coal-black labs with coats like seals. During dinner that evening we chatted about the next day’s shoot, and Bruce and Gayle were full of jovial banter on whose dog would perform the best. After supper, we retired to the living room where a wood burner was radiating out tremendous heat, and we sat and had a dram or two. Then to my horror, Charlie jumped up and laid beside Gayle on the sofa and Piper climbed up beside Bruce. “Oh my God, what are you doing? How can you allow them to do that?” But Gayle then announced: “Oh, it’s fine – they always cosy up with us and then they go to their kennel to sleep.” I was starting to get the picture already – there was no way these dogs would perform well in the field.

lab retrieving a pheasant

We were up at the crack of dawn getting ready for our day’s picking-up. It was freezing cold and snowing but the shoot wasn’t far away. We were soon there meeting up with everyone, greetings exchanged and then off for the first drive.I opted to go with Gayle. Standing in the freezing morning air, she was more intent on talking to Charlie than to me! I had never heard talk like it coming from a picker-up. The verbal chatter was bizarre to say the least; I thought I was hearing things. “OK Charlie Charles, you be a good boy and bring those birds back to me?” This banter was followed by a big smacker of a kiss on Charlie’s head! I swear that dog was taking it all in as he sat there with his neck craned, patiently scanning the sky.

Gayle was all smiles and clearly loving every second. Down came the first bird in Charlie’s range. Gayle let him go, and he was on a mission. He picked the bird, turned and ran towards Gayle who was standing there with her arms stretched wide open and shouting “Come on my Charlie Charles.’’ The dog came straight to her and sat like a statue with his prize. At first I thought she was going to pick him up and hug him, but she just gave him another smacker on the head, and this went on for the rest of the day. It was a touching sight to see them together in such harmony and clearly both really enjoying the day.

picking up with labradors

After lunch I went to see my brother and Piper in action. This was another strange experience. Bruce did not really say much to Piper but this dog was clearly in awe of him. Piper just seemed to know what to do instinctively as Bruce had done very little training with him. My thoughts drifted back to Piper snuggled up on the chair with Bruce. All the things I had said were proved wrong! When Piper retrieved his first bird I was crouching low to take a photo of him. My eyes suddenly filled with tears as I saw this beautiful black creature thundering through the snow at full speed towards us with a huge cock pheasant in his mouth. Looking through the camera lens I could see the loyalty this dog had for my brother – a truly moving moment.

It was an amazing day watching this little team of four at work. It was very evident that Bruce and Gayle adore their dogs and picking-up. I have never seen a couple so happy together. It was a far cry from having lunch with them at some trendy pub in London.

The moral of the story is yes, you can let your gundog cuddle up.