Being asked to choose my dog of a lifetime has been bittersweet for me. I was introduced to working dogs by my father Ray Sheldon. I was so honoured to be asked to write this, and wanted so much to tell him, but sadly we lost him to cancer on 25 October last year aged 63. It’s hard to talk about any of my dogs without mentioning Dad because he’s always been a part of my life with dogs. I know he would have been delighted at my writing this, so I’m going to include his favourite dog too.

Growing up I was always surrounded by dogs. We lived on a smallholding with sheep, and I had a wonderful border collie named Sam. Sam would go wherever I went. I’d take her to agility classes, and she would come out with me on the horses following behind as I rode up the mountains that surrounded our home in South Wales. I loved her dearly. Sam was a wonderful companion for me, providing fun when I was happy, and acting as a towel for my tears when I was sad. She was the dog that made me understand why dogs are our best friends. 

At the same time we also had a Jack Russell called Piggy. He was a clever little dog who guarded our home against anyone who shouldn’t be in the yard. For a little dog, he would raise fear in most visitors. Dad spent his life saying “Piggy get out” as he would try to creep so slowly into the kitchen. I think that dog was the only one dad failed to train simply because he’d make Dad laugh and then he would give in and let him in. Piggy taught me that lack of discipline will give you a dog that makes their own decisions.

The road to recovery

After I left home, dogs didn’t play a part in my life for a while. I started a family and I was busy working, however, in 2010 I was unexpectedly diagnosed with a brain tumour and underwent a six hour operation. Dad was there by my side throughout, helping me recover, and rebuild my confidence, and he was there when I was told in 2012 it had regrown. His confident happy daughter was now struggling to achieve basic tasks such as leaving the house. In my father’s mind the best thing for me to do was to get outdoors and start attending the shoots with him.

Dad was already madly keen on gundogs, had been for years, and was taking part in trials and working on estates. From the first day of beating I too was hooked. At the beginning I’d borrow one of Dad’s dogs. He ran a large team, and they made my life a breeze in the line. Push-button gundogs who made me look amazing (even though I had no clue whatsoever what I was meant to be doing!) They would work the ground in front of me and I’d walk behind enthralled at their skill. One of Dad’s favourite dogs was a darling liver and white spaniel bitch called Grace. Regardless of the severity of cover, she smashes her way through, and if there’s a bird to be found she will find it for you. I loved working her. She’s still with me today, and not only did she get me through the first few months, but she’s now used by my daughter Meg too. She’s more than Dad’s favourite, she’s loved by all of us. The only challenge I’ve ever had with Grace was as soon as she’d heard Dad’s whistle, she would forget she was working for me, and scarper back to be by his side where she belonged, one of the most loyal dogs I’ve ever met.

A man of few words

Around this time in our kennels we had a lovely black and white spaniel bitch called Jess. She came to us at a year old and her feelings on men were a little mixed from the start. For some reason she didn’t trust Dad, and he thought that her living in a home with me, my husband and my three children might bring her round. He saw great potential in her. I took her home and she became my best dog ever.

Jess and I went through rebuilding our confidence in the world together. She’s a soft girl who doesn’t like a raised word or a loud voice, so we built our bond based on complete trust and love. She works like a dream for me, and she’s constantly improving despite being older now.

In our home, she constantly lays on her bench by the radiator, opening an eye now and then to check you’re about, only raising her head to see where you’re going in the house. Then you take her outside and she switches up to this dog with unbelievable drive. You wouldn’t think she was the same dog. Always willing to please, she makes me smile just looking at her. I’ve had so many lovely days out with Dad, his dogs and Jess. One of my proudest moments was where he told me she was ‘coming on lovely’. Dad was a man of very few words, if he praised you, you had earned it. Her confidence around men has improved and she represents my own journey back to health.

The ugly duckling flourishes

I now have her daughter Ella (pictured) too, a liver and white bitch who Dad named ugly duckling when she was born, all white with two brown patches on her head. She’s grown into a beautiful bitch who I hope will help me follow in Dad’s footsteps into the competition world. Ella has the heart of a lion, and the intelligence and sweetness of her mum. Each time I train her, I pray to Dad not to let me mess her up. I think she will become my dog of a lifetime as the years go on.

Dad’s death has meant my team of dogs has grown overnight from two to eight. I now have three labs, Tom who we bred, Alice and Tonka, and three extra spaniels Grace, Buddy and Meg, all of whom I love dearly just like Dad did.  It’s going to be an interesting time for me, but I’ve met so many lovely women in our group who offer me constant advice and support. The Ladies Working Dog Group (LWDG) came in to existence because when I first started beating with Dad I wanted to talk to other women about my worries when it comes to dog training.

I realised quickly I wasn’t the only woman in the dog world whose confidence sometimes holds them back. Dad’s encouragement to build my confidence has had the knock on effect of supporting over 2,500 other lovely ladies. His legacy will continue through me and the LWDG. This is a tribute to him, his incredible dogs both past and present and also to my dogs who have been a lifelin