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We ask six people from the shooting world about their all-time favourite gundogs.
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I remember my first conversation concerning Madge. We were having a splendid lunch at the Sandringham Flower Show in July 2012. My daughter Faye was having dog chats with Amanda Clark, wife of David who was then the headkeeper at the marvellous royal estate in north Norfolk. Amanda mentioned that her son-in-law Sam had a cocker bitch and it was due to have a litter any time soon. My ears pricked up and I zoned in on the conversation. Faye was interested in having a look at the puppy but before I could help myself I blurted out, “me too”. My wife looked at me quizzically and said, “Did I hear you correctly, another dog? We already have a lurcher and a papillon.” That was then...
The years have gone by, the papillon is no longer with us but we still have our lurcher Tiggy. Back to Madge, a lovely little chocolate bitch with a white racing stripe running down her chest, and the tiniest white fleck on her stubby little tail, not to mention those big ears. By the way, the tail never stops wagging.
Technical talk now, Madge is used as a peg dog, okay, I got it wrong, she is a spaniel, but I’m not a bush beater, so there we have it. At the start of the drive Madge is put on the lead and pegged to the ground. In the early days she pulled if a dead bird fell near her. Now she just sits patiently, waiting for the end of the drive. What a nose she has, any bird in the brash, down a drain, Madge is guaranteed to find it, and she is a superstar.
The downside, if you can call it that, is she always wants to be with me, near me, when it suits her. Well, not quite always... on the shoot bus, she always wants to go and say hello to everyone else and doesn’t feel she needs to be with me. Interestingly enough, she always wants to stand up to greet people – her front legs grapple with your leg.
That I am told is a trait of dogs bred on royal estates. The boss likes her dogs to be loving, so thank you ma’am. Once the bus stops and the door is opened she wants to be the first off, sometimes she is, sometimes I make her wait.
Andrew Wilson, a fellow member of the Scarborough Shooting Syndicate, my home team, has recently acquired a chocolate cocker and it’s called Magic, which does cause some confusion. Actually it’s not too bad, the dogs get along, as do the owners, and my dog does its own thing anyway. So much for dog training and commands.
My dog gets walked every day when we aren’t shooting but I don’t do much formal training with Madge. She will sit, she will stay, she kind of understands or acknowledges “back” and I can be heard shouting “where is it” and “bring it in”. The retrieve is usually followed by “good girl” when the bird is brought to my feet.
It’s so difficult to get the upper hand, she is so free spirited and still so enthusiastic. But what can I say,
I simply wouldn’t be without her.
It is sometimes said that we regret the things we don’t do rather more than the things we have done. I rather suspect Finn my liver flatcoat has few, if any, regrets at all. He is 10 now and there is a touch of grey about the muzzle. Neither of us are getting any younger. Is he the best gundog I’ve ever had? Undoubtedly yes. That said, no one would suggest he was the best-behaved companion in the field, but in terms of character and companionship he outshines every dog I’ve ever had.
It’s difficult to remember life before his arrival. His personality fills the house. I’d been told flatties could be independent thinkers, but I’d had a fairly strong-minded springer before and didn’t think a flatcoat would be too much of a challenge. That was a huge mistake. It was far, far more difficult than I could possibly have imagined.
The old adage about labradors starting out half-trained and spaniels finishing half-trained has no application to flatcoats at all. At least not mine. He quickly worked out what it was I was asking him to do. He would then consider the reasonableness of the request and perform a quick cost benefit analysis. If those two processes gave a positive answer he was, in his youth, superb.
There were hurdles on the way. He went to Gundog Academy where his irrepressible sense of humour and need to show off led to him being back-squadded. When he finally passed off the square there was much celebrating chez Glenser. Even more so when he accompanied me shooting and retrieved, perfectly, three plump and delicious duck one after the other. On another occasion he emerged from a ditch carrying, unasked and seemingly effortlessly, the body of a freshly shot large male fox. It gave him the appearance of a moustachioed French Cavalryman of the Napoleonic era.
There are, however, chapters of his life that he and I prefer remain unpublished. We do not talk of the odd partridge eaten on the drive and regurgitated in the back of the Gunbus to the howls of delight of my friends. The pheasant he wouldn’t hand over until he had plucked it – in front of the same friends on a different day. They wept with laughter this time. We gloss over the odd difference of opinion he may have had with other male dogs – and his firm preference for the company of canine ladies of whom he is distractingly fond.
For a while, heart-breakingly, it was easier to leave him at home than run the risk of another ‘incident’. These days however I tend to do more walked-up shooting over pointers than driven shooting and he is once again at my side. He seems to enjoy the rather less formal aspect of this sort of sport, gets on well with the pointers and can be trusted to enter the thickest cover either to flush a particularly sticky bird or to retrieve them from the more difficult spots.
When not so employed he thoroughly enjoys a spot of ratting or swimming in the North Sea even on the coldest of days.
He is a fine watchdog and has the most impressive, deep bark. He walks for miles and makes for a great companion. He is an attentive listener who rarely interrupts – what in German is called a ‘sprechhund’ but above all it is his zest for life and enthusiasm for filling every waking moment with fun that makes him my dog of a lifetime.
Having been brought up with a labrador in the house from my earliest days it is extraordinary the wonderful memories each dog fosters and indeed how dog ownership for many can be the first experience of real grief at their loss.
With the benefit of hindsight I had an aberration when I bought Grace, a very expensive field trial champion that I was led to believe would make the perfect peg dog. Well, she was perfect, in fact she was almost an automaton that I could control with the whistle like a robot and in our team I was the one that needed the training. Whilst she was the exhibition of a near perfect gundog, her personality was undoubtedly affected by her previous rigorous training and affection was not really Grace’s forte.
However, the arrival of a litter from Grace changed everything and the joy of being the breeder is that you can choose the pick of the crop and it wasn’t long before we had selected Fly as the dog to fill the vacant spot in the next generation.
Fly was born with a smile on her face and it is hard not to grin every time you look at her. She is the perfect antidote to a bad mood. With only a modest amount of training she quickly showed her natural ability to be the most wonderful peg dog and she never required a lead on a shoot day. Working alongside her mother Grace, Fly very quickly learned skills and obedience that perhaps would have taken longer without the influence of her mother.
It is only when you shoot without a dog do you realise just how much you are missing one of the joys our sport can offer. Fly would enjoy every moment of the day with me and her face when I missed a bird conjured up the most wonderful collection of statements of disappointment and disdain at my lack of prowess. She made missing a bird quite amusing! Every time you flicked the safety catch her ears would prick up and she was ready to mark the bird in the event of it being shot.
It is, though, her natural ability that made her stand out above the rest. She never wanted to collect the easiest bird first, she would at times travel a long way back to get the furthest bird she had seen hit, she was as good as any grouse marker board. I will always remember one bird on a shoot in Suffolk that I could have sworn I missed. She literally set off at the end of the drive towards where she had seen it land. I was bemused as to why she had gone but refrained from blowing the whistle. Sure enough she came back with it and I was staggered that she seemed to know I had hit it. I will never know what she saw and I didn’t, but this does demonstrate the remarkable sense and intelligence of a labrador.
After shooting I was always really careful to ensure she was dry and warm in the back of the car, and heated kennels at home are essential to give them as much protection as possible. But sadly the onset of arthritis led to Fly retiring from shooting and she now lives happily on my sister’s farm where she potters about in her old age still making everyone smile.
Jessie came to live with us when she was two-years-old. She’d previously lived in Wales with a sportsman who had trained her up but fell ill and wasn’t able to continue looking after her. As far as we know, she’d lived in
a kennel on her own for six months with very little human interaction. She arrived rather skinny and smelly – but keen to absorb as much love and affection as possible.
Her canine teeth had been ground down flat (presumably from chewing her bowl or kennel fence out of boredom) and unless she was given a job or told what to do, she would pace round and round and round the kitchen island – so we think the six months on her own had taken its toll.
However, she was also calm, adoring to anybody who loved her and an absolute delight to have around the house. The basics of her training were already well ingrained and I have maintained it with lots of dummy work through the summer and some happy times together in pigeon hides.
She’s always been very quiet and steady on the peg, incredibly biddable and eager to please. She stops to the whistle and then actually seems to prefer being directed left or right rather than allowed to work on her own. Whether in the field or just knocking around with the family in the house, I’ve always felt she’s a much happier, more contented dog if she’s got ‘a job’. If she knows what you want her to do she’s happy. Otherwise she can get a bit lost. This all makes for a wonderful friend.
I often find I’m the only person in a line of Guns with a dog. While this seems something of a shame to me, it does also mean Jessie and I get plenty of action... as well as appreciative comments from neighbouring guns as we hoover up all their birds at the end of a drive.
We’ve had some of our most memorable days together in pigeon hides where she’s just the best company. We love to share picnics and picking-up duties between us. I’ve never worked out how she knows to only retrieve the most recently shot birds, rather than those subsequently laid out as decoys – but she’s done it from day one.
She’ll happily mop up ducks on an evening flight, and if it was a decent shot and I ask nicely she’ll even bring me back a bunny. She’s not remotely interested in crows, magpies, squirrels or rats, but does have form ‘retrieving’ chickens on a couple of occasions.
I have another cocker (Phil is shown here with a couple of handsome springers) called Scout, aged three, and in my book any day spent outdoors with my dogs is a good day. I think it’s fair to say its a toss up as to who enjoys their walks more – me or the them.
Jessie is now 11 years old and her hearing isn’t quite what it once was, which means she’s becoming less inclined to look to me for direction when working – and as Scout is younger, faster and super keen for guidance on where best to look for birds to retrieve, Jessie’s work rate is starting to reduce.
She genuinely is the dog of a lifetime: pretty to look at, does as she’s asked straight away without question, follows me wherever I go, comes when called, even when in thick of the action never becomes hysterical, and loves me implicitly. What more could one ask for in a partner? My one regret is we never bred from her.
I cannot really contemplate the thought of going shooting without a dog, and in my experience you get a fairly accurate assessment of a proper day’s shooting from the proportion of Guns who come with a dog. There is something quite emotional about comparing gundogs as if a long-dead canine could feel the betrayal of being passed over for a younger model. My first dog, Oscar, was a springer spaniel. I got him when I was at university and we were inseparable. He was very good, despite his novice trainer, and through the half a dozen dogs I have had since I thought I would never have a better one.
My shooting is focused on rough shooting and wildfowling, but with some generous invitations thrown in to shoot on a peg and even from a butt. I have settled on labradors as being the most practical dog both at home and in the field. Otter, a black dog, was bred by my great shooting friend Simon Hart (Ed. That’ll be the current MP for Carmarthen West) five years ago from his good bitch Poppy. He was very amenable to train and I am a great believer that wildfowling, or armed birdwatching as it is sometimes known, is a perfect school for teaching steadiness and patience in a retriever.
Retrieving by numbers is one thing, but he has always had that little bit extra. He was not much more than 18 months old when were shooting woodcock with Simon, his breeder, and our two sons. My boy with his cocker and Otter and I were pushing the end of a piece of cover towards the others when a woodcock broke in my direction. I shot it and then heard two shots out of the end of the cover. Otter quickly picked my bird and when we got through to the end of the cover we found Simon who had shot a right and left. The first bird had not gone far and Poppy soon picked it, but the second had gone on, hit very hard, into a thick tangle behind him. We clambered through a hedge and mother and son hunted through thick brambles and undergrowth for the crucial second bird. For 10 minutes they found nothing and we started to get that sinking feeling. I pushed Otter further back and then saw him check on the breeze, turn and push into the densest part of the undergrowth to emerge triumphant with a very dead woodcock to complete Simon’s first right and left.
Otter is five years old now and that talent has developed with experience, which critically has been almost as varied as a dog could get. He has picked grouse on driven moors, pinkfeet on the Wash, wigeon on the Essex coast, woodcock in Devon coombes, and snipe and teal from Welsh marshes. As an all-round dog, however, he hunts as well as retrieves and will tackle most cover and flush more than his share of game. This season, with a little help from me, he has excelled in every format of shooting and much as I feel guilty about demoting those dogs that have come before him, he may well be my dog of a lifetime.
I grew up on a family farm on the Norfolk/Lincolnshire border. Our family were not of shooting stock, so I was not involved with working dogs from a young age, but there were always several dogs around the yard and in the house. Our first pet dog that was bought for my sister and I was a liver flatcoated retriever, imaginatively named Cocoa. She was followed by her daughter Patsy who was born at the height of Absolutely Fabulous and again named by my sister. She unfortunately met her end too soon via a careless driver on a JCB. My parents would say their dog of a lifetime was Johnny the Jack Russell who has been immortalised with his own oil painting which proudly hangs in my mother’s lounge.
In order to get to my dog of a lifetime I feel I need to write a brief backstory/history. I joined Skinner’s in 2010, which was around the same time our daughter Matilda was born and our house renovations were complete. The next natural step for the family was a pet dog. My wife’s family had a strong working line of labradors, and a litter was due in spring 2011, so we picked a beautiful fox red bitch who we named Nutmeg. Due to work, young children and a lack of knowledge “Nuts” wasn’t the best-behaved dog in the shooting field!
Come 2015, I was shooting far more and needed a well-trained dog. Nutmeg had a litter of 10 puppies, from which we chose a large black boy who we named Kiwi. Determined to make this work I took plenty of advice from people I know in the gundog world, including having some lessons. For months I spent hours persevering with training Kiwi for him to just manage the 2017/18 season, which he succeeded in, but this was when we found Pip, the dog that changed everything.
As a family we love shooting and our children will often come out with us when they can. Oliver our son wanted a cocker spaniel, so we said when he was 10 he could have one. In September 2016 we decided he could get one as an early birthday present for the start of the season. I called a friend of mine Andy Whitehouse, who runs Sugar Bullet Gundogs, and discussed our requirements. He had an 18-month-old liver cocker named Pip – she was just what we wanted.
Once home Pip quickly established herself as top dog and she would come out with me on pretty much every shoot day. So much so, when a friend of mine was looking for a black labrador I sold him Kiwi. I have now stolen Pip from my son and take her everywhere with me. She often comes to the office where everyone enjoys taking her for a walk. She comes walked-up shooting, beating and she will sit on a peg with me for most of the day. I describe her as adding a load of jeopardy to my day as I’m never quite sure if she will run off.
On the odd occasion I go shooting without her, for instance when she was in season, the day is just not the same; and therefore Pip is my dog of a lifetime.
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