Managing to get out of living in the cities and moving back to Wales with work finally allowed me to get my long awaited dog. I hadn’t had one since childhood when I had an untrainable Jack Russell. I liked the idea of a spaniel, having grown up with my dad’s retired springer. I remember playing with her on the lawn, throwing dummies, and sending her for them in order. I thought it was incredible that she was so well trained. She’d then get fed up of me doing the same thing over and over, and just wander off.
I’d seen some pictures of a friend’s cocker on Facebook, having never seen the breed before, and decided this was the way to go. I liked the size, they wouldn’t take up too much space in the house, were smaller than a springer but still full of character and energy.
I started looking for litters, but had no idea what I was doing in selecting a pup and was really worried that I wouldn’t ask the right questions, or end up picking the one with one leg shorter than the others. So I was relieved when I found a litter based in North Wales. I sent my dad, the only person I knew that knew anything about gundogs. This was possibly the best decision I ever made. He visited and selected my girl Molly for me. For a good few years I was confident his selection process must have been well thought out and considered, using his knowledge of gundogs to select just the right pup for me. I later discovered that my gundog guru’s selection process was solely based on the first one he could catch. But I guess it worked out.
The beginnings of a gundog
Once I’d had Molly for a year, mostly being a sofa dog and best friend, I started thinking I’d like to do some sort of training with her. I went to a country fair and watched the gundog demo, where I developed aspirations to train her well enough to be able to take her beating. The demo was being done by Huw Jones of St Clears Dog Training club, who held local training groups for pets and gundogs, and after a chat I got into the weekly pet class to start basic training. That autumn Huw was then happy we had the obedience that we could move into the gundog class, and this was the start of it all.
We progressed though the training, and my lack of experience started to show in the problems we were having. My early mistakes playing in the garden had caused problems with delivery and it wasn’t until she was nearly two years old that I managed to get her to deliver dummies to hand. With Huw’34s constant encouragement and months of trying different things out in training and sitting on the sofa in the evenings, she finally did it, and in my sheer joy, she got a massive handful of food. She twigged pretty quickly then that I wanted the dummy in my hand, not on the floor two feet away. Thank god she was so food orientated, it helped me crack a few issues that I had caused by my lack of knowledge.
Blind retrieves cause a problem
I was only around on the weekends due to work, but Molly started to pick things up quickly and people began to notice she had some promise. We were encouraged to have a go at tests, which I found terrifying. We quickly discovered that our training was not yet up to scratch. We were eliminated from every test we did in our first year, mostly down to handling problems and me struggling to get the accuracy to pick blind retrieves. I hated the idea we could be beaten by this, and it made me more determined to train more and get better. I was very lucky to spend a year out training with a friend I met at a retriever test. He owned and competed very successfully with labs, and after many months out training up the mountain learning the retriever handling and accuracy, and endlessly being asked the question ‘are you happy with that’, our handling started to come together.
Molly was such a high drive dog we could keep doing the retrieves until we got them absolutely perfect. Learning this side of the training from retriever handlers made a massive difference. This is their forte and there is lots to be learnt from them. But you can learn from everyone, no need to stick to just the people who train your breed of dog.
Not everyone is keen on this approach, but in my mind, if you could have a spaniel that hunts like a spaniel and handles like a retriever, that’s got to be the perfect combination hasn’t it? I liked the idea that no matter where, or what distance the retrieve was, I would be confident I could get my dog there. Once we had this nailed, we were away. Through the summer we went to a few training days put on by clubs like the Bristol & West, spending time with judges and people who had been competing, asking for help, feedback and advice.
Learning from trials
We then managed to win the Wiltshire cold game test in September 2016. Finally all the training had come together and we managed to have some success. It spurred us on to give trialling a go. I had no idea if we would be good enough, but my aim in our first year was to see if we could finish a few novice trials completing our two runs, and maybe, if we were really lucky, get into the awards.
The trials were a new challenge all together, seemingly bringing out every failing in your training, including things you thought you’d fixed. Not wanting to be beaten I couldn’t let things go. If we were eliminated for something that was the next challenge to overcome in our training. We did 11 trials that first year, finishing and getting awards in seven of them, and learning from each one. Every trial throws something new at you; highlighting training that you need to do, making you learn better ways of handling the dog, judging the ground you are running on, how your dog handles different types of ground, and the situations thrown at them. Learning to do all of this over your nerves is the hardest thing about trialling for me. I don’t know why it’s so nerve-wracking, but my heart was in my throat for the entire day.
We eventually finished the year with a win on the stunning bracken banks of Tregynon, Mid Wales. I was so chuffed with her that day, it felt special, and still feels like the most special run we have had. She was flying, always a terrifying experience as her handler as she has extra gears that are never seen in training - they only ever come out at a trial. But this day she hunted beautifully, very quick and stylish, was sharp on the stop to flush and did a couple of cracking long retrieves. I can still remember these runs - they’ll probably stay with me forever. I had no idea if we had done well enough to win, and if I’m honest it didn’t really come into my thoughts, I was just so pleased with her, but what a thrill to get awarded first place. Off into opens we go (how scary).
In deep water
Our next year in the opens was an utter disaster. My nerves (which were bad in the first year) got even worse. I didn’t feel like we could cut it with the big boys in opens, looking around at a trial and seeing Ian Openshaw, Will Clulee and many others who have such impressive track records, I felt totally out of my depth. I still didn’t really see Molly’s ability, or have the confidence that we could compete at that level. I spoilt many of her runs with my nerves affecting my decisions and handling. She was to blame for some too. It was a horrible year where my partner had to contend with bad moods, early texts on trial days saying “we’re out” and me getting more and more frustrated wondering if we could cut it. I needed to sort my head out or walk away from this.
I gave myself a talking to, and decided that we weren’t giving up (after all I wasn’t sure what I’d spend my time doing), so more training was needed. Through the spring and summer we worked hard on all the problems that we had encountered through the trialling season, and with the help of my training partner Dai, who was a massive help, someone I could always rely on to tell me straight, would drag me out training even on the worst of days, and give me a kick up the backside when I was doing stupid things. I got back to feeling confident we could do far better than we had. I sharpened up every element of her training, from her hunting, the flush, stop to shot and handling, and hoped that our efforts would pay off.
I don’t have much access to birds being shot over my dog for training, a few walked-up training days in September and early October is it, and that is the final opportunity to put all the elements of training together before the trials. So I have to train all the elements separately. Marking, retrieving and handling on dummies, and the hunt and flush when I’m dogging-in for my shoot. Then I hope on those few training days that all the parts have been trained well enough that they go together smoothly, as there is only a short time to get it right for the trials.
I had also had some helpful tips and words of advice from some truly lovely people at the trials, which really made the difference for us. I’d found the trialling community surprisingly supportive and willing to offer advice if you ask for it.
The championships beckon
The following year (2018) we were back to try again, spurred on by realising is wasn’t just us getting eliminated from trials, it happened to everyone. Year two in the opens was far better, things felt like they were coming together, her handling was fantastic and she was more ‘with me’. We were finally working as a team. She finished five trials, getting awards in each one, and then we finally managed to finish the year with a win at the Cocker Club Open trial at Hartham Estate. It was something I had quietly hoped for but never spoken of, or really thought would happen, I didn’t honestly know if we had what it would take. I was so pleased the dog I see every day in training showed what she could do, and it was enough to get the win. What a high. Shooting dog to shooting dog breeding, trained by someone who had no clue what they were doing, and we were off to the 2019 Cocker Championships. Subsequently I realised I hated every minute of the 2019 event, and it didn’t end well for us. Nerves got in the way again, and too much focus on training on our weaknesses created new issues (as it does). I was gutted. My partner Neil was a huge support - he dragged me back to watch more of the trial after we were eliminated, kept me positive and a few days later I was back to just being happy with the pretty amazing year we had had.
Second time lucky?
As we entered the season which has just finished I realised it was game on. She’d won one open, so she must be good enough mustn’t she? I still wasn’t totally sure to be honest. But this season was a mission to see if I could get another win, and make her up to Field Trial Champion. October came around really quickly. I discarded my usual travel limit, picking the trials based on the ground that best suited her, and decided to go for it. She is six and a half now and I wasn’t sure if we would manage another year, with her having enough edge to beat the younger dogs, so 2019 could well have been our last chance.
We started well with a third place at the North Devon, and then had a couple where our lead was on and we were heading home pretty quickly. I was more philosophical about it all this year, not every day is great and I didn’t let it concern me. The new attitude certainly made the whole experience far more enjoyable. At our fifth trial of the year, soaked to the skin on a miserable day at Neston Park in Wiltshire, we did it. Our second Open win and she was nearly a FTCh. She had two lovely runs, but I was convinced we hadn’t done enough to really shine that day. As they started announcing the awards from the Certificates of Merit, then calling fourth, third and second I got the sinking feeling that maybe we had done something stupid that I didn’t realise, and been given no award at all. I was so shocked when they called her name in first place. I then attempted an appalling speech in the pouring rain.
That night she got the biggest dinner she’s ever seen, and was happy with a full belly having a cuddle on the sofa (same as every night really). My sofa dog had done me very proud. It’s such a shame that these little dogs have no idea what they have achieved.
A few days later she then went on to do her water test, the final stage required to make her into a FTCh. In a very unceremonious event with 2 A Panel judges watching on, I threw a dummy down a flooded gulley we found on a trial ground (now I was glad for all the rain we had had) and sent Molly swimming down the gully to retrieve it. She had entered water freely, and swam and that was it - she was a Field Trial Champion. With a soggy and thoroughly unimpressed Molly (clearly wondering why on earth I had just got her to do that), I went back to the car in disbelief at what she had achieved, and that moment stood alongside a flooded gulley in mid Wales will forever be the moment I remember making up my first FTCh.
Kind words make a big difference
I spent November and December competing with her son in the opens. He had won out of novices the week before. So it had been two weeks of trialling highs. Our second Cocker Championships (2020) was a short affair. We were first dog in on day one and we had a fast run up some very open woodland. Molly decided to take a few steps closer to a retrieve she desperately wanted the judge to send us for, and that was us sent for an early bath. Never mind - I certainly enjoyed the experience far more the second time around, and I left happy that my little girl against all odds had her name in the championship programme as FTCh Rootytwo Rocket. A good end of season catch up with everyone I had spent the winter with, and we went home wondering if we will be up for trying again next year.
I’ve been surprised at how welcoming and friendly the trailing community have been to a newbie, and there have been some quite special people. A kind word from a competitor that watched your run, or some encouragement from a judge, have made a big difference, and spurred me on. I don’t think they know the impact these little things have, but it kept me going and I owe them for that.
If you are thinking about having a go, do it. Train hard, never be happy with OK. Surround yourself with people who are better than you, people who won’t just say “Yes that’s great”, but those who ask “Are you happy with that?” Be open to criticism, listen to it and get better.
I can honestly say it’s been the best decision I have ever made.
This little dog has changed my life, she is the way I met most of my friends, gave me a somewhat obsessive focus/hobby and an amazing sense of pride. Don’t get me wrong, she’s been no angel, and I wondered if we would ever crack it, but she has pushed me to be a better trainer and handler, and she’s been the best companion I could ask for. She has certainly made me fall in love with cockers despite their reputation - and my collection is growing. I can’t wait to see what next season will bring.
She was only supposed to be a pet, this all got out of hand really.