Tell us about your home life?
I live in a little cottage on the outskirts of Faversham in Kent. I have no children and I am single, working as a personal assistant in the private sector. I break all the usual rules when it comes to my dogs, Clover, Chilli and Monty - not only do they sleep in the house, but on my bed and sofa.
What is your daily routine with the dogs?
If I am working, I wake up at 7.30am and I take the dogs to a quiet field somewhere or nearby Ashdown Forest for hunting in the bracken. They go out again at lunchtime and I normally spend one and a half hours training a day across them all. But it really depends on the time of year, how well they are doing and all the other variables of daily life.
What exercises do you carry out when training?
I split it across hunting and retrieving. Spaniels are obviously born busy little hunters - I love watching them hunt cover and watching their body language. For retrieving, I vary long distance retrieves, blinds, and crossing ditches, cover and fences – basically anything that could be a distracting obstacle to finding a dummy/game. I alter the terrain and cover as much as possible – not only to keep it interesting for the dogs but to also teach them different sight and scent situations. If I think they are running a bit bored during the summer I will defrost some game for them to retrieve.
To improve fitness I take them to the beach to free run. I know many trainers do not allow playtime, but I think it is good for their heads to have a bit of time off and enjoy themselves, especially if we’ve been doing some intense training or competing.
I do not allow it the day before a competition however - I like them to be focused and have their serious heads on as part of their preparation. Sometimes I just take them for a long walk on the lead, controlled walking is great for fitness too. Mainly I train alone, but I get together with my friend Mike Hazell-Smith when possible, as it is important to train alongside other dogs and help each other with putting out blinds and throwing dummies.
I always structure our training time so that we train to our weaknesses, but I also make sure we regularly revisit exercises that we are usually good at so that we cover everything. It’s easy to take strengths for granted and these can become rusty if left too long.
Where do you go picking-up?
We are out picking-up once a fortnight at Finedon in Northampton. It is a long way to travel from Kent, but it is worth it as I have some great friends on this shoot. The picking-up team is organised by Mick Maher who bought one of Clover’s pups, Chip, two years ago – so it’s lovely to be out working dogs from the same family together. I did not grow up with shooting, so I am happy to have found it later in life as a result of acquiring Clover. I am hoping to find some local picking-up in Kent, now that we have settled in following our house move and renovation a couple of years ago.
How did you get started in competing gundogs?
I was 38 when I acquired Clover, my first ever gundog. At the time I was living and working as a yard manager for one of the horse followers of the Old Surrey & Burstow hunt. My friend asked me to help look after her litter of springer pups, which I jumped at as they were adorable and in exchange I was offered a puppy. I adored the mother, Meg, and had taken her beating, so had no reason to hesitate.
However, Clover was way more than I could handle, and by the time she was six months old she was fast becoming feral. I had underestimated her drive for hunting and she was pretty much self-employed. I went to the late John Pay, chairman of Kent Working Spaniel Club, who gave me a few lessons and I started to get the measure of her. We worked hard and when she was 18 months old he suggested we enter a novice working test – which we won.
At that point I realised Clover was a gifted dog and I owed it to her to compete regularly. He then suggested we enter an open working test - we won that as well plus two more, including a water test. She was also awarded Edenbridge & Oxted Best Hunting Spaniel in 2014 and then she had a career break to have puppies - that’s how I ended up with Chilli. I then trained Chilli with Robin Russell for a few years to learn about field trials. And in the summer months I started taking Clover to scurries.
Competition was actually the last thing I wanted to do with the dogs, as I suffer terribly from nerves. I much preferred the idea of picking-up or beating or even enjoying dog walks with them, but the girls seemed to enjoy the training and competitions. I’m glad we chose this road now as it’s been a brilliant learning curve for me, and I’ve met some lovely people along the way too.
Tell us about Clover?
She is not a typical springer. She is demure and quiet. In a way she is quite cat-like because she doesn’t like it if you instigate a cuddle - she only likes cuddles on her terms. If you trim her nails or brush her teeth she finds it a complete invasion of privacy and has a sulk. A friend of mine is a vet nurse and once cleaned Clover’s teeth and she wouldn’t acknowledge her for two years.
She is also quite two-faced – she will happily go off with a stranger if she thinks that person might have something she wants. She really sulks if I take Chilli out without her. When it comes to training, I cannot tell her off – she will either hold a grudge or stop working completely, so I have to make sure she is happy the whole time. She is quirky but I know what makes her tick.
If I go to the same field to train too often or she thinks we are being repetitive, she puts a face on and has even refused to get out of the car. And then will hide between someone else’s legs to show her disapproval. It’s amusing, because she thinks she’s training me to do things her way – luckily she doesn’t realise I have the measure of her. I love her tenacious attitude to work and she absolutely loves competitions and rises to the challenge every time – she can take the pressure of being handled, which is brilliant. I’m very lucky with her because she gets me out of trouble when I mess up my handling – she makes me look a much better handler than I am and is the architect of her own successes.
Tell us about Chilli?
Chilli is demonstrative with her affections and constantly wants to be the closest person sitting next to me or walking next to me. She likes being centre of my attention and will literally put her face between me and my phone/laptop to be in my line of vision. She’s only my second dog to train, so I’m still learning too. It has been fascinating to watch how differently she has developed from how Clover did. As a youngster she wanted to negotiate on the finer details of training, for example she wanted to only squat as oppose to sit properly and it took some consistency and perseverance to win - it’s obviously an important exercise to perfect.
Now mature, in the field Chilli is keen to please and doesn’t want to go wrong. She isn’t much of a fan of scurries yet, she needs her confidence building up - but watch this space because we are working on it. Fingers crossed she will be mated soon and I simply cannot wait for a new pup to train and see what he/she is like in personality.
You and Clover won top placed spaniel and reserve champion at the Chudleys Gundog Championship last year. How did that feel?
It was the strangest, but loveliest feeling. I was nervous in the mess tent but once I got into the ring and saw the exercises we had to do, then we just focused. I wasn’t nervous about her because I know she is a good dog, but I wondered if the crowd might put her off – it felt like there were thousands of people watching and as the day wore on I could really feel the atmosphere. I didn’t help her as much as I should have done in the final, so that was my mistake. But she didn’t put a foot wrong all day and when she finished her final water retrieve I came out in goose bumps and had a lump in my throat. I remember the crowd cheering her home and she seemed to find a new gear for the last stretch. I could quite easily have had a cry – I was so proud of her. All that hard work culminated in that moment and I was just so thrilled we had had the chance for people to see how good she is. Although I’d love to, I do not do this full time or professionally, or with lots of ground and equipment, but I’d love people to see that these achievements are all possible for normal folk like me - whose dogs sleep on their owner’s bed.
What have been your other most notable wins?
Chilli won a novice field trial first time out, and had a Certificate of Merit and a 3rd in an Open. And Monty (my rescue mongrel) had his first competition this year and won Best Veteran at a Blindley Heath TractorFest in the summer – very proud moment, 14 years in the making.
Who do you turn to for training advice?
Literally anybody who I see doing well with their dogs. I’m quite happy to walk up to people and say “how do you get your dog to do that?” Sometimes Clover loses her head and thinks she knows better. This has been an ongoing battle with her, however I’ve put her in scenarios to train this out and I think we are winning – but I don’t take it for granted. Chilli is not always good at going a long way back and stops to ask for help. I need to build up her confidence with this. I am appalling at throwing dummies, which is one of the reasons I like to train with Mike. I actually have very little equipment. I am not a big believer in buying every training gizmo on the market, mainly because I couldn’t afford to. I generally rely on a variety of dummies, a starter pistol and borrowing some quiet spaces to train in.
What advice do you have for a newbie wanting to compete for the first time?
Observe the people who are doing well and ask them for some tips. Book lessons with people that are achieving what you want to achieve. Be kind, consistent and committed to your dog if you want to achieve your goals. Learn about your dog’s personality – what works for one dog won’t necessarily work for another dog. If you have a bad day, just get back in the car and go home - there is always tomorrow, dogs are not machines and can have an off day just like we do.