Does every dog suit every owner? I often encounter two frustrating scenarios: an inexperienced handler trying to train a highly bred Ferrari and secondly, a competent handler trying to train an unsuitable dog for competition. Trainers like me are forever unpicking mismatches. When shopping for a gundog it is imperative you honestly assess your lifestyle and the desired outcome of the union, because it can save a lot of wasted time and heartache for both sides further down the line.

Anecdotally I hear of bad apple breeders selling pups to owners that are not suitable gundog owners. For instance, I recently encountered a stressed-out suburban couple in their 60s who had acquired an out-of-control springer spaniel pup as their first ever dog. It was to live in their semi-detached home and provide companionship to the man who worked as a landscape gardener. This couple did not shoot – they just liked the handsome appearance of the breed. The dog was extremely well bred and consequently very hot to handle. Definitely not a novice dog. Needless to say, the dog stayed with them for just four weeks before they admitted defeat. If someone had taken the time to quiz this lovely couple, it would have been apparent very early on that a slower-paced, more gentle breed would be a better match.

Too hot to handle

Similarly, last month a client of mine who is an inexperienced handler went online and bought a fully trained three-year old springer spaniel to compete in working trials. Very frustratingly she bought this dog without consulting me. She showed me the pedigree and I sighed. She had bought a racehorse rather than a hacking pony. She was not given any demos of how to handle the dog – no knowledge of commands or how to communicate with the dog. The dog was way too hot for her. It would take her years to learn how to manage the dog and consequently her dream of competing is now on hold for an unknown number of years while she plays catch up.

In another example of a mismatch a fairly experienced handler started visiting me last year for training lessons with her labrador to get him up to speed for competition. Heavy set and lumbering, it was apparent on lesson one that her dog was never going to make the grade. She, on the other hand, showed real talent, giving clear and concise commands. As a handler, she demonstrated a real aptitude for working dogs. However, explaining to a client that their dog does not have what it takes is a very difficult conversation. These dogs are their babies and they often do not want to hear the truth.

Allow your head to rule over your heart

So how do you ensure you do not waste your time pairing with the wrong dog? Ask yourself: does your dog suit your character, and does your dog’s character suit you? The first thing to decide is whether you want a puppy or a partly/fully trained adult. Either way, get as much information as possible about the dog’s parents. If you go down the puppy route, ask to see the mother interacting with the owner in the garden. Do not underestimate how much you will learn from seeing the bitch carry out a few simple exercises so that you can assess how biddable her nature is. When presented with a puppy people often lose their heads and end up buying a dog that is not right for their lifestyle. Definitely do not take your children on the first viewing, otherwise it will become an emotional purchase – not a sensible, logical one.


Rehoming heartbreak

If you have deeper pockets and want to buy a trained dog, ask to see it working on game, not just in a scent-free field. Also ask to see videos. A reputable trainer should have dozens of short clips readily available to demonstrate how steady the dog is in a range of scenarios. Personally, I prefer to sell trained dogs. In a litter of six I would only ever sell two as pups – and only then to very experienced dog owners. And as a side note - I would not sell a spaniel as a family pet, only a labrador.

If you are hungry to compete with your new dog and even hungrier to win, do not automatically seek out the fastest dogs with the strongest drive as they are not necessarily right for your handling ability. What is the point in having a dog that is years ahead of you? It is not impossible, but the likelihood of you catching up with your dog before you feel frustrated is unlikely. Far better to find a dog that matches your ability right now and grow together.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Perhaps the reason this scenario happens so regularly is that not enough trainers are raising awareness of the widespread problem. It is heart-breaking for the handler and for the dog. Rehoming a dog can be a very stressful process so let’s try to prevent this problem in the first place. If you are inexperienced but super keen, seek the advice of an impartial trainer who can assess your capability then source a suitable dog for you. In short, leave it to the experts and you will hopefully be paired with a dog that brings you nothing but joy and can achieve all your goals. A reputable trainer will have no problem in speaking to their network rather than just pushing something in their own kennel. 

It’s a two way street

Likewise, any breeders that are reading this article – please ensure you fully vet prospective owners to nip this problem in the bud. Gundogs will always be a popular choice due to their good looks, biddable nature and trainability, but we all know that not all gundogs are the same. Please take the time to conduct a home visit and thoroughly quiz someone about their lifestyle. Do they really have what it takes to raise a working strain spaniel into a well-rounded citizen? If you do proceed with the sale, ensure you maintain regular contact to check the union is working. Your responsibility to the pup does not end the minute it leaves your property.

When the right gundog is paired with the right human, the union can result in a life-affirming friendship that brings inordinate amounts of joy to both sides. Get it wrong and it can result in unnecessary stress and heartache. So, my parting message is simple – to all prospective owners, breeders and trainers – let’s all just take a little longer to quiz each other about wants and desires to stop this scenario from occurring as frequently.

Questions to ask yourself when buying a new gundog:

  • Why do you want a gundog?
  • What role do you have in mind for the gundog?
  • Which breeds best suit your criteria?
  • Would a puppy or trained adult suit you best?
  • Who would be available to train the dog during the week when you are working?
  • How much time can you dedicate to exercising the dog?